The central purpose of Mark’s Gospel is revealed to us in 1:1-15 where Mark proclaims the good news that Jesus Christ who, as Son of God is God, has come to fulfill the prophecies revealed throughout salvation history, conquering evil and calling all of us to repent of our sinfulness and live a life united to him by believing in this proclaimed good news, i.e., the Gospel.
In salvation history, God uses historical people and events to reveal religious truths. Mark must not just relate the events as a nice story but rather must present them so that events in the life of Jesus, and those he interacted with, open up to us possibilities and paths that give us understanding so we can indeed believe, repent, and live a life united to him.
Mark’s narrative must convey this supernatural work of God by relating the events that took place in salvation history to develop the Gospel message. As Sacred Scripture, the Holy Spirit inspires Mark to do this in such a way that what the narrative brings forth and takes place on the cross will remain present to succeeding generations. Mark’s word is not just history but a proclamation for all ages because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.
The relationships between Jesus and his disciples, the religious authorities, and the crowds are developed by Mark to advance the message of his Gospel as stated in the thesis statement above. While there are exceptions the relationships follow patterns that God used to fulfill his divine plan of redemption through the cross. The religious authorities are adversarial to Jesus from the beginning and ultimately cause his arrest and death. The crowds go back and forth in relation to Jesus generally elated with Jesus due to his role of miracle worker and in anticipation of a worldly kingdom. In many ways the relationship of the disciples with Jesus are no different than the crowds, despite their close “insider” status. As in all salvation history God uses those involved to fulfill his will. The relationships between Jesus and the characters in the Gospel are no exception to this fact and lead to the redemption of the cross and glory of the resurrection.
In addition, a fourth relationship with the readers of his Gospel should not be forgotten as it is the reader who Mark has influence over and is trying to reach. The readers know right away that Jesus is the Messiah and must read, understand, and apply the Gospel to their own lives.
The Development of the Relationships
As prophesied, Jesus’ declaration that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” begins the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom. Jesus assured this kingdom’s future growth by the parables of the great harvests (4:8, 20, 29) and the mustard seed (4:32) while showing the kingdom was only in its infancy stage during his pre-resurrection lifetime. All the healings and casting out of demons anticipate and direct us to the fullness of God’s kingdom. His parables and teachings have as their goal to help us “enter the kingdom of God” (9:43-48).
Everything leads to the 8:29 Caesarea Philippi declaration that Jesus is the Christ and from there Mark leads us to Calvary. Jesus did not present himself as messiah during his public ministry leaving the revelation of his true identity to be declared at his death (15:39).
Crowds: Jesus relationship with the crowds starts as he begins to preach the gospel. The summary statement in 1:14-15 places everything that Jesus says and does in the context of his proclamation of God’s kingdom. The crowds are to reform their lives and place their faith in the good news in anticipation of this kingdom. While the kingdom’s fullness is in the future, the teaching and healing activates of Jesus represent the beginning of its fulfillment. Jesus’ proclamation of the future and present levels of God’s kingdom demands an appropriate response by way of conversion and faith in the good news that Jesus brings. This demand is on all relationships: crowds, disciples, and religious authorities.
With the exception of a questioning of the disciples fasting practices in 2:18 and the fact that they tended to look upon Jesus as mostly a miracle worker, the crowd relationship with Jesus is positive until 3:20 where the hometown “friends” of Jesus think negatively of Jesus’ ministry. From that point we see the crowds can misunderstand and/or reject the teachings of Jesus and we learn this in the parable of the sower (4:3-8) as well as when Jesus is scoffed at by the crowds during several key miracle stories. As the message of the Gospel is more directly spelled out the crowds begin to go negative exemplified by the rich man in 10:17 who put his possessions before the Gospel. Finally during the Passion narrative the crowds turn against Jesus.
Disciples: The disciples initially have a positive relationship with Jesus recognizing his authority and “immediately” following him. They surely enjoy the popularity of the ministry and the authority Jesus exudes such that they anticipate their own authority which they receive directly from Jesus in 3:13. As the ministry progressed their faith is tested and at times found lacking (4:35). They fail to understand Jesus’ teaching with hardened hearts (6:45-52) even though everything is explained to them (4:34). They do not understand the passion predictions beginning at 8:31 and would rather look towards a worldly kingdom with such concerns as who among them is the greatest (9:33). Their inability to cast out a demon in 9:14 indicates a lack of faith and begins a rupture that will ultimately lead to their abandoning of Jesus during the passion.
Religious Authorities: Almost immediately Jesus is at odds with the religious authorities, likely beginning from episodes such as 1:22 where the crowds place Jesus at a higher level of teaching authority than the scribes. But certainly when Jesus begins to take on authority recognized as belonging only to God, (forgiving sins 2:5-11) the religious authorities become his enemies and start looking for reasons to condemn him. When Jesus ridicules the religious authorities for the way they practice their religion, things get worse with conspiracies against Jesus and attempts to discredit him.
When he enters into Jerusalem in Mark 11 Jesus is critical of the Jerusalem temple and those in charge of it. We find Jesus cleansing of the temple (11:15-19) between the withered fig tree verses (11:12-14, 20-21). His prophecy about the destruction of the Temple (13:2) is used against him in his trial before the chief priests, elders, and scribes (14:58) and he is mocked about it at the crucifixion (15:29). Certainly the teachings of Jesus, his criticisms, and his prophecies were all threatening to the religious authorities.
Reader: The testing of Jesus by Satan (1:12-13) alerts the reader to Marks’ conception of Jesus’ ministry as a struggle against the cosmic forces of evil. Jesus’ public exorcisms, healings, and debates with enemies are decisive moments in the conquering of evil. The debate with the scribes in 3:22-30 makes clear that the origin of Jesus’ power as a teacher and healer is the Holy Spirit and that he is against Satan. In addition, Jesus shows himself master over storms, sickness, suffering, and death, all considered in Jewish traditions to be under the domain of Satan.
Starting in Chapter 6 Jesus is misunderstood by and faces opposition from the people of Nazareth (6:1-6), his own disciples (8:14-21) and within the journey and passion narratives, from the chief priests, elders, and scribes especially in Jerusalem beginning in Chapter 11. We as readers, along with Peter, James, and John are shown the Transfiguration (9:2-8) as insight into and anticipation of the true nature of Jesus as the glorious Son of Man. In the apocalyptic discourse (13:1-37) Jesus tells us the outcome of end time events will be the manifestation of the Son of Man coming in glory (13:26).
How the Relationships Advance the Thesis of Mark’s Intent
Mark uses the relationships to move the narrative along to show how what the readers have been told from the beginning as set forth in the thesis was revealed in history through the events. We, the readers are not spectators to these events; we are called to share in them and live out the thesis statement.
The thesis puts forth and the entire narrative shows that the age of salvation prophesied in the Old Testament has been fulfilled beginning with John the Baptist, taken up by Jesus, then his immediate disciples, and finally by the universal mission of the Church. In addition, like John and Jesus the mystery of the cross awaits disciples as well.
The misunderstandings and rejections of Jesus by the Pharisees and Herodians (3:6), Jesus’ family (3:21) and neighbors in Nazareth (6:1-6), and his own disciples (8:14-21) move the narrative towards the cross. Jesus’ question to Peter in 8:29 (“Who do you say that I am?”) and Peter’s answers continues the thesis of the entire gospel.
The purpose of the journey narratives in 8:27–10:45 are to clarify who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. The relationships help the readers actualize the Gospel in their own lives. The key to understanding Jesus properly will be the mystery of the cross: Jesus the miracle worker and teacher is the suffering Messiah/Son of Man. To follow him means to be willing to share in his Passion and death as well as his resurrection. The journey narrative is introduced (8:22-26) and concluded (10:46-52) by episodes in which Jesus bestows the gift of sight on two blind men. By following the journey narrative the readers also come to see Jesus and the Gospel message more clearly.
At his trial before the Sanhedrin Jesus identifies himself with “I AM” as he is now revealed as the Messiah confirming what Mark (1.1), the demons (3:11; 5:7), Peter (8:29) and the Father (1:11; 9:7) have said about him. Now we can see that the Messiah, the Son of God are tied to his passion and death and that these things about to happen to Jesus had already been predicted as part of the future of the disciples (including us): to be given over to tribunals, beaten, and made to stand before governors and kings. We are not to worry; what we are to say will be given us in that hour (Mk 13:9-11). Yet, as the hour approaches, we see two different reactions. The disciples flee. Jesus dies.
The resurrection proves that the cross has won. In many ways Mark’s narrative show the negative side of Jesus’s disciples and does not go into detail on what happens after Pentecost. But the readers know. We know. Jesus Christ is Son of God who died for our sins, has conquered evil and calls us to repent of our sinfulness and live a life united to him by believing in the Gospel.
“And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” (Mark 8:34)
Let us all actualize the Gospel message of Mark. Amen.
Brown, Raymond (ed.). The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Prentice Hall, 1968)
Donahue, John R. Sacra Pagina The Gospel of Mark (Liturgical Press 2002)
Martin, Francis “Literary Theory, Philosophy of History and Exegesis,” The Thomist 52 (1988):577-604