Christianity in the United States is an enigma. Our society is bursting at the seams with religion. We claim a Judeo-Christian ethic at the core of our history and national life. Americans go to church in droves; ministries are flourishing; religious discourse permeates all facets of our culture, including politics and even sports. A billion-dollar industry has sprung up around Christian-oriented music and other spiritual paraphernalia.
Yet much of what passes as Christian faith in this society is vapid and shallow, if not dangerously distorted. The very language used betrays at least one aspect of this Americanized pantomime of biblical faith: We "go to" church. We step out of our lives to practice our faith in a specified and compartmentalized time and place.
During this liturgical year, thousands of churches will follow the lectionary and read the gospel of Mark. While congregants sit in comfortable pews facing an altar bedecked with an American flag, the voice of the earliest evangelist will cry out with his stark and uncompromising vision of Jesus and his clarion call to follow God's anointed one along a way of conflict and challenge.
Mark's gospel offers an antidote to domesticated, superficial Christianity: It is a radical manifesto of discipleship. The gospel of Mark is as much about the formation of a discipleship community responding to Jesus' proclamation of God's reign as it is about Jesus himself. According to Mark, that response requires breaking from the corrupt social order and accompanying Jesus on the way of the cross.
THE SHORTEST AND earliest of the canonical gospels (and most likely the model for the later texts of Matthew and Luke), Mark's account of Jesus exudes a sense of urgency, crisis, and high drama. Traditionally, Mark was believed to have been written for a community of Christians undergoing severe persecution in Rome. More recent scholarship has posited an alternative backdropthe Jewish uprising against Roman occupation in Palestine, which would lead to the disastrous destruction of the temple in 70 B.C.E. A fledgling community of followers of Jesus are trapped between the violence of the empire and the revolutionary violence of Jewish militants.
Whatever the actual setting, one senses between the lines of the gospel a historical cauldron of crisis, civil disturbance, and apocalyptic fervor. Mark is calling on a group of believers to stake a claim of ultimate loyalty and radical faithfulness amidst a world of violence, injustice, and oppression.
Mark's sense of urgency is apparent even in his literary style. His language is terse and unpolished. The narrative is action-oriented, featuring far fewer discourses of Jesus than the other gospels do. Mark's story plunges us in quickly and moves us rapidly in the direction of conflict with the authorities. Jesus and his followers are always on the moveimages of journeying "on the way" abound in the gospel. Clearly, Mark wants to convey a sense of "ortho-praxis" to his audience. Mere belief is not sufficientthe gospel must be lived out.
The simplicity of Mark's narrative should not blind us to his literary and theological craft. The evangelist shrewdly molds the traditions of Jesus, wielding symbol, imagery, repetitions, and parallelisms, beckoning the reader to a deeper understanding. Mark knows that the radical faith Jesus calls us to is demandingand he won't let us off the hook with a cursory reading. Mark's Jesus constantly queries the disciples about their understandingand upbraids them for their failures. "Do you still not understand?" (8:21). The many images of perceptionhealings from blindness and deafnessare Mark's symbolic way of urging us to turn from the illusions of the world and to the truth of God's reign.
A tone of urgency is already manifest in the prologue (1:1-15). Within a few verses, using a rapid succession of assertions and episodes, Mark has begun the literary deconstruction of the unjust world and the introduction of a new world, through the person of Jesus.
BY CALLING HIS work a "gospel," Mark, like the early Christian movement, is ingeniously delegitimating imperial power. The phrase evangelion, meaning "good news" or "glad tidings," was part of the lexicon of Roman propaganda, used to formally announce an emperor's birth or accession to the throne, or to spread news of a military victory. Note that the arrest of John the Baptist (1:14), which we later find out to be the work of the imperial lackey Herod (6:17-29), is the precipitating moment for Jesus' proclamation of the "good news." Mark knows that the gospel is about a clash of two realities: God's reign vs. worldly empire. They cannot co-existand we must make our choice.
That same choice is at the core of the entire biblical revelation, as Mark clearly understands. In setting the stage for his gospel, he deftly evokes the primal proclamation of the Genesis creation ("In the beginning," the opening of the heavens at Jesus' baptism), the Torah traditions of Exodus and wilderness, the prophetic traditions of judgment and proclamation (through the figure of John and echoes of Isaiah and Malachi), the promises of God's messianic salvation, and the apocalyptic hope. By drawing on these rich veins of biblical understanding, Mark heightens expectation and sets the stage for God doing something radically new, and very old.
In fact, the gospel of Mark demonstrates how urgently we need to develop critical skills of "biblical literacy." Beginning with this prologue, the whole gospel is saturated with references to the Jewish biblical tradition, which many Christians fail to grasp. Much like the contemporary computer phenomenon of "hypertext," almost every sentence of Mark "links" the reader to Torah, the prophets, the Psalms, and other parts of scripture. As with other New Testament writers, much of Mark's meaning depends on our comprehension of biblical images, phrases, and allusions. By not grasping the reference to the manna story in Exodus, for instance, we superficially interpret the stories of wilderness feedings (6:30-44, 8:1-10) as nothing more than Jesus' miraculous multiplication of material substances. If we don't resonate with the image of "widow" that is so crucial to Torah and the prophets, we miss the scathing critique of economic exploitation in the episode of the "widow's mite" (12:41-44) and instead applaud the widow for "giving of her all."
The early chapters of Mark show Jesus simultaneously engaging in a frontal assault on the prevailing social order and demonstrating the new order of God's reign. Like Jeremiah, he both tears down and builds up (Jeremiah 1:10).
Healing and Liberation
Even the most perfunctory reading of the gospels reveals Jesus healing, casting out demons, and forgiving sins. But Mark's narrative recounts these deeds so as to draw out deeper meanings. Why, for instance, would apparently humane and healing gestures evoke the ire of the authorities?
Mark knows well just what the authorities know: These very actions serve as public critique and social subversion. Jesus' healings and exorcisms symbolize his prophetic challenge to what biblical scholar Walter Wink has called the "Domination System." They act not only to mercifully alleviate personal suffering but also to reveal the oppressive nature of the prevailing political and religious power systems.
Jesus' first public action is an exorcism that occurs in a synagogue (1:21-28). In Mark's text, what is ultimately at stake is "authority" (1:22, 27). The compassionate act of liberating a possessed man is also an assault on a corrupted scribal system. In order to open space for the reign of God, Jesus must liberate his community from the evil spirit of religious hypocrisy. This exorcism is the opening act of Jesus' prophetic challenge to religious authority systems, which culminates in his condemnation of the temple state (chapter 11).
The parallel exorcism in gentile territory (5:1-20) represents a second prong of Jesus' subversion of the social order. This particularly rich and detailed Markan narrative mingles a sharp satirical swipe at Roman military power (the demonic "legion," a Roman military term, is transformed into unclean swine) with a clear allusion to Pharaoh's army being cast into the sea. Just as Yahweh proved triumphant over the imperial forces of Egypt, so too Jesus proclaims victory over Roman imperialism. No wonder then that Mark constructs his account of Christ's passion to show that Jewish and Roman authorities, equally cognizant of Jesus' threat, collude in his execution.
Mark then recounts Jesus' healing of a "leper" (1:40-45)likewise etched as an act of social subversion. As in almost all the healings, Jesus effectively frees the man from the segregation mandated by his "uncleanness." The religious leadership of the day, in an abuse of Torah regulations, socially stigmatized lepers and others suffering from bodily unwholeness or disease (very much the case with the woman with the flow of blood in 5:25-34). Jesus understood that this "purity code," like rigid Sabbath rules (2:27-28), was being wielded for oppressive and inhumane purposes of social control. By healing people, he restored them back to community while at the same time castigating practices of social marginalization. (Note that Jesus sends the leper to the priest. A traditional reading assumes Jesus is piously abiding by the religious regulation to obtain an imprimatur of cleanliness from the establishment. However, Mark's language suggests Jesus sends the man more as a witness against the priestly system and the purity code.)
A second episode of healing also entails forgiving sins (2:1-12) and once again evokes the ire of the religious elite. Here, Jesus is challenging the "debt code," by which scribal systems could impose social definitions of sinfulness as another means of controlling people. Again, the issue at stake is authority (2:10)the authority of worldly systems that oppress, or the authority of God's reign, which liberates. Later, as Jesus' conflict with the authorities is reaching its crescendo, Mark makes the astonishing claim that when the temple state is destroyed (the symbolic "mountain" thrown into the sea), what will replace it is a community of prayerfulness and mutual forgiveness not adjudicated by powerful religious systems (11:22-25).
THE REIGN OF GOD is not bound up exclusively in the person of Jesus. Integral to his mission is calling and forming a community of disciples. Deviating from the standard rabbinical practice, Jesus calls his core group of followers from the working and marginalized classes (1:16-20, 2:13-24). As he embarks on his ministry, he empowers them to likewise heal, exorcise, and forgivewhich is to say, to join him in challenging a corrupt system and forging a new one (6:6b-13). This means the disciples too will provoke the wrath of the powerfulwhich is the reason Mark situates the odd tale of John the Baptist's execution right after the commissioning of the Twelve (6:14-16).
A major portion of Mark's gospel is instructing these neophyte disciples in the nature of the new community of God's reign. Much of chapters 9 and 10 have been called a "discipleship catechism," touching on fundamental issues of community relationships: gender roles, family and children, power dynamics, money and possessions.
Mark's Jesus calls on his followers to break from socially defined kinship structures and instead form new covenantal bonds of family with outsiders (3:31-35). They were to join Jesus in practicing new forms of "table fellowship," defying social apartheids based on purity and debt codes (2:15-17). The households of the Jesus movement would be marked by nonhierarchical and nonpatriarchal relations (10:1-22), inclusivity rather than exclusivity (9:35-40), servanthood rather than domination (9:33-37, 10:41-45). Even the apparently straightforward healing of Simon's mother-in-law (1:29-31), which takes place in the symbolic space of "household," is marked by her rising to a role of "servant"which does not mean the housewife setting a meal for the men, but rather being transformed to the authentic servanthood of discipleship. The same verb "to serve" recurs in 10:45 as the vocation of "the Human One," and in 15:41 to describe the faithful women who are present at the crucifixion.
In fact, a profoundly significant dimension of the discipleship community is evident in Mark's many stories of women. While these women are often nameless (5:25-34, 7:24-30, 14:3-9), they are in almost every case models of authentic discipleship. Like Jesus, they assertively break boundaries and defy social codes, attuned to the liberation of the reign of God. The Syro-Phoenician woman even tutors Jesus about the most radical dimensions of inclusivitybreaking the boundary between Jew and Gentile (7:24-30).
THE PROMINENCE OF women as models of discipleship was central to Jesus' (and Mark's) critique of patriarchy. A tiny but explosive detail can be detected by carefully reading 10:29. Jesus delineates exactly what the discipleship community leaves behind in order to follow his way. In turn, Jesus promises, they will regain a hundredfold (in this present age) houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and landbut not fathers! (Read the verse carefully!) Fathers are left behind but not received back. As a social construct of patriarchy, there can be no fatherhood in the reign of God. No wonder, then, the disciples will also experience persecution in this age (10:30)the patriarchal domination system will not tolerate such a brazen alternative.
A related practice of the discipleship community is economic. Like the most ancient practices of the Israelite covenantal community, the disciples are to live in the economy of God's grace, in which the goods of the earth are shared, and all are assured enough. The most obvious passage is Jesus' encounter with the rich young man (10:17-31). The fact that this encounter is one of the longest sustained episodes in Mark's usually concise narrative should alert us to its seriousness. Centuries worth of sermons and commentaries have sought to dismiss the bluntness of Jesus' teaching"How hard for the rich to enter the reign of God!" But what we often miss in our uneasiness is Jesus' loving invitation to the rich young man: This is not a call to austerity, but to joyful participation in the new economy of grace, an economy that Jesus promises in thoroughly practical terms will be sufficient (10:29-31).
The economic teachings of Mark are similarly threaded throughout the various seed and land parables, the wilderness feeding stories, as well as in the recurrent food and meal imagery. Mark's Jesus is doing nothing more than re-articulating the original Jubilee economics of the covenant (2:23-28, for instance, reasserts the covenantal practice of gleaning).
JUST AS IT INVITES people to join the way of discipleship, Mark's gospel is bluntly honest about the cost of heeding that invitation: Peter's full assertion of faith, at the midpoint of the gospel (8:27-30), is linked to the announcement of the cross (8:31-9:1). And Jesus makes it clear that the cross is not only his own glorified vocation, but the very condition of discipleship. More than any of the other gospels, the story of Jesus is overshadowed by conflict and a harrowing sense of ultimate showdown with the authorities. Similarly, it is marked by an incessant critique of the disciples, who are unable or unwilling to accept the reality of the cross.
According to Mark, the cross does not mean a sanctified suffering for its own sake. It is the inevitable outcome of opposing the domination system. Jesus' followers must recognize that the reign of God, and the discipleship community that seeks to live out that reign, stands as a radical alternative to the world's injustice, violence, and oppression.
The cross stands for the ultimate confrontation with the domination systemand in Mark's narrative the domination system appears triumphant. The prophet is crushed, his followers scattered in disarray, denial, and failure. Mark understands well the world's ways.
But the story is not over.
The answer to the apparent tragedy is the mystery of the empty tomb. The tradition was well known, of course, to the early Christian movement. But Mark has his own unique angle on the Easter story.
The earliest manuscripts of the gospel of Mark end at 16:8, with the women running off in awe, terror, and apparent silence. (Later editions include a typically triumphant resurrection appearance, more in the style of Matthew or Luke.) As startling an ending as it is, it is thoroughly appropriate for a manual on discipleship. The tomb is empty, yes, but the story is still open. Divine grace has wrought a miraclebut now it is up to us. The divine messengers tell the women to go look for Jesus back in Galilee, where the story began. They are to return to the margins and take up the journey all over again.
Mark's gospel forces us, the hearer, the reader, to take the next step. Will we now take up the cross and follow the risen Jesus?
MODERN-DAY U.S. Christians might want to distance themselves from the radical fervor of Mark's gospel. After all, this isn't the oppressive Roman Empire. Christianity, far from being persecuted, has won acceptance in a free society. Perhaps Mark isn't for usmaybe we'll look for another gospel with a kinder, gentler Jesus.
Mark will not let us off the hook so easily. His challenges are pointedly relevant to us. Do we who call ourselves Christians participate in an economy in which it is acceptable for 48,000 children to die each day while a handful enjoy prosperity? Do we accept the subtle social codes of clean and unclean, or do we break down barriers and practice table fellowship with outsiders and enemies? Are we seduced by "family values" that encourage us to take care of our own, or are we willing to recognize sisters and brothers among society's marginalized? Have our church institutions opted for social paradigms of power rather than abiding by Jesus' new definitions of servanthood?
Just as Mark's Jesus will not allow his followers to turn him into a triumphant, militant messiah, so too Mark will not allow us to be content with venerating a gilded icon of a triumphant risen Jesus. Mark will not permit Christians to sit back and pray to a massive, artistic cross elevated at the front of our sanctuaries. We cannot know Jesus by going to church. We can only know Jesus by committing ourselves to active discipleship and following himon the way of the cross, which is ultimately the way of resurrection.
William O'Brien worked with Project H.O.M.E., a program to provide housing and services for homeless and poor persons in Philadelphia, was a contributing editor to The Other Side magazine, and was a coordinator of the Alternative Seminary, a grassroots program of theological and biblical study, when this article appeared.