Thy Kingdom Come, On Earth
For the past year when the Gospel Reading has been our focus in Worship, the Gospel to which we have turned has been that of Mark. Biblical critics regard the Gospel of Mark as a collection of memories of the life of Jesus transmitted by the disciple and then apostle Peter to his scribe while in Rome. Although the book is anonymous it has traditionally been assigned to John Mark, in whose mother’s house at Jerusalem Christians assembled. Mark was a cousin of Barnabas and accompanied he and Paul on a missionary journey. Papias, whose writings date to 135 A.D. described Mark as Peter’s “interpreter,” a view held by other patristic writers.Though it is considered the earliest of the Gospels, what it offers in the way of teaching suggests a quite late date in its circulation. The teachings of the church which preceded it were more eschatological in character. The central affirmation of this faith was the imminent coming of the Reign of God. The message of Jesus simply summed up in the formula “Repent! for the Reign of God is at hand.”
John had proclaimed the same message before Jesus took it up. John was a prophet by intensity of conviction, the prophet of a single oracle, and Jesus, after him, lifted up his voice in the self-same trumpet-call.
The Reign of God announced by John and Jesus implies that a Judgment will be held at the outset. In that we see an unmistakable feature of the prophetic tradition. The general judgment is the preliminary condition and natural introduction of the divine government. The exhortation to repent naturally precedes the announcement of the Kingdom. No doubt, the idea of a judgment of all mankind is, for us, not quite the simple idea that it was for those who first announced it. The earliest teachings of the church were grounded in this eschatological teaching of a coming kingdom.
Mark presents the Christ, the Kingdom and the Good News in quite different light. In the eschatological teaching the epiphany of the Messiah is yet to come; Mark teaches that this epiphany is already effected in and by the earthly life of Jesus; this earthly epiphany, coming to its climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus, is what the new evangelical teaching now offers. It reflects a general move forward by the church in belief. Mark is a manual of Christian initiation.
Unlike Matthew and Luke, who begin their respective gospel with a genealogy and a birth narrative, Mark begins with a few sentences pointing out the prophetic oracles fulfilled in the appearance of John the Baptiser. We first meet Jesus as one among John’s penitents, seeking this baptism. With that experience there comes for Jesus a great sense of commission. The Spirit of God takes possession of him and flings him into the desert for an ordeal of temptation. Jesus doesn’t begin to preach until after John’s arrest. When he does, he calls people to repent and believe the good news and declares that the time has come for the reign of God to begin on earth.
Unlike the reclusive John, who carried on his prophetic ministry in the wilderness, Jesus goes to the villages and cities. He teaches in the synagogue at Capernaum and calls four fishermen to be his companions. He casts out demons and cures the sick. Moving through Galilee, he cures a leper, which embarrassingly increases his fame, and then a paralytic on the Sabbath, which incenses the Pharisees. Their hostility is increased by his calling a tax collector to follow him and by his eating with such people. His disciples disregard the expected fasting; he is indifferent to the refinements of the Law of the Sabbath, and finally on the Sabbath he cures a man whose hand is withered. As a result the Pharisees plot to put him to death. In the face of this peril Jesus retreats with his disciples to the seashore. He seems to adjust his plans to the new situation by calling twelve men to be his associates and by resorting to the use of parables, which partly veil and yet convey his message.
He stills the tempest, casts out demons, raises Jairus’ daughter, and preaches at Nazareth, where, to his surprise, his townspeople refuse of his message. He sends the Twelve out to preach repentance, cast out demons, and cure the sick. He feeds the multitudes (as Elisha had done) and again saves the disciples from storm. The criticism of the scribes and Pharisees about his practice of eating with unwashed hands leads him to denounce their insincerity and sweep away the whole doctrine of clean and unclean foods.
After challenging his enemies in Galilee he retreats to the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon. He wishes no one to know of his presence and returns by a roundabout way to the Sea of Galilee. Again he feeds the crowds, and the Pharisees confront him with a demand for a sign of his authority. He retreats a third time, this time to the villages near Caesarea Philippi. He asks the disciples who people say he is and who they think him to be. Peter says, “You are the Christ.” Jesus warns them not to say this about him to anyone. Increasingly conscious of the peril confronting him, Jesus tells his disciples that he must soon be put to death but, in language evidently taken from Hos. 6:2, declares his faith that even in death God will not forsake him: “He will revive us in two or three days; he will raise us up that we may live before him.”
The transfiguration follows. The great painters of the Renaissance have made us think of the transfiguration as a sort of feat of levitation, but of course it was really a great spiritual experience. The disciples are beginning to think of Jesus as Messiah, which might mean any one of many things. In the transfiguration experience his closest followers learn to think of him along with Moses and Elijah—the great molders of Israel’s religion.
His period of seclusion now being over, Jesus turns sharply on his foes. He sets out for Judea. It is as though he had resolved that, if he must face death in his work, he would not do it obscurely in some corner of Galilee but conspicuously, dramatically, in Jerusalem, and before the Jewish people gathered for its great annual feast. You can’t shake this strange feeling in reading Mark that we are very close to the mind of Jesus; we are nearer to his confidence than anywhere else in the New Testament, yet very little is explicitly said about his hopes and plans.
There is indeed a stern picture of him to which we are unaccustomed as he goes on his way: “As they went on their way up to Jerusalem, Jesus walked ahead of them, and they were in dismay, and those who still followed were afraid.” No longer affable and familiar, he is now remote and absorbed, striding on alone before them, unapproachable and wrapped in his own thoughts. He has never been like this, and the sight fills his disciples with dismay and fear. He breaks his silence only to repeat his dark forebodings of what is to happen in Jerusalem—disgrace and death, though not without resurrection too. Zebedee’s sons are so oblivious to his mood that they actually ask for the leading places in his coming triumph. Jesus has secretly prepared for his triumphal entry, so that he may come into the city not as a warrior Messiah but as a peaceful prophet, such as Zechariah had described. His fame has preceded him, and the pilgrims welcome him with cheers. He enters the city and visits the Temple, as if in preparation for what lies ahead. Then, as it is late, he goes out with the Twelve to lodge in Bethany.
Early the next morning he brings his challenge to the priests and Sadducees. He clears the Temple of buyers and sellers and denounces their abuse of it. The day following the Temple authorities demand that he give an account of himself and tell by what authority he has taken his highhanded action. He fences with them and at the same time answers their question with another about John’s authority, which they are afraid to answer. He tells the story of the Vineyard and the Wicked Tenants, to show what he thought of them. Nothing could be more dramatic than these debates in the Temple courts, with throngs of eager pilgrims hanging on every word. Eight centuries before Amos had challenged the Hebrew priesthood, but now, one greater than Amos was here. His simple Galilean disciples wonder at the Temple’s splendor: “What wonderful stones and buildings!” But to Jesus’ mind they are all simply ripe for overthrow. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be torn down.” The discourse on the fall of the city and the end of the age follows.
Jesus’ preparations for the Passover supper are made with the same secrecy that had marked his arrangements for his triumphal entry. Mark clearly means to convey the sense of apprehension and precaution that colored these anxious days in Jerusalem by telling the story of the man with the pitcher of water. They have been staying outside the city in Bethany, but the Passover must be eaten, at whatever risk, in Jerusalem itself. Even there at the supper, when they are all safely gathered at table, there is foreboding and suspicion; one of the Twelve will betray him. Up to the last night of his life Jesus did not give up hope that he might win his people to his message. Stopping after the supper to pray in the garden on the Mount of Olives, he is arrested by a posse from the high priests, and after a hurried examination is tried before the Roman governor and immediately executed. The story is told with a restraint and simple power that makes it one of the classics of heroic tragedy. The Sabbath ended, three women buy spices to embalm the dead body, and, come morning arrive at the tomb just after the sun has risen. The great stone is rolled to one side, the tomb is empty and a man in white tells the women that Jesus the Nazarene is risen and bids them inform the disciples and Peter to go into Galilee, where they will find him, as he foretold. The frightened women take to flight and “say nothing to any man.” The authentic text of the Gospel ends abruptly at 16:8. The Gospel editor, a simple and well-intentioned man, says no more.
It is reasonable to think that Mark originally may have ended with an account of the reunion of Jesus with the disciples in Galilee. Reassembled as he had ordered they felt his presence once more, heard his voice again, and knew that he had come back to them never to leave. Mark twice promises such a reunion of Jesus with his disciples in Galilee, and that is just what Matthew proceeds to record. Critics suggest that the loss of Mark’s conclusion probably resulted from its being replaced in popular use by the newer Gospel of Matthew. Matthew follows Mark’s language very closely and actually gives us the climax which Mark twice foreshadowed.
Christian antiquity did not greatly prize the Gospel of Mark and it fell into disuse and neglect. Hippolytus described Mark as “stub-fingered”. What he meant was that Mark’s Gospel, compared with Matthew, seemed clumsy and obscure. While we have no difficulty in pointing out the obscurities and mistakes of the gospel and the meagerness of its account of Jesus’ teaching, recognize the historical worth of the gospel, which brings us nearer to the immediate circle of Jesus’ followers than any other record of him. It is as though Mark felt that he was in the presence of something too great for him to master or control, which he must simply record as faithfully as he might. This is why we get in Mark as in no other gospel this vague sense of great things close at hand—conflicts, insights, purposes, decisions. Jesus moves through the narrative with masterful strength, finally facing the nation’s priesthood not with mere words but with bold acts of reformation. this earliest gospel presents Jesus not primarily as a teacher but as a man of action.
Indeed, the Gospel of Mark possesses the quality of action to a higher degree than any of the others. The three retreats of Jesus before his foes and then his turning against them and attacking them in their stronghold gives Mark a dramatic quality peculiarly its own, and its thrilling account of the betrayal, arrest, trial, and death of Jesus makes it the supreme story of martyrdom. Matthew has made so much of Jesus’ teaching that we have almost forgotten this other and very different side. When Jesus saw an evil, he did something about it. From Mark’s perspective, it was this trait of his and not his teaching that cost him his life.
Mark remained the pattern gospel to the end of the gospel-making age, and, informal and un-ambitious as is Mark’s narrative, no more convincing or dramatic account has ever been written of the sublime effort of Jesus to execute the greatest task ever conceived—to set up the Kingdom of God on earth.