This year we are reading the Gospel of Mark each Sunday. We will break for Lent and the Easter season and then return. At the start of the year, and as we being on the journey of reading Mark, it may be good to reflect on exactly what a Gospel is and is not. The Gospel is not a biographical life of Jesus. It is not an eyewitness account of the events of the first century – in that sense it is not an historical account. The Gospel is a testimony to faith. It is a reflection on the meaning of the life of Jesus Christ – his life, death and resurrection. For this reason we have four canonical gospels. Not because people remember things in different ways, but because there are different interpretations on the meaning of the Jesus Christ event. In the Canon of Scripture, Matthew comes first – Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. However, scholarship now tells us that in fact Mark is the oldest of the Gospels. It is also the shortest with 16 chapters, (compared with Matthew’s 28). All the Gospels are set in Palestine, principally in Galilee, Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, but they were not all composed there, and the audience reading them may not have been immediately familiar with Palestine. It is believed that Mark may have been written for a group of Christians in Rome in the late first century, during a time when the Emperor – perhaps Nero – was persecuting Christians, who had to live in secret for fear of being attacked. Perhaps that is why Mark’s Gospel is full of cautions about telling anybody about what Jesus had done and said.
So with that background we get the first two chapters of Mark. Last week, and this week, in the Gospel we see Mark present Jesus as the authoritative teacher who heals the sick, casts out devils and astonishes his onlookers with authoritative teaching and powerful works. What is Mark up to? He wants to present Jesus as the one inaugurating a new regime. We have to remember, for example, that the world of the first century was viewed very differently to the way we view the world. The world was occupied by human beings, yes, but also by spirits and unseen powers who lived among human beings. We are not dealing with a modern consciousness and world view as we know it today. We need to understand that the world was also divided into what was holy and unholy, clean and unclean. Mark presents Jesus as breaking down the boundaries between what is holy and unholy. He touches the unclean. The sick flock to him. This is unprecedented and dangerous – the sick and the outcast should be kept separate as they can contaminate. Instead they are drawn into the centre of his proclamation of a new reign. And in a number of dramatic exorcisms it is the unseen powers who recognise him – I know who you are, the Holy One of God – and not the ordinary followers and folk.
The first two chapters of Mark are full of energy and passion. Jesus of Nazareth has come to inaugurate a new regime, a new creation, if you like. The unseen powers recognise him, the ordinary people do not. He will be misunderstood and by chapter three in Mark’s Gospel, the Pharisees are already trying to plot to kill him – which is why Mark has often been called a passion narrative with an introduction.
Today’s text is part of Chapter 1. Jesus is healing, having the sick brought to him, casting out devils – those unseen elements who seem to know who he is. In this text Jesus destroys the boundaries between those who are in and those who are out. He calls all to himself. For what? The answer perhaps lies in the curing of Peter’s mother-in-law. She is cured, and immediately gets up and waits on them. In other words, she is cured to be of service. This is not about mothers-in-law, it is about all of us. Those who are drawn to the teaching of Christ, healed of our inner fears and struggles, are called to join a community of service. It will take the followers of Christ a long time to discover that. Perhaps that is why Fr Frank Moloney will call this Gospel one of ‘the ever failing disciples and the ever faithful Jesus’.
Mark is a wonderful Gospel of a call to discipleship in hard times. It assures us that, despite our failings and misunderstandings, the Lord Jesus stands as the ever faithful Son of God who will never give up in drawing a people to himself. Those who finally understand this will also do wonderful things in his name.
By Fr Brendan Reed
Published: 2 February 2024