Mark 3:7-9:1

The gospel of Mark then tells us that people came to Jesus from all over the region, from as far south as Jerusalem and from as far north as Tyre and Sidon in what is today Lebanon. Clearly, his message is no longer only for the Jews. Jesus heals the sick and casts out unclean spirits, who cry out: "You are the Son of God." But Jesus "insisted that they should not make him known." Perhaps this demand for secrecy reflects the perspective of the early church at the time the gospel was written. If the identify of Jesus were kept secret, that might explain why the people who flocked to Jesus failed to understand who he was and deserted him.

After Jesus appoints his twelve disciples, we hear that his family sets out "to take charge of him, believing that "he is out of his mind." When his mother and brothers arrive at the place where he is teaching they send in a message asking that he come out to them. But Jesus responds by saying, "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." He does not reject his family but expands it to include all those who seek to enter the kingdom of God.

Now, in addition to healing and casting out demons, the gospel of Mark records the teachings of Jesus. He tells a parable about a sower of seeds and then explains it to his disciples when he is alone with them. He says to his disciples that "the secret of the kingdom of God" has been given to them, but "to those who are outside, everything comes by way of parables." They may "listen and listen, but understand nothing; otherwise they might turn to God and be forgiven." The gospel of Mark notes that Jesus is referring to scripture (Isaiah 6:9-10), but that fact does not account for the harshness of this statement. The author of the gospel of Mark has written back into the story of Jesus the rejection by the Jews of the gospel that Paul and others are preaching to the Gentiles.

The teachings of Jesus about the kingdom of God are elusive and enigmatic. The kingdom of God is like seed scattered on the soil that grows and produces a harvest. It is like a mustard seed that grows to be a large bush in which birds build their nests. It comes to fruition in a mysterious way and may not turn out as we wish. Farmers, for example, did not want mustard growing in their fields nor birds nesting above the seeds they have sown.

One evening Jesus sets out by boat for the other side of the Sea of Galilee. When a storm comes up and his disciples are afraid, he quiets the wind and scolds them. "Why are you such cowards? Have you no faith even now?" Despite hearing from Jesus explanations of the parables, the disciples also seem not to understand who he is.

On the other side of the Sea of Galilee Jesus confronts a man with an unclean spirit, who cries out: "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" When Jesus asks his name, the spirit within the man replies, "Legion." The word is Latin and refers to a unit of soldiers within the Roman army. It seems an odd name, until we think about the meaning of sending such an unclean spirit into a herd of swine that plunges to its death over a cliff. Perhaps the expulsion of "Legion" symbolizes the expulsion of the Roman army. Surely this would be "good news" for the poor Jewish people of Galilee.

The man who was healed begs to join the disciples following Jesus, but Jesus tells him to go share his story with his friends. When the man begins to proclaim the story in the Decapolis, a league of ten Gentile cities mostly east of the Jordan River, we can see clearly that the gospel of Mark supports the gospel that Paul is taking to the Gentiles. Among the Jews, Jesus tells those healed to remain quiet, and he teaches parables that the people do not understand. But he sends the man freed from his unclean spirit back to tell his story among the Gentile communities where the man lives. And, the story concludes, "everyone was amazed.” In this gospel story perhaps the Jews were not only amazed by the healing power of Jesus, but also by his attitude toward the Gentile cities east of Galilee.

When Jesus returns to Galilee, he restores to life the dead daughter of a synagogue leader and then tells those who are present "not to let anyone know about it." In the midst of this story, the gospel of Mark tells of the healing of a woman who has had a flow of blood for twelve years. We will see again in this gospel the literary technique of putting one story within another to give emphasis to each.

Then Jesus returns home. But when he teaches in the synagogue, the people refuse to listen. "Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not his sisters here with us?" In contrast with the healing of the Gentile man with an unclean spirit named Legion, at home Jesus is unable to do more than heal a few sick persons. The gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus "was astonished at their want of faith." But because the gospel of Mark has been preparing us for the rejection of Jesus by most of his people, perhaps we are less surprised than he is.

His rejection at home seems to stir Jesus to send his disciples out, two by two, to heal and cast out unclean spirits. He tells them "to take nothing for the journey except a stick — no bread, no pack, no money in their belts." They are allowed to wear sandals, but they are not to take a second coat. Clearly, they will have to depend on their success, as healers, and on those who offer them food and a place to sleep. Jesus prepares them, therefore, for rejection as well as success. The gospel of Mark tells us they "set out and proclaimed the need for repentance." We are delighted to learn that they were successful in driving out demons, and also that they healed many people who were sick.

The gospel of Mark follows this account of the expanding ministry of Jesus and his disciples with a discussion about the identity of Jesus. Some people are saying that Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead, but others think he is Elijah or a prophet like the prophets who lived in ancient Israel. The gospel of Mark reports that King Herod believes Jesus to be John the Baptist and then relates the story of the killing of John the Baptist by King Herod. The gospel seems to be affirming both the threat to those who preach repentance and power of their message, as the killing of John has not ended the movement he initiated.

Clearly, however, the author of the gospel of Mark does not think of Jesus as a prophet. Elijah called Elisha to be his disciple, and Elijah taught Elisha how to follow in his footsteps. But Elijah, like the other prophets of ancient Israel, communicated the words of God to the people. Jesus, in the gospel of Mark, teaches about God in his own words. He never uses the standard prophetic phrase, "Thus says the Lord." The gospel of Mark clearly affirms that Jesus is the Lord! The word of God in the gospel of Mark and also in the other gospels of the New Testament is revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus. This is what makes them gospel stories rather than prophecies.

Perhaps the gospel of Mark has Jesus meet Moses and Elijah in order to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of the word of God that was revealed to ancient Israel through the law and the prophets. Certainly, for the author of the gospel of Mark the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ completes the revelation begun through Moses and Elijah and the other prophets of ancient Israel. The gospel of Mark tells us that the God who guided Israel through Moses and Elijah has chosen Jesus to reach out to the whole world.

Then the gospel of Mark recounts the miracle stories of feeding five thousand people and Jesus walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee. Both these stories reflect badly on the disciples. They have just completed a successful ministry of healing and teaching, yet they do not trust that Jesus can feed the crowd and are terrified when they see Jesus on the water. The gospel tells us the disciples "were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened." If we know the story of the exodus from Egypt, these last few words will be familiar to us. When Moses confronts Pharaoh and demands that he allow the Israelites to leave Egypt, we read that the Pharaoh's "heart was hardened." (Exodus 4:21, 7:13, 14:17) Is the gospel of Mark suggesting that the disciples' lack of faith and understanding is, like Pharaoh's recalcitrance, part of God's plan to save his people?

Jesus returns to land and is immediately besieged by people bringing their sick loved ones to him for healing. And the gospel tells us, "all who touched him were healed." This success and fame apparently brought Pharisees and some scribes from Jerusalem to Galilee to challenge Jesus. The way that the gospel of Mark describes this encounter reveals that the gospel was written for Christians who were not acquainted with the details of Jewish law — that is, for Gentiles and perhaps Greek-speaking Jews who no longer observed the legal restrictions of their tradition. In a parenthetical phrase the author of the gospel explains that the Pharisees and scribes are challenging Jesus on the grounds that his disciples do not wash their hands before eating, because the Pharisees and scribes believe all Jews should keep these rules of the "ancient tradition."

Jesus responds by accusing the Pharisees and scribes of hypocrisy. He quotes a passage from Isaiah 29:13 and then says to the Pharisees and scribes: "You neglect the commandment of God, in order to maintain the tradition of men." Moreover, Jesus accuses them of ruling that vows might be made preventing a man from fulfilling his obligations to his father or mother.

The gospel of Mark follows this exchange with a teaching by Jesus that "nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him." Then we are told that Jesus has to explain "this parable" to his disciples, who do not understand it. What goes into us, he says, simply passes through us. Therefore, the gospel tells us, "he declared all foods clean. This second parenthetical observation again seems to be for the benefit of Gentile readers, as it does not necessarily follow from the story. Jesus goes on to say persons are defiled by the evil that comes from their hearts, such as, "evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness." Jesus does not, however, explicitly say that all foods are clean. It seems likely, therefore, that this statement by the author of the gospel represents the understanding of the Gentile churches organized by Paul and is not a report of the historical teaching of Jesus.

Then Jesus travels to Tyre and Sidon where a Gentile woman begs him to heal her daughter. At first Jesus refuses, answering her appeals with a harsh reply that "it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." Apparently, he means he has come to the people of Israel and not to help the Gentiles. But when the woman refuses to take no for an answer, he grants her request. It is a strange story that does not portray Jesus as the loving healer we like to imagine, but it does confirm that Gentiles, and not only Jews, will benefit from the ministry of Jesus.

Furthermore, if we recall from Paul's letters that the disciples of Jesus, as apostles, resisted Paul's ministry to the Gentiles, we might see this story as a commentary on the ministry of the church in the homeland of Jesus. There, during the ministry of Paul the church wants to maintain the Jewish law, as do the Pharisees and scribes who in the gospel of Mark oppose Jesus during his ministry. In this story told by the gospel of Mark Jesus, too, is reluctant to extend his mission to Gentiles, but he is persuaded to do so. This could be a parable of the church that began as a Jewish movement but, because of the success of Paul and other Greek-speaking apostles, came to include Gentiles as well.

The gospel of Mark, however, quickly returns to its familiar pattern. A man comes and seeks healing from Jesus, who heals him. Jesus forbids the man and those who witness the healing to say anything to others, but nonetheless they spread the story. The gospel immediately relates another feeding miracle, another challenge by Pharisees, another explanation by Jesus to his disciples who clearly do not yet understand, and another healing and command to keep it quiet.

These events are followed by stories concerning the identity of Jesus. When Jesus asks his disciples who the people think he is, they answer John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets. But Peter says, "You are the Messiah." It seems the disciples have finally understood! As usual, Jesus instructs them not to tell anyone, and he explains that the Son of Man must be "rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again." When Peter protests, Jesus sternly rebukes him. Then Jesus tells all the people: "Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must renounce self; he must take up his cross and follow me. Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel's will save it."

Peter represents us in the story. He follows Jesus, yet he has difficulty understanding the teachings of Jesus and resists the idea that the ministry of Jesus will end in rejection and death. Peter wants the gospel to be a success story with a happy ending. Jesus, in the gospel of Mark, represents God, who will work out the end of the story. Faith, we know from Paul, is trusting in God, rather than in ourselves or in others. Peter has to learn to trust in Jesus and, the gospel is telling us, so do we.

It may be that Jesus predicted his death and resurrection, but the gospel of Mark reports that on the cross he seemed unsure of what was to come. Moreover, it seems unlikely that Jesus explicitly referred in his teaching to "the cross" in the way that Christians did later in the life of the church. Thus, the words attributed to Jesus may actually be the author’s creation. The end of the story, of course, was clear to the author of the gospel of Mark, and he has Jesus explain what is to come to his disciples. They, and the Christians for whom the gospel of Mark was written, and we, too, are not to expect salvation without trusting completely in the God we know in Jesus Christ.

And what is the reward? The Jesus of the gospel of Mark says: "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power." Did Jesus actually say this? If so, he was wrong. Did the author of the gospel of Mark put these words into the mouth of Jesus? If so, he was wrong, unless this passage refers to the coming of the Holy Spirit among the disciples after the resurrection of Jesus. We may recall, however, that Paul also thought the day of the Lord would come within the lifetime of his followers, and he was writing after the coming of the Holy Spirit. This, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this statement in the gospel of Mark is factually incorrect.

But why would the author of the gospel of Mark include this teaching, if it did not prove to be true? Very likely at the time he was writing the gospel there were still apostles alive, and it may have seemed that the end of the world was coming soon. Certainly, the attack on Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. might have been interpreted as the beginning of the end, which is why this gospel was very likely written about that time. In any event, the claim that the New Testament is the infallible or literal word of God cannot account for this statement by Jesus. If it is taken literally, it did not happen. If it is understood as symbolic or figurative, then it is not literal truth. © Robert Traer 2016