What we have most to celebrate about Saint Mark is the masterpiece attributed to him, the Gospel according to Mark. About the man himself we have a few scraps of information—that he was probably the John Mark of Jerusalem mentioned in Acts, whose mother hosted a Christian community at her place (Acts 12:12); that he was a cousin of Barnabas; that he accompanied Paul and Barnabas on part of the first missionary journey; that he was imprisoned with Paul (Philemon 24; 2 Tim 4:11) and that he accompanied Peter (1 Pet 5:13. And the early second-century author Papias calls Mark the interpreter of Peter. These are precious facts about the man, and surely enough to warrant our commemoration and earn our honor, but it is his work, the Gospel according to Mark, that most deserves our praise and gratitude.
Strangely, the Gospel of Mark has been getting the attention it deserves only during the past fifty years or so. For most of the two Christian millennia, Mark had been considered a kind of digest of the Gospel of Matthew, and so this gospel was little studied and rarely quoted in early Christian literature, and apparently rarely used in prayer and worship. (“Why bother with Mark when you have Matthew?” seemed to be the attitude.) Recently, however, when the majority of New Testament scholars became convinced that Mark was, in fact, the earliest of the Gospels, and that Matthew and Luke used him as one of their sources, people began to listen to the distinctive voice of Mark for its own significance.
Mark apparently wrote for Christians who needed help in understanding the challenge and hope entailed in following Jesus crucified and raised from the dead—what we mean by the word “discipleship.” To that end, he boldly portrayed the original followers of Jesus, the Twelve, as spiritually deaf and blind. That gives all of us a point of entry into the story of Jesus. Three times, when Jesus speaks of his coming passion, death, and resurrection (in chapters eight, nine, and ten) the Twelve simply don’t get it. The first time, Peter rebukes Jesus (apparently about connecting suffering with being the Messiah). The second time, the Twelve start arguing about who among them is “the greatest” (apparently arguing about who is to lead them after Jesus dies). And, the third time (now apparently noticing the resurrection part), the Zebedee brothers pull Jesus aside and ask for the number one and two positions when Jesus comes into glory. Each time Jesus confronts his disciples regarding their misunderstanding of him and his mission; then he proceeds to instruct them about who he is and what it means to follow him. The first time, he says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (8:34-35). The second time, he teaches, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (9:35). The third time, he makes it crystal clear that—contrary to the way the world thinks--leadership in his community is all about service: “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:42-45).
Although the disciples didn’t get it at first—Judas betrays, Peter denies, and all Twelve scatter at the arrest—the messenger in the empty tomb shows that it doesn’t end there: “He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples—even Peter!—that he is going before you to Galilee; they you will see him, as he told you” (16:6-7).One way or another, this understanding of Christian life is conveyed in all the gospels, but we can thank Mark for first making it central to our understanding of Christian life. And we still need to learn it better, don’t we? A good next step is to read the Gospel of Mark straight through, prayerfully.
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