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A Gospel at a Glance: The Witness of Mark


Mark 1:1 

I: — Several years ago a young British surgeon, Sheila Cassidy, moved to Santiago, Chile. Once there she found herself in the midst of political strife. Since she was a newcomer and didn’t understand the history behind the strife, she didn’t take sides but simply tried to get on with her medical work. One day a patient with an injured leg came to her. Without a second thought she treated him. Next day she was arrested and imprisoned. It turned out the patient had been a supporter of Salvator Allende, a social and political reformer in Chile whose work the ensuing dictator, General Pinochet, beat down brutally. Sheila Cassidy was interrogated for hours even though she had no information to divulge, and then was tortured on and off by electrification for one month. When she wasn’t being tortured herself she could hear the screams of others nearby who were.

One afternoon at a conference in downtown Toronto a fellow conferee introduced to me, in tones of awe, a Mrs. Xyz from Argentina whom I was plainly expected to have heard of but hadn’t. I sat down beside Mrs. Xyz and together we began watching a documentary about “disappeared” people in Argentina. Suddenly I realised that the woman featured in the documentary was the Mrs. Xyz who was sitting beside me. She had (that is, she had had) two sons and a daughter: lawyer, physician, social worker. All three were among the “disappeared”, those who attempted to alleviate the distresses of totalitarianism in Argentina and were abducted in the dead of the night. All three were certainly dead.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a teacher of physics and mathematics, and subsequently an artillery officer in the Soviet Army, when at war’s end he was suddenly removed to a forced labour camp in Siberia. He spent eleven years there in terrible hardship. He lived to write about it. Many of his colleagues, the men and women he described in his Gulag Archipelago series of books, didn’t survive.

For several years two Dutch women, Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Betsie, exercised a ministry on behalf of intellectually challenged children, children whom they cherished and whose value before God they never doubted. Then the Nazis occupied Holland. Soon the two sisters were assisting other despised people, Jewish adults this time, even though they knew that assisting these people incurred terrible risk. Eventually the two sisters were detected, apprehended, and incarcerated in the most notorious camp in Holland, Ravensbruck. Corrie survived; Betsie perished.

All the people I’ve mentioned so far are people of the most impassioned faith. They found the world inhospitable. The truth is, the world is inhospitable; cruel, in fact. Unlike us North Americans who live in Lotus Land (at least for now), most of the world’s people live where life unfolds with much greater difficulty and much greater suffering. You don’t need me to remind you of life behind the iron curtain or life in Nazi-occupied Europe only a few years ago. But I suspect you do need me to acquaint you with the carnage in Cambodia and Indonesia and Algeria, not to mention so many other places. In the course of the Indochinese conflicts of the past few years the government of Cambodia has slain three million of its own people. Former President Sukharno of Indonesia (front and centre in the news in 1999 over the action of the RCMP in British Columbia during his most recent visit to Canada) always managed to smile at the western press with his beaming brown face while his underlings mutilated and slew. All the time that French forces were torturing and killing thousands in Algeria General Charles de Gaulle, the man who had led France’s struggle against German atrocities, spoke softly of the need for political expedience in Algeria. We live in North America. The rest of the world, however, lives where the world continues to behave like the world; where the world behaves as it has characteristically behaved for as long as there’s been a world.

Think of Rome when Mark was writing his gospel. The city of Rome had one million inhabitants. Like any huge city, it had large slum areas. In July, 64, fire broke out and destroyed 70% of the city. Nero, the emperor, set about rebuilding the city on a grandiose scale, hoping to make the new construction a monument to himself. Rumour had it that he had started the fire. Fire, after all, is always the quickest and cheapest method of slum clearance. The poor people of the city, homeless now, despised him for his callousness. Nero wanted above all to regain his heroic stature with the people. He had to shift the blame for the fire to a group, a scapegoat, so marginalised that it couldn’t protest. He blamed the Christians. He accused them of “hatred against humankind” and began punishing them in three different ways. They were crucified; they were clothed in animal skins and then set upon by hunting dogs; or they were covered in tar and then ignited so that they burned like — like him who is the light of the world! — Nero smirked in derision. Two outstanding Christian leaders, Peter and Paul, perished in this wave of persecution. Nero had his day of glory.

Shortly thereafter a man named Mark came to Rome (courageous, wasn’t he) and wrote a tract to encourage the Christians he met. These Christians followed a crucified Messiah themselves and therefore didn’t expect any better treatment than their Lord had received before them. This tract (what we call “The gospel according to Mark”) was written to sustain beleaguered Christians who could be and were harassed and tormented at any time depending on Nero’s mood. You and I, remember, live in the Lotus Land of North America. Mark’s readers didn’t. They needed his “good news” about Jesus.

II: — Let’s familiarise ourselves with some of the characteristics of Mark’s work. First of all it’s a gospel of action. There’s very little teaching in Mark. In fact all of our Lord’s parables (with one exception) are found in one chapter, the fourth. The action is always fast-paced. Mark’s favourite Greek word is euthus, “at once”, “immediately”, “right away.” Jesus travels to a place and does something. “Immediately”, says Mark, he goes somewhere else and does something else. To read Mark’s gospel at one sitting is to be breathless, as Jesus and the twelve are always on the move “at once.”

Another characteristic: this gospel was written for Gentile Christians. To be sure, there were Jews as well as Gentiles in the church in Rome, but it’s the latter whom Mark has in mind. For this reason Mark always explains Jewish customs and traditions that Gentiles like us can’t be expected to know.

We mustn’t think that any of the written gospels is a biography of Jesus in the conventional sense of the term. Biographies always spend much time probing childhood influences, psychological developments, various factors that shape someone’s character and self-consciousness. None of the written gospels bothers to discuss these. We know nothing of our Lord’s childhood. We know nothing of the fellow-adults he met as a young man. In fact, if you set end-to-end all the events in the life of Jesus that Mark discusses, you would find that they took up three months of Jesus’ life at most and as little as one month. No biographer ever wrote a biography covering one to three months only of someone’s life.

Then why does Mark relate the incidents in our Lord’s life that he does relate? Of the hundreds of incidents in the public ministry of Jesus, why does Mark bring forward only two dozen? To be sure, Mark is familiar with the scores of stories arising from the ministry of Jesus, stories that have circulated orally and have been handed down for 35 years. From among the hundreds he could have selected Mark selects those stories from the life of Jesus that he thinks will be of greatest help to the Christians in Rome in view of the particular trials and torments of the Christians there. For instance, among the many stories concerning Jesus available to Mark, Mark selects the one about the stilling of the storm. He knows that this incident in the public ministry of Jesus will help persecuted Christians on whom a dreadful storm has descended and who may feel as abandoned in it as the disciples felt when Jesus was asleep in the boat.

Whenever we read Mark’s gospel, then, we must ask ourselves two questions: what did the gospel-incident mean to the people who witnessed the original event, that is, who were part of the event in the earthly ministry of Jesus 35 years ago? and what did the story mean 35 years later for the tormented Christians in Rome who believed that the same Lord, risen and ruling among them, was available to them then and there? Actually, whenever we read Mark’s gospel there’s a third question we must ask: what does this story about Jesus mean for you and me today, for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for beleaguered Christians in China and Korea and Burundi and the savage slums of Birmingham and Belfast, Miami and New York? What does this story mean for you and me whose situation isn’t quite that of others, even though our situation would certainly intensify if our discipleship were a little more intentional?

Mark wrote his gospel, then, in the year 66, shortly after Nero’s cruelties had begun to brutalise Christians in Rome. Mark wrote it believing that the One from Nazareth who had sustained harassed people during his earthly ministry in Palestine was still present, 35 years later, to sustain men and women in the empire’s pressure-cooker.

III: — And now to the gospel itself. The gospel of Mark is richly textured, and therefore there are many themes coursing throughout it. Nevertheless, there’s one major theme and one only: Jesus Christ is victor. Wherever Jesus comes upon sin, sickness, sorrow, suffering, the demonic and death, he conquers them. Jesus triumphs. He vanquishes the hostile powers that break down men and women, push them toward despair, impoverish life, undermine hope, collapse resistance. Jesus vanquishes every hostile power that afflicts us, torments us, fragments us. Jesus is victor.

You must have noticed that one-half of Mark’s gospel concerns only one week of Christ’s life, the final week, the week that builds toward the climax of his death. In other words, death is the big event, the big power, the biggest enemy of all.

Now while death is “Mr. Big”, Mr. Big is not alone; Mr. Big has errand boys, “flunkies” who do his bidding and anticipate his work. Mr. Big’s errand boys soften us up so that Mr. Big himself can intimidate us throughout our life and pulverise us all the more readily at the end. Death’s “flunkies” are sin, sorrow, suffering, the demonic (radical evil.)

Think of how suffering, especially protracted suffering, wears us down and distorts our thinking and usurps time and energy, simply preoccupies us, until we seem to have nothing left to give away, nothing left for Kingdom concerns, nothing left with which even to try to gain perspective on our suffering.
Sorrow continues to afflict bereaved people long after they thought sorrow would have ceased haunting them. Sorrow steals back over them and even whispers propaganda in their ear: “Your life is over; you will remain miserable; now that the person dearest you has died, you might as well die too; in fact you already have.”

Sin hammers all of us. If we are Christians of little maturity we think we are making wonderful progress in putting it behind us. If we are Christians of moderate maturity we are disturbed that the sin we sincerely repudiate crops up again and again until we wonder if we aren’t stalled spiritually. If we are Christians of greater maturity we know that the sin we recognise in us and genuinely deplore is yet only the tip that we and others can see; underneath, hidden from sight, is a depravity whose range and depth always surprise us anew.

The demonic? Widespread, virulent evil that seems to extend itself everywhere and claims unwary victims as easily as a con artist “fleeces” the unsuspecting and the senile? Evil for the sake of evil; evil for the perverse pleasure of sheer evil? Ten minutes’ reflection on the state of the world and its convulsions in the twentieth century alone and we ought to be convinced about the fact and virulence of radical evil.

All of these powers, says Mark, are gathered up in the power of Mr. Big, death. They are death-on-the-way, death-around-the corner, death as the ruling power throughout the universe — except for Jesus Christ who bested it once and brandishes his victory in the face of death’s refusal to quit although defeated. For this reason while Mark never undervalues, makes light of, or trifles with Mr. Big and his many manifestations, Mark always has more to say, and more to say more emphatically, about the conquering one whose victory is the ultimate truth and reality of the universe and whose victory, now known only to faith, will one day be known to sight as the defeated one is finally dispersed. We call Jesus “Master” just because he has mastered the powers that otherwise master us.

When the secret police broke down the door of a Roman Christian’s home at 3:00 am in the year 66; when wild animals dismembered believers as crowds cheered; when Nero ignited them and called it a fireworks display — in the midst of it all they knew their Lord, victorious himself, hadn’t abandoned them and wouldn’t forget them. He cherished them and gripped them so that they’d never be lost to him. They knew that their faith hadn’t been in vain, and their glorified life to come would be so very glorious as to eclipse their pain forever.

What about us? Myself, I read Mark’s gospel at least once each year. I happen to be a pastor. Every week my work takes me to the man whose industrial accident has left him with permanent disability and chronic pain, then to the schizophrenic woman who has been victimised by her body-chemistry and who knows her outer life is as awkward for everyone around her as her inner life is a horror to herself. Every week I have to go to the bereaved person who is finally emerging from “the long night” when he learns that he’s seriously ill himself. Next I see the person whose pain, of whatever kind for whatever reason, has driven her to feel she would rather die and therefore has attempted suicide. At least, she has made either a suicide attempt or a suicide gesture. If an attempt, it obviously failed. If a gesture, meant to attract attention, it has attracted so little attention it too might as well be labelled a failure. To her depression she’s now added failure. And of course there’s the person whose neurological disease is irreversible.

You people also find yourselves among friends and neighbours and relatives who suffer similarly. What is the nature of our ministry on behalf of all such? A few words of pre-packaged cheer? A quick-fix formula? But there are no quick-fix formulas in life. If our ministry consisted of waltzing in and saying, “Never mind; it’s not as bad as you think”, they’d ask us to leave. On the other hand, if we appeared with a face as long as a horse’s they would tell us we were of no help. There’s relatively little that we can say, relatively little that we can do, but ever so much that we must be. We must be those whom the triumph of Jesus Christ possesses so genuinely, so thoroughly, so profoundly that our presence bespeaks his victory for those who otherwise feel they are nothing but victims.

So far I have spoken only of those afflictions that come upon us as part of our human lot, come upon us precisely to the extent that they come upon everyone else. Mark was more startled, however, by those afflictions that come upon us just because we choose to identify ourselves with our Lord, choose to stand up and be counted among his people. Mark tells us that when Jesus began his public ministry his family came to take him home because his family thought him deranged. Mark brings forward this incident from the earthly life of Jesus and weaves it into his written gospel in that he wants his Christian friends in Rome to know that they can expect their families to think them deranged; they can expect their families to disown them and abandon them when their discipleship divorces them from a family that doesn’t share their faith. Mark also wants them to know that just as Jesus found new “family” in his disciples, so the Roman Christians will find a new “family” in the Christian fellowship.

Mark incorporates the story of John the Baptist as well. John is a prophet, in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets of old. Like them, John speaks truth to power; John addresses the truth of God to the political and social and economic power that Herod wields. Herod has John killed. Later Jesus appears before Pilate. Pilate has Jesus killed. Hostility, Mark tells his readers, is what any Christian of any era can expect from the state as soon as that Christian articulates the truth of God to the politically powerful.

I’m always moved when I read of Martin Niemoeller, a church leader in Germany during the Nazi era. Niemoeller had been a submarine commander in World War I, a loyal citizen of the Fatherland. When Hitler came to power in 1933 and authorised the state to encroach upon the church, and next to molest the church, Niemoeller (now a Lutheran pastor) protested. One day he was introduced to Hitler personally. He used the opportunity to tell Hitler exactly what he thought of him. By 1937 Hitler’s secret police, the Gestapo, had interrogated Niemoeller several times. One day he was thrown into a truck and taken this time not to the interrogation room but to a prison where he was to remain for the next eight years. The day he went to prison the prison chaplain met him and recognised him instantly, for the prison chaplain too had been a naval officer in the first war. “Pastor Niemoeller, why are you in prison?”, the chaplain had asked. “And why are you not?”, Niemoeller had replied.

The Christians of Mark’s era never had to ask why Nero was victimising them. They knew. They knew something else, however, and knew it more tellingly; they knew that the One who had stilled the storm on behalf of terrified disciples could still the panic that lapped at them. They knew that the Lord who had remained steadfast even when a disciple who pretended to be loyal (Judas) had proved treacherous; this Lord would fortify their steadfastness even as some in their fellowship would prove treacherous and betray them to Nero’s secret police.

Above all, the Christians of Mark’s era knew that the One who had been raised from the dead in defiance of Mr. Big would see them through their dying and would share his glory with them eternally.

When next we read Mark’s gospel we should think of a handful of Christians in a city of one million, tyrannised by an emperor whose cruelty the world will never forget. And then we should think of Jesus Christ our Lord, a villager from a one-horse town in Palestine who, being the Son of God, strengthened urban followers in the capital city of the empire. And then we should think of suffering, courageous Christians of any time or place, even as we praise God for the gospel of the One whom no power can defeat and from whom nothing can separate us, ever.

Victor Shepherd       

January 2002