Church of England Diocese of Southwell & Nottingham Ordsall and Retford Saint Michael

Homily for Sunday 7th March 2021 -Third Sunday of Lent

A Handle on Mark’s Gospel -Tim Pownall-Jones, Healthcare Chaplain


Jesus’ violence in the temple enacts political passion. Verses 13 to 22 of the second chapter of John come close to showing the raw Jesus under political pressure that we find in Mark.

Mark’s gospel is the featured gospel in this year’s church calendar. It deserves more attention than the lectionary allows. Keeping in mind that French structuralism and German dialecticism have more in common than either nation cares to admit, we benefit from understanding the structure and dialectic (play of contradictions) of this gospel without being restricted by any "-ism", any single way of thinking. While the mind cannot function without subscribing to at least one of the stories that we tell ourselves, critiquing these ideologies is helped by asking questions of Mark’s gospel and drawing out its ideological tensions. The energy that is stored in tension can be regulated though repetition. Brushing one’s teeth every day is a repetition. Brushing one’s teeth every hour is a neurotic repetition. Neurotic repetition can be motivated by a desire ("What might happen this time?") that is stimulated by mystery ("What am I not understanding?") and made to seem normal by habit ("Not repeating might be worse") but without helping us to learn anything new (see below). A new type of book about a mysterious person who tells secrets and then disappears is promising source material for repetitive behaviour that becomes institutionalised. Likewise, our minds are regulated by calendars and lectionaries. Just as a 2D map misrepresents a 3D surface, every text makes compromises, but these are less noticeable when a text is dismembered by a lectionary. In particular, how to represent history is perhaps the trickiest problem in literature, not least because telling a story sounds simple.

Sandwiching a story within another story is a favourite technique of Mark’s. He uses it to imply that the intertwined stories have connections that would not be noticed if they were told separately. For example, Jesus sends the twelve on a mission to rid people of unclean spirits (6:12), then the beheading of John is told in flashback, and then the twelve return. This proximity is Mark’s way of showing the deadly effect of unclean spirits (of the abusive royal family, for instance) and the need for the mission in the first place. It also foreshadows the crucifixion of Jesus by describing the death of his predecessor in an unusual amount of detail, matched only by the detailed description of the crucifixion of Jesus. Mark’s gospel is itself a sandwich filling, a story inserted between the events of Jesus’ life and the events of its readers’ lives. This is signalled by the little apocalypse ("the Johannine thunderbolt") of Mark 13, a chapter that models the whole gospel by rooting it in a turning point of history. All of the narrative before it has an organisation that is obscure. After it comes the well-formed passion story.

No account of the resurrection by Mark survives. Tom Wright, a former Bishop of Durham, believes that one was written but soon lost. A short account was added. An alternative, longer account was added to other manuscripts and continues to inspire snake-handling cults in the Appalachians because of its portrayal of resurrection power manifested in believers.

Mark is fond of ambiguity which tends to be ironed out by English translators. Not content with Mark’s shadowy text, Matthew and especially Luke prefer to move their texts a little closer towards being self-explanatory and to soften any threat to piety. Mark’s report about Jesus, "he could do no mighty work", becomes in Matthew, "he did not do many mighty works". The most important underlying themes in Mark’s gospel will now be described.

In the story of the Gerasene demoniac (5:1-10) we hear the possessed man say, "We are legion". The demons are, by their own admission, to be identified allegorically as the Roman army of occupation. So the demoniac may be identified as the land and people under occupation - which is why the demons urge Jesus the exorcist "not to send them out of the land" (5:10). If the episode is to be given anti-imperial significance, there is no reason not to give similar significance to every episode of exorcism in this most exorcistic of gospels.

Allegory once unleashed, cannot easily be contained - rather like the demoniac himself, who is therefore an allegory of allegorical interpretation. With that health warning, some details of the story invite further interpretation. In any case, a clue that this story is operating on a non-literal level is the word translated as "herd". Pigs are not animals that can be herded. They have to be penned in or left free to roam. "Herd" was used to mean a group of soldiers.

The location, Gerasa, means "drive out". This is taken to mean "the land of the exorcists" or, more aptly, "the land in need of exorcists". The place described by Mark is more likely to be Gadara than Gerasa, which is 37 miles from any lake, so this episode is often called the Gadarene swine, following Matthew’s account of two demoniacs at Gadara, a few miles from the "Sea" of Galilee.

The demoniac is howling and bruising himself with stones. He personifies the nation objecting to Roman rule and injuring itself through armed rebellion which will prompt the Romans to destroy the temple. The swine represent the Romans driven back to the sea. Only bad things come from the sea in Jewish tradition. Cleansing the land of unclean occupants is a theme rooted in the story of Israel’s origins. However, in the Israelite conquest narratives the invaders do the cleansing, but now the invaders themselves are to be swept into the sea. Genocide and nationalism can be equally fastidious and mutually supportive.

If anyone is hated more than the Romans, it is those who collaborate with them. The first step in ridding the land of gentiles is to rid it of the local elites. Mark’s Jesus will go to Jerusalem to destroy symbolically the temple, its economy, and its elites: "He entered the temple and began to drive out" - there’s that word again - "those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple" (11:15). This is another exorcism, but one whose political implications are clearer. That is why Jesus is given the penalty used for terrorists or those thought to associate with terrorists: crucifixion. It is the prospect of this unclean death which Peter protests, earning Jesus’ rebuke in 8:33.

Both the Gerasene demoniac and the cleansing of the temple are predictions that the Promised Land will be cleansed by its owner: God. This is a rebuke to the zealots who think that they can expel the Romans through terrorism - that will only hurt themselves and their nation (represented as the demoniac bruising himself). Just as the demoniac cannot cleanse himself so Judea cannot cleanse itself.

Notice that the temple cleansing interrupts the two-part anecdote of Jesus cursing an unproductive fig tree. This is an important example of Mark’s sandwich technique: splitting one story with a related story. The destruction of the unproductive fig tree represents the destruction of the temple that is not fit for purpose. Mark is signalling the conviction that the destruction of the temple in 70 CE is an act of divine retribution on the collaborators. Soon after this sandwich is the parable of the vineyard which answers the question, "‘then what will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants...’ [The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders] realised that he had told this parable against them" (12:9,12).

The temple’s destruction is the prelude to Jesus’ return, according to the ensuing apocalyptic section (13:1-37). This return will amount to the unceremonious ending of the Roman Empire and of every other human kingdom.

The book of Revelation shares with Mark a preoccupation with persecution and agrees with Mark’s solution to that problem: "the one who endures to the end will be saved" (Mk 13:13). However, when Mark’s Jesus will return "in the clouds with great power and glory" (13:26), his behaviour and demeanour will be different from the Jesus of the book of Revelation who will ride at the head of the armies of heaven, to judge and make war, to strike down the nations, resulting in a mountain of rotting human flesh on which all the birds will be invited to gorge (Rev 19:11-21).

In Mark, by contrast, we are told only that Jesus "will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven" (Mk 13:27). Mark imagines Jesus’ return as a search-and-rescue mission, not as a punitive strike as in Revelation. Nowhere in Mark are Roman officials or their collaborators threatened with punishment after Jesus’ return. Whereas in Revelation, Rome’s imminent destruction is unmistakeable, in Mark the only people threatened with hell are Jesus’ followers (8:38; 9:42-49). Mark’s little apocalypse in chapter 13 predicts not the destruction of Rome but the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome.

Mark’s anti-imperialism extends only to local collaborators. He interprets the destruction of the temple as divine punishment for the local elite’s exploitation of the common people and for the rejection of the Messiah from the backwater of Galilee (12:7-12). Rome in Mark is merely God’s instrument, not the opponent of God that Revelation declares.

Mark is fooled by the divide-and-rule strategy that Rome uses in all its provinces, whereby local administrators are given authority. This allows popular resentments to be deflected on to the local officials while the greater authority could remain remote, unseen, and above the battle, at least until the Jewish revolts and their suppression require the greater authority to relinquish temporarily its godlike remoteness in order to intervene in the corrupt affairs of its creatures.

Although Mark lacks the hostile attitude of Revelation towards Rome, he also lacks the relaxed posture of Paul in Romans 13:1-7 ("Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement..."). A similar quietism is found in 1 Peter 2:13-17 ("For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and praise those who do right...").

For Mark, every authority, religious or political, is a potential persecutor. Jesus repeatedly urges his followers not to aspire to authority, glory, power or wealth, but to adopt the marginal status of a child, a servant, or a slave. Mark repeatedly undermines the authority of "the twelve" because they are significant figures of authority by the time this gospel is written around 70 CE, and all authority is dangerous in Mark’s eyes unless it is the authority of the one who merited a gospel (a genre invented by Mark) in the first place.

So, what is Mark’s message? Social status, epitomised by wealth, poses an insurmountable stumbling block to membership of the kingdom of God, which means that those who benefit most from the status quo are least eligible for admittance to God’s kingdom. The closest that Mark gets to the radicalism of the book of Revelation is the anecdote about the widow’s two coins (12:41-44). Preachers have typically applauded her donation "out of her poverty" of "everything she had, all she had to live on" as exemplary. In fact Jesus does not celebrate her generosity but condemns a religious system that encourages the poor to give beyond their means. This is why he immediately goes on to earmark the temple for destruction: "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down" (13:2) That is the sound of righteous indignation. It is anger that prompts Mark to write the first gospel.

We can get further into the mind of Mark by asking with him, "Why did Jesus die?" Scriptural prophecy? This is never pinned down by Mark. Atonement? This is an idea borrowed by Mark to increase his document’s appeal to Paul’s churches in spite of this idea’s tendency to encourage the overly enthusiastic spirituality and elitism that Paul failed to restrain through his Corinthian letters and through 2 Timothy 2:16-18. The motivations of Jesus’ enemies? These are caricatured by Mark to serve his themes of betrayal and incomprehension. All three suggestions cannot hide the fact that Mark is unsure why Jesus’ death was necessary. Mark simply asserts that this was part of God’s plan since it was unthinkable for a Jewish writer not to affirm God’s control of events.

In this regard Mark is comparable to Paul who ends a complex account of salvation history (God’s plan) by admitting bafflement at why God acted in this way:

For God has encouraged all people to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! (Rom 11:32f)

If an ignorance similar to Paul’s is all that Mark finally offers, then what was the point of writing a narrative? Why fashion sayings and events into a coherent sequence if the story that emerges is ultimately inexplicable? Historical context must be borne in mind.

Mark writes soon after or just before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. At this time of turmoil, the churches based on Paul’s preaching had already known instability great enough to prompt Paul to write to them. There were also the communities founded on collections of sayings by Jesus: communities that produced Q (the collection of sayings found only in Matthew and Luke) and eventually produced "the gospel according to Thomas". The earliest fragments of Thomas that survive had already been reshaped by the Gnostics (the Platonist philosophers who foreshadowed today’s New Age practitioners). These sayings communities were not stable enough to resist change. Faced with so much instability, Mark sought firmer ground on which Christians could stand.

A tried-and-tested mechanism for achieving group solidarity is to present that group with a clear enemy. In the face of a threat, people tend to forget their differences and unite against the enemy. Paul’s frequent calls for Christian unity would have been effective if he had pointed to some villain. Yet pointing to the Romans would have been dangerous and his continued hope that Jews would accept Jesus prevented him from blaming them (Rom 9-11). As for Q (named after Quelle, the German word for "source"), this collection of sayings had a deuteronomistic-prophetic outlook. According to this view, God sends prophets to the Jews who then reject and kill them. By linking itself to the prophets, the Q community could express hostility to those who stubbornly refused to join it. Nevertheless, villains are never shown acting out their treachery in the Q sayings. It is one thing to encounter sayings in which Jesus rails against this generation for its unresponsiveness, or against the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. It is quite another to encounter a vivid narrative playing out the Pharisees’ and priests’ success in having Jesus crucified. If Jewish persecution of Christians (2 Cor 11:24; Gal 1:13) continued into Mark’s time, a written drama featuring vile behaviour would have assured Christians that they were on the right side. Especially reassuring would have been Mark’s depiction of the crowd, so recently Jesus’ supporters, treacherously demanding his crucifixion (Mk 15:13-15). Here is the value of writing a narrative gospel.

Notwithstanding the language of atonement that Mark uses to extend his readership into Paul’s churches, Mark believes that to be saved one must suffer. This enabled a cult of martyrdom to spread throughout the churches for centuries, which bishops struggled to contain. Moreover, Mark’s cartoonish villains serve as a pretext for anti-Semitism that is replicated in the other gospels.

Thus the content of Mark and the dramatic form in which it is expressed create problems at the same time as they solve the original problem, namely Mark’s anxiety that Christianity might cease without a robust identity maintained through narrative. Yet, ironically, extinction would also be the logical outcome of his martyrological version of Christianity. It is because the other evangelists are fearful of this outcome (a non-future for a Christianity of martyrs) that they then write their alternative versions of Christianity. The most successful of these is Luke whose gentile-friendly gospel presents a blameless Pilate in order to encourage Christians to work for the state. The triumph of this flavour of Christianity is Emperor Constantine’s conversion of the state in the fourth century. This version of Christianity is still going strong in Russia where Constantine is given the status of an apostle, following his decision to give himself this promotion.

Mark repeatedly asserts Jesus’ authority. This has the effect of giving Mark’s gospel authority. Once a text is credited with authority it is read intensely. Once it is read intensely its mysteries become unavoidable. Discrepancies with other such texts become further mysteries. What becomes prized is not a sequence of secrets to be unlocked but secrecy itself. This is nurtured in the liturgy of the Coptic Church, said to have been founded by Mark in Egypt. It is also the way of doing business in the Roman Catholic Church and, to a lesser extent, in other hierarchical churches. The root of mysticism in mystery allows private piety to exist alongside institutional secrecy. Within religious communities, whether Qumranic (Jewish separatists, as described in the Dead Sea scrolls), Christian or gnostic, a text that was given authority before anyone can remember is allowed to retain its mystery without question. Revivals of learning do not destroy secrecy but foster it. Esoteric wisdom flourished in the Renaissance and in the Enlightenment. The belief that a text is an open proclamation coexists with the belief that it safeguards secrets. A telling consequence of the information revolution is that the successor to the KGB has reverted to using manual typewriters in order to strengthen secrecy.

No gospel or church has demonstrated that power can do without secrecy or, to give it its euphemism, privacy. What makes Jesus attractive in Mark’s account is his displays of power. While public in its effect, the source and mechanism of this power remain mysterious. Equally mysterious are this power’s occasional failures. (The first coating of spittle on the blind man’s eyes is insufficient and one time Jesus could do no mighty work.) What is not mysterious but obvious to the characters and to the first readers is that this power is a competitor to the world’s power and therefore resisted more often than not. Since Constantine legalised Christianity, this conflict has not been so obvious to readers.

The most influential book in Markan scholarship is William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret in the Gospels (1901). Its value is not in explaining how Mark’s gospel came to be as it is but in drawing our attention to the text’s dependence on an internal network of silences and proclamations that oppose each other and thereby form a structure: a house of cards. What allows a house of cards to continue standing is not its intrinsic strength but the behaviour of the people around it.

Likewise, what defines a king is not an intrinsic property but the way people around him behave: with devotion (including the devotion of creating a text) and, ultimately, with targeted violence. (Angry Mark presents an unnamed disciple attacking the high priest’s servant in 14:47 with no rebuke from Jesus and no healing of the servant.) Never hesitant about portraying Jesus as angry (although later scribes change this to "compassionate"), Mark seems to respond to the Christians’ fear, in his gospel and in his own era, with the message, "Get angry". A church that is not angry is likely to be underpowered. A state that does not want a powerful church will always find ways to mollify the church’s anger. The resulting collusion makes it difficult to determine who is more responsible for weakening the dangerous memory of a dangerous man: Joshua the king, the eldest child of Miriam (whose namesake sang of the warrior God, "Yahweh"). The translation "Jesus" obscures the memory of the warrior after whom he was named: Joshua. Instead, outside Judea, the names "Jesus Christ" and "Mary" were blank slates on to which every gentile Christian found something more comforting to project. (If you refer to Jesus as Christ then there is room to refer to someone else as king, thereby avoiding political tension, especially if you are unaware of the equivalence of these two words). Mark is partly responsible for this: it is impossible to transliterate the Hebraic form of "Joshua" (Yeshua) directly into his Greek text, so he uses the standard Greek spelling of "Jesus" (Yesous). Like every artist, Mark knows that his creation is flawed in some way but he could not know exactly how this would allow later Christians to collude with state power. As has been documented above, collusion with the state is the most important underlying concern of his gospel. Perhaps the greatest challenge to Mark’s approach would be to describe the state as that which defeats every threat (sometimes through overwhelming force, more usually through co-opting the threat). If the state is the irresistible force, the church has not yet proved that it can be the immoveable object. This issue ensures the lasting relevance of Mark’s gospel.

A forceful personality is eventually forgotten without the abilities of quieter people who try to harness that charisma to a system. Lutheranism owes much to Melanchthon as well as to Luther. Similarly the various Christianities began with Paul, not Jesus. Yet Paul’s creation would not have become so impactful without being combined, in the following generation, with the power of narrative (telling a story about telling stories) packaged by the author of "the gospel according to Mark".

Looking ahead, what stories might be told in the coming years about a reduction in the size of Earth’s human population by around 40%? This will include those who have suffered too much and those who would cause too much suffering. It will not be caused by COVID-19 which will eventually be dealt with. Overall, this is good news leading to more good news. Telling stories will become enriched in ways that will prompt people to adjust the stories that they have been telling themselves. For example, in rethinking interactions between inhabitants of the "kingdom" and inhabitants of the physical world, imagine the public being given access midcentury to a three-screen technology that displays live images of incarnate and discarnate spirits and information about their lives in bodies. This would help to prepare for a reduction in the size of Earth’s human population by around 88% over the next two millennia (mostly through declining fertility) and for the appearance of energy bodies (less prone to suffering than physical bodies and consisting of a thicker energy than the sentient sets of frequencies that are spirits themselves). Unlike a physical body which can be exited only when it breaks down, an energy body can be exited at will. It can also move through matter at will while feeling the texture of each layer. (Animal bodies will die quickly - via mutation of their gut bacteria - as animal spirits, more intelligent than other kinds of spirit when unconstrained by a body, will enjoy a painless role as spirit sentinels; pets will be the last to go.) The official narrative is planned to involve the United States Space Force, an institution created to present one account of how advanced technologies became available. Admitting a truer account would increase the risk of war, civil war and revolution. "When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be afraid" (13:7) since fear fuels wars and other methods by which the size and behaviour of populations have always been controlled. Instead, choose calm by being compassionate towards yourself.

Furthermore, since it is easier to fool some people than to convince them that they have been fooled, considering any story to be more reliable than a story is questionable. The power of critique is the power to explore any questions that you want to ask. Every elite’s greatest fear is when other people realise their own power. A greater problem than viewing people as being like sheep without a shepherd is viewing people as being like sheep. Enforced inequality eventually results in an equal and opposite reaction, such as the upcoming upheaval in China which will make the violence in the temple seem tame. Works of literature cope with the small scale, including actions interpreted as prophetic, but struggle to comprehend the scale of worlds because human brains were not designed to allow a higher rate of data processing. (The idea that human brains use less than half of their capacity is based on inferior scanning technology.) Humans communicating at their speed of thought will become more common. Building on the idea that a picture is worth a thousand words, the impression of multi-sensory communication will add extra dimensions to storytelling, more than Mark’s mention of (not just grass but) green grass. Now imagine, through vivid images, what you might communicate to someone who is an unimaginably long distance away from you.