What do you notice when you read the last chapter of Mark’s Gospel closely: Surprises from the last chapters of Mark’s Gospel — parenthetical asides, streaking in the Garden of Gethsemane, and women preaching!
Let the Reader Understand
The Rev. J. Carl Gregg
21 November 2010
Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland
Last week, the final episode in our scripture reading from Mark chapter 12 was the story of the widow’s offering in which Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” This morning, as we attempt to swallow the final chapters of Mark in one big gulp, this story of the widow who, even from her poverty gave everything she had, could be seen as the story of Jesus’ final week — the story of the last few chapters of Mark — in miniature.
Jesus was a Jewish peasant, born in a time when the Roman Empire occupied and controlled the Jewish homeland. He was essentially penniless and homeless. He had only his reliance on the hospitality of others and his relentless passion for God’s way of love and justice. Seeing the corruption in the first-century religious establishment, he sought to disrupt the operation of the Temple — that sacred space intended to be a “house of prayer for all nations,” a holy place worthy of sacrifices like that made by the widow who put her last coins in the treasury — a sacred space that had devolved into, for the most part, a “house of thieves.” So Jesus risked his own body — overturning tables and chairs — to disrupt, if only partially and briefly, the corruption that had become business as usual at the intersection of selfishness and greed that so often corresponds with the intersection of religion and politics.
In our own time, Jesus’ willingness to risk even his own life to expose injustice inspired Civil Rights activists to nonviolently face dogs and water hoses. Similarly, Jesus example inspired the Civil Disobedience of Gandhi’s many nonviolent campaigns to attain greater freedom and equality in India. Most recently on the world stage, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Laureate has been released from house arrest in Burma, where she has famously lead the resistance to the military junta that tightly controls the country also known as Myanmar.
From MLK to Gandhi to Aung San Suu Kyi, each of thee individuals and movements throughout history that have sought greater compassion and justice through nonviolent social change can give us different insights into the events from the final week of Jesus’ life and the last chapters of Mark’s Gospel — as well as challenge us in how we demonstrate compassion, love, and justice in our own lives.
Because we have so much material to cover, I will only be able to highlight a few points, but I hope that these few examples empower and inspire you to read and study further on your own. I would like for us to begin with the passage that inspired the title for this sermon, “Let the Reader Understand.” In 13:14, Mark makes a curious parenthetical reference: “But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.” I am fascinated that Mark did not place his hopes in his audience reading between the lines. He explicitly wrote in a parenthetical reference of “(let the reader understand)” into the text as basically a giant, flashing neon sign says, “READ BETWEEN THE LINES!” Almost certainly, Mark meant, “I’m saying something about the unjust Roman occupation of the Jewish homeland here.” When he says, “let the reader understand,” he means, “I can’t risk being any more explicit.” He knows that he is writing about how the good news of God sometimes is in conflict with what Caesar claims is good news. Mark knows that he is writing about Jesus in a way that came to inspire activists like MLK, Gandhi, and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Verses like these remind me of why I never tire of studying and teaching the Bible. As in the quote from Desmond Tutu that I shared with you a few weeks ago, “There’s nothing more radical, nothing more revolutionary, nothing more subversive against injustice and oppression than the Bible. If you want to keep people subjugated, the last thing you place in their hands is a Bible.”
Or as an article I read this past week said: we should approach scripture using the “Forrest Gump Principle…. The Bible is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
In other words, when you actually slow down and read the Bible carefully for yourself, you will almost always be surprised by what you find.
When I find weird passages like a parenthetical reference from Mark to “let the reader understand,” I sometimes pull out my King James Bible and look up the verse. And my reaction is always the same: “Son of gun! That verse has been in there all along.” In this case the verse reads, “(let him that readeth understand.)” Of course, you could go back to the Greek manuscripts as well, but seeing odd, under-appreciated, challenging verses in King James English is somehow more satisfying to me. So, in the spirit of Forrest Gump — and to make sure we get out of this room before mid-afternoon — I would like to take us to continue to the next stop on our brief tour of Mark’s final chapters.
We’ve already considered a chocolate from chapter 13 in the form of the parenthetical reference, “(let the reader understand).” So, moving on to chapter 14, I am surprised every time when I read Mark 14:52: “he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” Incidentally, that verse is in the King James Version too: “And he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked.” Somehow this passage has been left out of our Holy Week liturgies and Passion Plays — perhaps because the verse calls up images of Will Ferrell in the film Old School, screaming, “I’m going streaking!”
But New Testament scholar Ched Myers points out that the words Mark uses here for “young man” and “linen cloth” occur in only two places: (1) here at the end of Mark chapter 14 as this “young man” drops his “linen cloth” and flees naked and (2) at the very end of Mark’s Gospel when another “young man” appears wrapped in a “linen cloth” sitting inside Jesus’ tomb, proclaiming the good news of the Resurrection. So, just as the parenthetical comment to “(let the reader understand)” was Mark’s strong encouragement to read between the lines, so too this seemingly random episode of streaking in the Garden of Gethsemane is actually symbolic of the male disciples who will soon flee, just as the presence of the second young man represents the life, hope, and reunion on the other side of death, despair, and betrayal. Adding a further twist into the mix, Mark’s decision to include this symbolic story of the young man feeling naked from the Garden of Gethsemane was likely influenced by a verse from Amos 2:16, which reads, “and those who are stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day, says the Lord.”
In contrast, we see a completely different picture with the women in the Gospel. Instead of fleeing like the men, the woman stand vigil at the cross, then return early to be the first to hear and preach the good news of the Resurrection. We had a good opportunity to reflect on the women’s example of faithful discipleship yesterday as we discussed Cynthia Bourgeault’s new book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity. And many scholars would argue that the most important overall theme of Mark is discipleship insofar as the Gospel of Mark is essentially a “blueprint for discipleship.” We begin with Jesus’ baptism and end with the telling of his Resurrection, all as a means of calling we, the readers, to live a life inspired by Jesus’ life.
The faithfulness of the women who did not flee, but stood vigil at Jesus’ cross and grave, raise the issue of the surprise ending of Mark’s Gospel. Modern translations of Mark that represent the best of contemporary scholar end at Mark 16:8. The young man in the white linen robe tells the women (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome) about the Resurrection. He then commissions them to preach the good news to the male disciples. Next comes the surprise ending: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Of course, if you pull out your King James Bible at this point, you will see that the KJV does not end with Mark 16:8 but continues on for another twelve verses, ending with Mark 16:20. And verses 9-20 include some exciting details such as multiple Resurrection appearances by Jesus, predictions about snake handling and not being hurt, and Jesus’ Ascension. Moreover this longer version of Mark concludes on a much less surprising note: “And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.” What a contrast to the darker, surprising, and ambiguous ending of Mark 16:8, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars agree that our earliest and best Greek manuscripts — many of which have been recovered or better understand in the 400 years since the publication of the King James Bible — clearly indicate that Mark 16:8 is in all likelihood the best guess we have as to the original ending of Mark’s Gospel, and that the final twelve verses were added later by scribes uncomfortable with Mark’s the original, more daring ending. And you’ll notice that many modern versions that include the longer ending of Mark will separate these verses from the rest of the text with spaces or brackets to indicate their status as a later addition to the text.
All that being said, a good case can be made that the Mark’s original audience would have found his original ending empowering. Remember that Mark is a wartime Gospel, written in the midst of the Roman-Jewish War, which would climax with the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple. Mark’s original audience would have likely readily identified with this original, shorter ending because they too likely would have felt “terror and amazement seize them” as they considered a potential call to discipleship in the midst of Roman aggression against Jewish freedom fighters.
Also, an argument can be made that the Greek here implies the word “else”: not that the women “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” but that the women “said nothing to anyone (else), for they were afraid” — that is, the women only told the male disciples, and didn’t go public with the news. For a similar example, at the end of Mark chapter 1, Jesus heals the leper, then tells him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” Again, the same syntax can be understand as implying the word “else.” When Jesus says, “See that you say nothing to anyone,” you can see from the context that he means, “See that you say nothing to anyone (else), except for the priest.”
Feminists scholars have made the further argument that Mark’s original ending is decisive proof of women’s central leadership role in the wake of Jesus’ death. In other words, the tradition that the women in Jesus’ inner circle were the first to experience and proclaim the experience of the Resurrection was so strong and well known that Mark had to include the women’s role in his Gospel. But as women’s leadership roles in Christianity were increasingly marginalized, you see efforts like the qualification that the women only preached the Gospel once, to the male disciples, in private, and behind closed doors — implying that the men took over preaching in public from there.
Here, as in other places, you can see outlines of the power struggles in early Christianity that were there from the beginning between the female leadership of Mary, the spiritual leadership of John, the more Jewish leadership of Peter, the Jerusalem-based leadership of James, and the Gentile-oriented leadership of Paul.
I don’t wish to belabor this point about the diversity of leadership of early Christianity, but looking at the testimony to women’s leadership here at the end of Mark, our earliest canonical Gospel, and considering the ways in which Christianity tragically contributed to the oppression of women throughout the ages, I cannot help but think back to the first chapter of Mark, verse 30, where we read of Jesus healing “Simon’s mother-in-law.” Simon, of course, is Peter, traditionally credited as the first pope; and to have a mother-in-law you have to be married. So, in my understanding, both Mark 1 and Mark 16 are two of many different places that clearly expose the fallacy that Christian leadership was meant to be for “celibates only” or for “men only”.
To lay aside, for now, the history of women’s inclusion and exclusion, and to move toward this sermon’s conclusion, it seems to me appropriate on this culminating Sunday of our chapter-by-chapter study of Mark’s whole Gospel that we took the time to listen to the final three chapters of Mark being performed as a monologue. Remember that when Mark was writing, there were no Gospel of Matthew, Luke, or John. There were likely lists of Jesus’ sayings in circulation, but there was to our knowledge no full-fledged narrative of Jesus’ public ministry. And since most of Mark’s audience — and for that matter most of the world’s population — would have been illiterate, they would likely have heard Mark’s Gospel read publicly and at length similar to how we heard the Gospel proclaimed this morning. If you look at the DVD case of the performance we heard a section of, you will see that you can easily read the Gospel of Mark aloud in only 90 minutes.
So, when the surprise ending of Mark 16:8 was reached, some of the audience — especially as they came to hear Mark’s Gospel read more than once — would have likely have begun to see the ways that the ending of Mark’s Gospel points us in a circular direction back to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. In Mark 16:7, when the young man in the linen cloth says that Jesus “going ahead of you to Galilee,” these words recall the opening words of verse 2 of Mark’s Gospel where we read from the scroll of Isaiah about John the Baptist that “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.” So, the Resurrected Jesus is the new John, who is going ahead of the disciples to Galilee, where the first disciples were called to follow Jesus.
Our “Galilee” is Southern Maryland. And as this sermon draws to a close and we prepare to enter into a minute of silent reflection, I invite you to reflect on the invitation that was the same to those first audiences of Mark’s Gospel as it is to us today: how are we being called to live and proclaim in this time and place the good news of God that was lived and proclaimed in the life of Jesus?
1 For more history and context on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, visit http://www.nytimes.com/info/daw-aung-san-suu-kyi.
2 For the source of the Tutu quote, see Jennifer Riley, “Nothing More Radical Than Bible in Injustice Fight” in The Christian Post (September 8, 2008). Available at http://www.christianpost.com/article/20080908/nothing-more-radical-than-bible-in-injustice-fight-says-tutu/.
3 Bruce G. Epperly, “The Forrest Gump Principle,” Patheos 2010.
4 Another famously unusual ending of a biblical book is Jonah, which concludes with the odd question, “also many animals?” Seriously: look it up.
5 For an extended discussion of the textual issues related to the shorter ending of Mark, see New Testament scholar Larry Huratodo’s essay “The Women, the Tomb and the Ending of Mark,” which includes footnoted references to similar scholarship. Available free online in an archive of many of his published essays at http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/essays-etc/.
6 Both Luke 4:38-39 and Matt 8:14-15 provide parallel references that Simon Peter had a “mother-in-law,” and, hence, was married.