At my first communion, I received a picture Bible. All the stories were told through comic strips, like the Bible version of Rex Morgan, M.D. Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, Leah, Rachel, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, Deborah, Samuel, Nathan, David, Solomon, and Esther came alive amidst action-packed, enthralling plots. Unfortunately, turning to the New Testament was . . . disappointing. After all the exciting soap opera-esqe characters I’d been reading about, Jesus came off as Mr. Blandy McBlanderton, and the disciples as his beige companions.
With the exception of a few stand-out moments (the friends of the paralyzed guy pull off a roof to get him to Jesus!) I gave the gospels 2 ½ out of 5 stars. Doubtless part of the problem was that the picture Bible mashed together all the stories about Jesus from the four gospels. While the goal was efficiency, the result was a lack narrative efficacy—there wasn’t really a story being told anymore.
Studying Mark’s gospel as a graduate student helped me to see this gospel as a story being told, a narrative that was crafted and constructed in order to engage and persuade its audience. Through the story he creates, Mark confronts his listeners with the question: fear or faith? That choice makes Mark’s Jesus anything but bland, and the disciples into case studies in “you’re doing it wrong.”
An Important Parable
Mary Ann Tolbert argues that the Parable of the Sower is extremely important for Mark’s gospel (1). Jesus seems to agree. When the disciples ask him to explain it, he responds, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” (Mk. 4: 13) Then he repeats the whole parable in his explanation. Think about it. It’s around 75 CE and you’re listening to this gospel being read aloud. Repeating the parable with an explanation is likely to help it stick in your head.
Why is this passage so crucial for the audience to remember? Tolbert thinks that the different types of ground in the passage describe all the “characters” in Mark’s story (2):
Sower = Jesus, spreading the seeds of the good news.
Path = Religious leaders like the Pharisees who immediately reject the good news.
Rocky ground = The disciples who are immediately responsive to Jesus but wither under the hot sun of persecution.
Weedy ground = Worldly leaders like Herod and Pilate who might have cultivated the gospel, but instead cave to the pressures of honor and order.
In keeping with what Krista Stevens offered us earlier this week, I’d like to focus on the disciples. They seem off to a good start in chapters 1-3, responding immediately to Jesus’ call to discipleship and accompanying him in his ministry. Peter, James, and John are even singled out for personal attention. They go along with Jesus for the healing of Jairus’ daughter and are with him for the Transfiguration.
Yet in between their call and these special outings, Jesus has decided to change Simon’s name to Peter, a nickname which means Rock (3:16), and then proceeds in chapter 4 to describe “rocky ground” as poor stuff for the gospel’s seed. As Tolbert notes, Matthew’s gospel pretties this up by making that nickname into a strength—Peter is the rock upon whom the church is built. Yet that is an addition Matthew makes to Mark’s original script. For Mark, calling Peter a “rock” is akin to an actor in a melodrama holding up a sign that says “Booo!” The audience should be worried about Peter (3).
The gospel continues, and we see that Peter isn’t the only disciple who should be on our radar. As Jesus’ permanent posse the disciples ought to behave differently from the Pharisees, whom Jesus describes as hard hearted (3:5). Yet time and again, the disciples show that they don’t understand Jesus’ teaching.
For instance, in Mark 6: 30-44 a huge crowd has drawn around Jesus, and the disciples eventually tell Jesus it’s time to wrap up so everyone can go home for dinner. Jesus replies that they should feed the people themselves, but the disciples are—understandably—perplexed at how to go about it. Jesus proceeds to feed 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish. 12 baskets of bread and fish are left over for tuna surprise.
Just a short while later, in Mark 8: 1-10, there’s another large gathering, this time of 4,000 people. Jesus reacts with compassion for their hungry stomachs (and thereby displays his loving heart). Instead of saying, “Hey, Jesus, this would be a sweet time for an encore of your miracle buffet,” the disciples ask, “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” (8:4)
[Awkward silence as Jesus reviews his life choices].
Jesus, keeping it together, teaches the lesson again: 7 loaves and a few small fish later, everybody is fed and there are baskets of leftovers.
To reinforce how much the disciples are struggling at midterm, immediately after feeding the 4,000 Jesus has a little run in with the Pharisees. He then meets up with the disciples in a boat. Mark makes sure we know that they have one loaf of bread. Jesus warns the disciples “‘Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod” (8:15). Clearly, “yeast” is a metaphor, yet the disciples completely misunderstand Jesus, and think that he is mad with them for only having one loaf.
One loaf. For 13 people. Heck, throw in the boat captain for a total of 14. Seems like the dude who fed 4,000-5,000 people with 7-12 loaves can make sure no one goes hungry during the cruise.
At this point, Jesus loses his cool, eliciting an “Amen” from teachers everywhere:
“Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” (Mark 8: 17-18)
Fear or Faith?
Does Jesus just need to find different teaching strategies to reach his disciples? Why is he failing to reach that “O Captain! My Captain!” moment with them? The answer to these questions tends to boil down to the more basic question of fear or faith (4).
Let’s take a look at a particular passage that illustrates the contrast. Mark 5: 21-43 is known as an intercalation, or, more colloquially, a Markan sandwich in which two stories intersect in order to reinforce a message. The story of Jairus asking Jesus to heal his daughter and her actual healing are like the sandwich bread. Two slices of bread does not a sandwich make, however, so we need to pay attention to a story that seems to interrupt Jesus as he walks to Jairus’ house. Playing the role of the MLT is a woman who reaches out to touch Jesus’ cloak with hope of being healed. Jesus’ response, once he figures out what’s happened, is “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (v. 34).
Note that Jesus didn’t first decide to heal the woman; she’s healed through her faith before he even knows she’s there. When Jesus resumes his walk to Jairus’ house, he’s greeted with the news that the little girl has died, but he tells Jairus “Do not fear, only believe” (v. 37). The gathered mourners mock Jesus when he says the child is not dead but only sleeping, and Jesus’ response is to boot them from the room (Mark’s Jesus doesn’t perform miracles well when people don’t have faith).
Real Fear, Hard Won Faith
The woman and Jairus are both examples of good ground because they choose faith over fear in situations in which fear was real and faith not easy. The result is new life. Yet even when Peter appears to choose faith by naming Jesus as the Messiah, he quickly shows he doesn’t understand what the word means: he rebukes Jesus for predicting that the Son of Man will suffer and die before rising. James and John respond to Jesus’ third prediction of the passion by arguing over who gets to sit at Jesus’ right and left in his glory.
While the Pharisees’ hard hearts lead them to immediately reject the gospel, the disciples’ own hard heartedness prevents them from understanding that there are very real things to be afraid of if they are going to follow Jesus faithfully. They don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear, and they cannot remember all that Jesus has been trying to teach them. Though Jesus demonstrates compassion again and again, the disciples are tone deaf to Jesus’ own faithful courage and the suffering that awaits on the horizon; neither do they learn from the examples of those who reach out to Jesus in faith despite fear. As the disciples walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem, they’re grooving to Queen’s “We Are the Champions” while Jesus has Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on repeat.
By ignoring fear and blocking it out the disciples aren’t growing in a faith that can embody trust in the midst of suffering and death. Ironically, then, it is fear that sends the disciples running at Jesus’ arrest, sets Peter lying outside the trial, and even catches the gospel in the women’s throats when they meet the risen Christ.
I wrote at the beginning of this post that Mark’s gospel is a story crafted to ask a question. It’s not just about the characters in the story, but also about the people listening to the gospel then and now. You call yourself a disciple? Then what will it be: fear or faith?
(1) Mary Ann Tolbert, “ Interpretation, 47 no 4 (1993): 347-357. See also Tolbert’s Sowing the Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1996).
(2) Tolbert, 351-355.
(3) Tolbert, 352-353.
(4) Tolbert, 353-354.