The Chaplain explores ‘teaching and learning conversations’ (the theme of this issue of Great Scot) in Mark’s Gospel.
Winged Lion, Second Century Symbol of St Mark the Evangelist by Sophie Dickens at Southwark Cathedral ‘Q and A’ in Mark’s Gospel
Mark’s Gospel is actually anonymous, but attributed to Mark, because Papias, writing early in the second century,identified Mark as the author. He says Mark accompanied the apostle Peter on his travels. This accounts for eyewitness recollections, often captured with unexpected detail. Lacking the Birth Stories and the Sermon on the Mount, Mark’s Gospel is notable for the absence of ‘teaching’ material!
For Mark, the teaching and learning happens through action and reaction, accompanied by question and answer. I think he would really have loved an iPhone. Its ability to capture video would have served his purposes beautifully. His Gospel is short and punchy. Again and again he notes Jesus in action and vividly records ‘immediate’ (a favourite word) responses.
It is clear that Jesus’ ideas of the ‘Kingdom of God’ stirred up controversy. Like the Syrian resistance sending short dramatic clips of the action to the outside world, there is urgency in the images Mark depicts. Questions were buzzing around, and his Gospel is full of people asking questions. These searching questions led Mark to his own conclusion. He features the questions in the structure of the text he just had to write, but he could not be more upfront about his own conclusion. Chapter one verse one: ‘This is the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God’.
From the beginning, evil is challenged. Demons shriek ‘What do you want with us Jesus of Nazareth?’ (1:24) This question should not be dismissed as impossibly naïve. C S Lewis remarked at the start of Screwtape Letters: ‘The average person has two equal and opposite reactions when faced with demons and devils. Either they’re tempted to say that such talk is nonsense and one can’t believe it, or alternatively they take an excessive interest in demons.’
Lewis says neither of those is a healthy approach. N T Wright agrees: ‘I think we, in the western world, have often tended to dismiss as either non-existent or irrelevant things that we don’t understand. People in many, many other parts of the world are perfectly aware that there are hidden forces in the world and around us, some of which are malevolent, and whatever language you use for them, you’ve got to do business with that stuff’.
The modern conversation about evil is vibrant and unrelenting. In Evil in Modern Thought,Susan Neiman observes that ‘The literature on “the problem of evil” is immense and growing.’She quotes Daniel Howard-Snyder who points out that ‘over 4,200 philosophical and theological books and articles on the topic of evil appeared between 1960 and 1990 alone – that is, one publication every two and a half days on the subject.’
Demonic hostility to the presence of Jesus is matched by human incomprehension at exorcism.‘What is this, some kind of new teaching?’ (1:27); Jesus has astonishing powers.But the puzzle is ramped up when the question becomes ‘Who can forgive sins? How does he dare talk like this?’ (2:7). Jesus’ theological views challenged orthodox teaching. Mark also notes Jesus’ socially inclusive attitudes were offensive. To the critics he ate with all the wrong people. ‘Why does he eat with such people?’ (2:16) they asked. Everything Jesus does invites a new question. ‘Why is it that the disciples of John the Baptist fast, but yours do not?’ (2:18).
About this point Jesus responds to the questioning with a string of his own questions. ‘What does our law allow on the Sabbath, to help or to harm? How can Satan drive out Satan? Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? What shall we say the kingdom of God is like? Why are you frightened? Have you still no faith?’ (3:4, 23, 34, 4:30, 40) One quarter of the way into Mark’s story the disciples realise that the pivotal question hinges on the identity of their new friend and Master. ‘Who is this man?’ they wonder with awe (4:41).
By the halfway point of the Gospel Jesus asks the two critical questions. The setting is well north of Galilee, at Caesarea Philippi, by the Golan Heights. Jesus has taken his disciples well away from the madding crowd, when he asks: ‘Who do people say I am?’(8:27). This question opens up a conversation regarding contemporary ideas about Jesus.He is regarded as a person of interest, a prophetic and volatile figure, like John the Baptist, or Elijah.
Finally Jesus asks ‘Who do you say I am?’ (8:29) At this point their puzzled enquiry and Jesus’instructive questioning intersect. Peter, so typically, responds for them all, ‘You are the Messiah’. Their perception was that Jesus was the long-awaited and anointed King of the line of David, come to rescue and restore God’s people. But their understanding of what this meant was very wrong.It wasn’t to be as they thought. Jesus immediately began to tell themthat he would suffer. In fact he would be rejected and killed.
This was exactly the opposite of what Peter meant, and he protested strongly. His protestation was a real temptation to Jesus; a pleading invitation from a friend to abandon his mission, to set an easier course. In Peter’s words Jesus recognised a further test from Satan (compare 1:12-13); he rebuked Peter as if his idea had come from hell itself.
From this point on the disciples had to learn a vital message. The kingdom of God, Jesus’ great theme, was not what they expected, and the anointed King (read chapter 15) vanquishes his enemies, but he does it by loving them to death. Can they follow him now?
J K Rowling has written the entire Harry Potter series about this ‘most powerful force in the universe’, self-sacrificial love. Her first book tells how Harry was saved by the self-sacrifice of his parents. In the final book he reveals that he has learnt the lesson; Harry sacrifices himself for his friends. Professor Jerram Barrs has a beautiful YouTube commentary on this aspect of Rowling’s final Harry Potter volume.
For us all, as for Jesus’ first disciples, this is a difficult lesson, but more than ever it’s a lesson we must learn. Can we follow him?
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