Riddle me this: Jesus as a misunderstood puzzle. Mark’s story

17th century icon of St Mark via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Matthew’s carefully introduced and triumphantly concluded story, Mark begins fairly abruptly and ends even more suddenly than it begins. That beginning reflects a sense of pace that Mark injects into his gospel; Jesus is constantly on the move, and his mission is presented with a sense of urgency fitting to a figure who is announcing that the kingdom of God has come close.

When I looked at the book of Daniel, I commented that it helped establish a new literary genre. That genre, where the secrets of God’s heavens are revealed in visions so that people know how to live faithfully in the present, is called “apocalyptic”, from the Greek word for uncovering, or unveiling in the sense of revelation. Mark begins and ends Jesus’ story with unveilings.

In the account of his baptism, Jesus sees a vision and hears a voice. He sees the heavens torn apart, and God’s Spirit coming down; he hears a declaration that he is God’s Son. (Mark 1:10-11). This revealed secret will sustain Jesus’ ministry. The attentive listener knows that whatever adversity he faces, God will be with him and working through him. We, as readers of the story, know what many of its participants will struggle to understand.

The second unveiling comes at the moment of Jesus’ death. As Jesus dies Mark declares that the temple curtain is torn in two (Mark 15:38-39). Mark uses the same verb for the tearing open of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism, and the rending of the temple curtain at the time of his death. The direction, from top to bottom, seems to stress that it is God’s work. As God’s response to the death of Jesus, God himself opens up, unveils, the holiest place, the geographical and architectural symbol of the place where his heavenly glory touches the earth. Something of the divine presence, no longer confined to the Jewish temple is then, according to Mark, glimpsed in Jesus by the pagan centurion, who exclaims that “this man was God’s Son!”

Between these two dramatic unveilings of the real secret of the gospel, however, is a story of multiple conflicts and misunderstandings by nearly everyone involved. Because Mark has much less of Jesus’ actual teaching than Matthew and Luke, the miracles and exorcisms stand out more vividly. People come to Jesus because of his reputation as a healer and exorcist; they come because they need something from him, not because of who he is.

A regular feature of Jesus’ exorcisms is that the unclean spirits are the only beings who know who Jesus is, and on a number of occasions Jesus is shown telling them to keep quiet.1 When, halfway through the gospel, Peter finally blurts out his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, he too is told to keep it quiet (Mark 8:29). Mark, largely followed by Matthew and Luke, draws a picture of a Jesus who does not tell people who he is. Instead Jesus is presented as an enigma. He refers to himself typically as “the Son of Man”. This phrase is ambiguous: it can simply mean “someone like me” or even just “I” – rather like the way the Queen says “one”. In some contexts, it clearly hints at the figure described in Daniel’s vision. Most of the time, particularly in his early ministry, Jesus seems to use it as a roundabout and riddling way of referring to himself.

A view has grown up in church circles that Jesus used parables to explain his teaching. Mark’s Jesus in fact says the opposite, quoting from Isaiah:

And Jesus said to the disciples, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

Mark 4:11-12

This rather difficult idea needs to be understood in the light of Jesus’s reticence about his identity. If someone does perceive who he is – if someone does respond to the truth in his teaching – it will be because God has drawn that person to Jesus, revealed the meaning of the parable, prompted genuine repentance, or disclosed the secret of Jesus’s identity.

This links to the problems the disciples have in understanding Jesus. From the moment Peter declares he believes Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus starts having to teach them that Messiah doesn’t mean what they think it means. Peter is appalled by Jesus’ first attempt to describe his fate and tries to talk him out of it: Jesus labels this the work of Satan (Mark 8:31-33). The next time Jesus tries to teach them about the way of the cross, the disciples get into an argument about which of them is the greatest (Mark 9:30-37). The third time he prophecies his death, James and John come up asking for the best seats in the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:32-40). There is a lot that God still needs to reveal to them beyond a basic faith that Jesus is the Messiah.

These then, are some of Mark’s key themes: Jesus finds himself at the heart of God’s conflict with evil, casting out unclean spirits and healing the sick. His parables and miracles alike challenge people to ask themselves who he is, but most fail to come up with the right answer. Even his own family, and those he grew up amongst fail to see who he is.2 His own disciples barely understand who he is; they miss the point of his feeding miracles and even after recognizing him as God’s Messiah, they refuse to accept his teaching about what that means.

At the end, Jesus must endure his fate alone: his three closest friends fall asleep while he prays in the garden, Peter denies he knows him, and at the very end of his life, Jesus prays the first verse of a psalm which laments that even God has forsaken him (Psalm 22.1 quoted in Mark 15:33). If it were not for the closing revelation of the unveiled sanctuary and the centurion’s confession, the reader too might wonder whether Jesus is truly God’s agent bringing in God’s kingdom.

The ending of Mark’s gospel seems to fit well with this picture. I noted earlier that Mark ends abruptly. The gospel ends so abruptly at 16:8 that many subsequent readers have wanted to supply an ending. Some have actually done so: there are various endings (or combinations of endings) which have been added to Mark’s gospel in different early manuscripts. The most widely used ending, numbered as verses 9-20, is often supplied in modern Bibles at least as an appendix. The lectionary, however, sticks with the abrupt ending, and only offers an Easter reading of Mark 16:1-8. It ends with Mark’s seeming anti-climax: “[The women] said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

I have talked a lot about Mark’s view of revelation: only God can show people who Jesus really is. Only God can open the meaning of Jesus’ teaching and person for his hearers. The ultimate revelation of Jesus is his risen presence, the entry point that has replaced the temple curtain as the gateway into God’s glory, God’s holy dwelling place. Therefore it seems appropriate that Mark does not show us the risen Jesus. Only the risen Jesus can disclose himself to the listener or reader. We who hear Mark’s account need God to complete the resurrection story for us, by revealing the risen Christ to us in our present and personal experience.


Notes

  1. For example, Mark 1:34; 3:12. Since a German scholar called William Wrede drew attention to what he called the “Messianic Secret”  in 1901, it has become almost a cliché. For the very sceptical Wrede it was invented by Mark to explain away the absence of any clear claim by Jesus to be the Messiah in the Christian oral tradition. However, it fits equally well with a Jesus who has a very different conception of a messianic calling to the prevalent political understandings of his day. Wrede’s book was finally translated into English as “The Messianic Secret” 70 years after its German publication.
  2. See particularly Mark 3:31-35 for the family, and Mark 6:1-6 for his hometown visit

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