Dr IAN ELMER…
Some years ago, an old priest stood in the pulpit and informed his congregation that the homily next week would be on the subject of dishonesty and, by way of preparation, he asked his community to read Chapter 17 of Mark's Gospel. When the following Sunday arrived and the priest was again in his pulpit to begin his homily on dishonesty, he asked for a "show of hands" from those who had read Mark 17. When many in the congregation raised their hands confidently, the old priest fixed them with a wily glare and pounced: "Now you are the very people I want to speak to, for there are only 16 chapters in Mark's Gospel!".
Mark's Gospel is a short and pithy story that traces the ministry of Jesus as a journey narrative that proceeds with breakneck speed, beginning with Jesus' baptism by John in the Jordan and culminating in Jesus' death on a cross outside Jerusalem. A brief, enigmatic epilogue describes the women finding of Jesus tomb empty (Mk 16:1-8); but, unlike the other three Gospels, does not contain any stories of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances.
Scholars now believe that, contrary to the canonical order of the New Testament, Mark's Gospel was the first attempt to compose a full-length, narrative treatment of Jesus' life. It is generally assumed that the author was dependent upon pre-existing traditions, some of which were probably already gathered into collections of parables (e.g., Mk 4:1-34), miracle stories (e.g., 4:35-5:43; 7:24-37), apocalyptic sayings (e.g., Mk 13:1-37), and controversy accounts (e.g., Mk 2:9-3:39). As well as these, Mark seems to have had access to a passion narrative (Mk 14:1-15:47), which included other significant fragments of tradition, such as accounts of the Lord's Supper (Mk 14:22-26) and the empty tomb (Mk 16:1-8). Nevertheless, the structure of Mark's Gospel was probably entirely innovative, which raises some fascinating questions about the effectiveness of Mark as a story or, as I will argue here, as a myth.
Mark: The Storyteller…
Two decades ago, a small commentary on Mark's Gospel with the title Mark as Story helped revolutionise our perspective on the first Evangelist. The book has recently been expanded and reissued as Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (1999). This fairly brief book supplies a fresh and challenging appreciation of the Evangelist's talent as a story teller, which provided a healthy counter to the current preoccupation with the underlying traditions and the historicity of Mark. Instead of treating Mark's Gospel as a loose repository of pre-existing materials, the authors encouraged readers to respect the integrity of Mark and attend to the mythic quality of this Gospel.
The authors of Mark as Story tried to impress upon the reader the importance of understanding Mark on its own terms as a narrative. They suggested four strategies for achieving this outcome. First, one must read Mark as a story rather than history. Second, one should read Mark independently from the other Gospels. Third, it is important that one avoid reading modern cultural assumptions into the story. And, finally, one should steer clear of reading modern theologies about Jesus back into Mark's story.
By adopting this approach we discover that as "we enter the story of the Gospel of Mark, we enter a world of conflict and suspense, a world of surprising reversals and strange ironies, a world of riddle and hidden meanings, a world of subversive actions and political intrigues. And the protagonist — Jesus — is most surprising of all". (Rhoads, Michie & Dewey, 1999: 1)
Mark's Jesus is a figure of dispute and division. The entire Markan drama is driven by the motif of conflict — Jesus is found in opposition to a whole range of stakeholders in first-century Judean society (the Jewish and Roman civil authorities, Jewish religious authorities, Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, the Jewish "crowd", and even his own family and disciples).
At its heart, the source of this conflict is Jesus' repeated critique of the abusive use of power. And it is this critique of abusive power that eventually ends in Jesus' arrest and execution as a criminal of the State. But the "secret" that is revealed in Mark is that Jesus is both the Messiah and the suffering Son of God (Mk 1:1; cf. 8:28-33) who dies as an "innocent victim" (Mk 15:39) to redeem all the innocents who suffer at the hands of power brokers who misuse their power and position. Jesus is the original "action hero" whose life death and resurrection hold out hope for a better world.
Speaking of Jesus as the "original 'action hero'" suggests that Mark is a myth-maker. Indeed, his entire story appears to be structured along the same lines as a Greco-Roman Hero myth (Mack, 1988; 1995). Mark has certainly used reliable traditions, but he has also augmented and edited those traditions according to his community's need for a heroic model.
The Myth of the Hero…
Heroes take journeys, battle dragons, rescue damsels in distress, conquer prejudice and fear, transcend their limitations and, ultimately, discover truths about themselves they never knew (Pearson, 1989). On another level, the stories and myths of the heroes reveal fundamental truths and insights about human nature, often through the use of "archetypal" figures and events. Hero stories express the viewpoints and beliefs of the country, time period, culture, and/or religion which gave birth to them.
In oral cultures, the learning and performance of epic poems about heroes frequently formed an integral part of the education of the poet and, by extension, the audience. A society's heroes provide models for morality, ethics, prayer, and spirituality. The hero is a template for living a fully human life within the acceptable bounds of the society or faith that created the particular hero story.
By way of example, we might remember that last week we spoke about the T.V. series Star Trek which, born at the height of the Cold War, fostered a very American view of a utopian society that struggled to champion democracy and altruism in a galaxy populated by totalitarian alien regimes. On a deeper level, the crew of the star ship Enterprise modeled the trials and triumphs of a fully-functioning human "person" who has learnt to redeem and make use of all aspects of his or her personality.
At this deeper level, the Hero story is more than simply the "tale of the tribe"; the Hero is the model for those who seek to find their true self in "authentic" and/or mature (adult) behaviour. The Hero's story is always told as a journey or quest for independence (maturity), individuality, meaning, truth, a beautiful princess, a premiership trophy, or whatever is considered "ultimate" in one's life (that which provides meaning and purpose to life). Consequently, Hero stories usually follow a common pattern, which we call the "Hero-cycle structure", or "The Quest".
The Quest commonly presents as a five act play or process (Pearson, 1989: 13-16):
This pattern is repeated over and over in all the great enduring myths. Take for instance, the Arthurian legends or Tolkien's Lord of Rings, both of which involve quests resulting in the restoration of a king to his rightful throne. And, again, we might single out the second, third and fourth Star Trek movies — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982); Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984); and Star Trek IV: The Journey Home (1986) — which, together form a trilogy detailing Kirk's cosmic battle with the genetically enhanced Khan, the death of Spock, the loss of the Enterprise, Spock's resurrection, the rebuilding of the Enterprise and Kirk's reinstatement as Captain. Mark's Gospel also fits this pattern.
Jesus: The Hero…
Scholars have often remarked upon the fact that it is difficult to discern a clear structure in Mark's Gospel. The first Evangelist was once considered merely a "stringer of pearls" (Rhoads, Michie & Dewey, 1999). Roughly speaking, the Gospel of Mark falls into two distinct halves: (a) Jesus' journeys around and ministry in Galilee (1:1-8:21); (b) Jesus' journey to and ministry in Judea (8:22-16:8). Some scholars have argued that this might be further delineated as being shaped according to a "chiastic" (from Greek letter X [chi]) structure, where the story folds around a central, pivotal, climatic event, and each section mirrors and revisits an earlier one (A-B-C-B-A):
A. Prologue — Preparation for ministry (Mk 1:1-13)
I think this is fundamentally correct; but, perhaps, a much more relevant approach is to view the story as modeled on that of a five-act hero myth:
The story of Jesus in Mark is almost fairy-tale like. Jesus is larger than life, and his heroic deeds challenge the reader to transcend the limitations of his or her own life. As Rhoads, Michie and Dewey (1999) point out:
"The Gospel of Mark deals with great issues — life and death, good and evil, God and Satan, triumph and failure, human morality and human destiny. It is not a simple story in which virtue easily triumphs over vice, nor is it a collection of moral instructions for life. The narrative offers not simple answers but tough challenges fraught with irony and paradox: to be most important, one must be least; nothing is hidden except to become known; those who want to save their lives must lose them". (1)
The message of Mark is that the true rebel and revolutionary is the one who can challenge injustice, champion the marginalised, be a voice for the voiceless and critique society without resorting to violence. For Mark's Jesus this is the "way of the warrior". It may lead to death or simply ostracism and conflict; but that suffering is the lot of any rebel who pursues a just cause. The Markan Jesus is the original "action hero"; but no mere human hero. Mark's Jesus is THE divine agent of a new world order. Jesus' life, death and resurrection is a call to heroic "metanoia" and repentance in the service of the coming "kingdom".
Those wonderful Kingdom parables in Mark 4 are freighted with all the dual mystery of Jesus' notions of a "present yet still-to-come" Kingdom. The Kingdom is like a "weed" (mustard bush or we might say bougainvillea vine) that grows in secret, can't be contained now, and will take over the whole field. It is subversive, dangerous, and unstoppable. Moreover, there is a sense in which the kingdom is already present in and through the ministry of Jesus.
This is also well reflected in Luke's passion narrative where the "metanoia" of the good thief leads to his immediate passage into the Kingdom, despite the fact that its fulfilment still lay in the future. Luke's idea was that, even though the parousia is delayed, we can still work for the Kingdom and thereby share already in the benefits of living now in God's reign. The life, death and resurrection of Christ is not simply limited by time and space. It continues as a powerful and effective means of attaining the kingdom today; even though, in Luke's vision, it is a "kingdom within" rather than a future political reality.
The Eucharist (established by Jesus before his death) shares something of this tension of the "now and future" kingdom; it anticipates and yet makes present now the eschatological banquet that we will share in the coming Kingdom. It is an experience of what Jacques Maritain called the "isness of the shall be". We who gather round that Eucharistic table to make Jesus present to the world as Church, but the Church gathered at the table anticipates and in a very real sense makes present the future Kingdom when we all commune directly with God. Herein lies another important distinction concerning the "image" of Jesus — and that is the significance of the resurrection. Like the Eucharist, Jesus' resurrection is a foretaste of the future Kingdom when we all will be raised.
On this understanding, the story of Jesus' heroic journey to death (and, by extension, ours) is not the end but a passage from one form of living in the Kingdom to another. Our life option — to live for the Kingdom — is eternalised. And our bodies are resurrected, reconstituted from the dust, and reanimated by God's breath. This is the central message of Christianity and the Eucharist is the foretaste and the guarantee of that future reign of God in which we who are already citizens will share. Hence, the Council fathers rightly called the Eucharist the "source and the summit" of the Christian life.
It is this hope that sustained those "who went before us marked with sign of faith", and which we also share, thanks to the fact that Jesus was no simple sage or social reformer, but a larger-than-life hero whose story offers us "the way, the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6).
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2007 Ian Elmer