Study Materials for the Gospel of Mark II
The Gospel According to Mark
As you read chapters 6-10 of the Gospel of Mark, pay particularly close attention to these:
Suffering: Jesus begins to talk about ‘taking up your cross’ and how the Messiah must suffer. Good news or bad?
Insiders and Outsiders: who are the people who understand Jesus’ power and mission and who doesn’t get it? What were people expecting of the Messiah?
“Intercalation:” (inter’-cal-ation) Notice how Mark slices new stories into the telling of ongoing stories: the mission of the disciples has the story of Herod and John the Baptist in the middle, the healing of the little girl has the story of the woman with a hemorrhage.
Chiastic Structure: (Ki’-as-tic) Mark’s narrative is kind of parabolic or circular; Chapter 3: 20-35; family, scribes, Satan, binding the strong man, Satan, dismissing scribes, claiming new family. Chapter 8: 34; if anyone wishes to follow me, deny self, pick up cross, follow me.
Notice what language Jesus speaks and how Jewish customs are described. Do you think Mark writes for a Jewish audience or a Gentile one? Why?
The portrait of Jesus that emerges from each Evangelist addresses a specific community to which it is written:
As you read, what are the characteristics of the Jesus you meet in Mark’s Gospel? Has your picture of Jesus changed or evolved in Mark’s telling? How would you describe him?
What does he tell you about the Kingdom of God?
How Mark’s Gospel Echoes the Hebrew Bible
Mark uses Isaiah’s prophecies more often than any other biblical document, according to Sharyn Dowd, in her commentary – Reading Mark: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Second Gospel (Smith & Helwys. Macon, Georgia, 2000).
Mark 1: 2-3 Isaiah 40:3
Mark 4:12 Isaiah 6:9-10
Mark 7:6-7 Isaiah 29:13
Mark 9:48 Isaiah 66:24
Mark 11:17 Isaiah 56:7
Mark 12:32 Isaiah 45:21
Mark 13:24 Isaiah 13:10
Mark 13:25 Isaiah 34:4
Also according to Dowd, Mark’s narration of the Transfiguration draws powerfully on the story of Moses ascent of Mt Sinai in Exodus 24 and 34:
9:2a six days 24:16
9:2a three disciples 24: 1, 9
9:2b ascent of mountain 24: 12-13, 15, 18
9:2b-3 transfiguration 34:29
9:7b cloud 24: 15-16, 18
9:7b voice out of cloud 24:16
9:15 people astonished 34: 29-35
The use of imagery and prophecy from the existing Scripture as Mark tells the story of Jesus in his full power strikes me as supremely skillful. He weaves the narrative from old and new in a way that binds them together into a seamless whole. This tells the story of God’s love and interaction with his people as a continuing narrative which goes on to this very day.
2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 10
June 10, 2012
This morning’s story, gives us a good opportunity to talk about form. Mark makes use of a narrative technique that is used often in the Bible – a circular or parabolic telling of a story that uses images and events like climbing to a peak and going down the other side. It’s called Chiasm or Chiastic structure. Images on the uphill side of the story are reflected in the downhill version, and at the top is the point the writer is trying to emphasize. It’s a literary device that underlines what the author wants you to understand by bracketing it in this fashion.
So in this morning’s reading, see how the story begins with a crowd that gathers close. Then comes Jesus’ family; has Jesus really lost his mind? Then come the scribes; he is possessed himself. Then Jesus reacts. No, he says. He’s not crazy or in Satan’s power. He tells a story about a house divided, logically arguing that he could not be in Satan’s thrall or he could not cast out Satan. “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man…”
After Jesus’ speech, he accuses the scribes. We are on the down side of the peak of the story. They need forgiveness for the sin of failing to attend to the Holy Spirit. His acts of healing are the proof that he wields God’s power and they claim it is an unclean spirit. Now we have the family again. The crowd is mentioned again to tell him that his family is here. But in this reflective side of the story, Jesus claims a new family. So you have the movement from the crowds and the family and the scribes on the “going out” part of the story to make the point of Jesus binding Satan, and then the scribes, the crowds and a new family on the “coming back” part of the story.
This happens often in Mark, including a parabolic way of telling a series of stories before another set of stories advances the narrative: for example, Jesus’ first act of healing is in the synagogue when he casts out a demon from a man. Through that series of stories, he continues to heal by casting out demons and forgiving sins until he heals a man with a withered hand in the synagogue. Which is the story preceding our reading for today. Look for a series of stories that begin with healing a blind man and end with healing a blind man.
These patterns aren’t always easy to see, and I often think that the text scholars like to tell us about these patterns to keep themselves in business. Not being able to perceive these patterns and identify them to your friends does not diminish the power of the story you read. But they do their work in the hands of a skillful storyteller. They emphasize the point he’s making for you, the information he wants you to take away from his narrative is hammered home more powerfully with these literary devices.So what is the point that Mark makes about Jesus by this ‘chiasm’? Mark sees the binding of Satan, “the strong man,” as already accomplished in Jesus baptism and in his time in the desert. All the healings and all the casting out of demons are possible because Satan’s power is already broken.
One of the most famous commentaries on Mark’s Gospel is by Ched Myers, called, “Binding the Strong Man.” My own New Testament professor describes the Jesus we meet in Mark’s Gospel as “the exorcist of the world.” This story, so early in this Gospel, clearly declares Jesus triumph over the power of the evil one, setting us up for the stories that are to come, and giving the believers of Mark’s day the reassurance they need that the man who was crucified was also the man who conquered. Jesus strides through this narrative with real power. The Greek uses “casting out,” “throwing off,” “putting away” and “putting down” as what Jesus does to the spirits, the fevers, the sins, and the disabilities of those who come to him.
This is so important. It is important to the people of Mark’s day, as they are experiencing the final days of the battle between the Jewish resistance and the Roman Empire. Rome is finally tired of all the problems, and coming with real power to crush the freedom movements in Palestine. These will be among the darkest days of the early church. Jesus has not come again with power to set up a Jewish state like that of his ancestor David. That’s what was expected. Times are just getting harder and harder and believers are in despair. How could their Messiah have deserted them? How could the ancient promises have been so empty?
Mark is redefining what the promises of the Messiah really are. Realigning them with the prophesies which have been misinterpreted over time. They are not about political power, but about the presence of God with God’s people even in the face of brutality and tragedy. No matter what happens to us in the world, is Mark’s message, Jesus has been there before us. As we read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, you will see the themes of suffering and the beginning of a new age of God’s power among God’s people emerge.
This is your story, too, all these millennia later. You, we, have learned that believing in Jesus does not mean that we will not suffer loss and illness and tragedy. But we know from this Gospel that Jesus is in charge. That Jesus goes willingly into suffering, “as a ransom for many.” That the failure of evil is the failure to separate us ever from the love of God. This story, written all those years ago, reassures us, too, that the ‘strong man’ of evil no longer has the final say for us. As you read next week’s chapters, look for these themes to emerge more powerfully and surrender yourself to the message of Mark for you in your own story.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.