Mark’s gospel is about Jesus. That may seem ridiculously obvious, yet his central point is that Jesus is anything except “obvious”.
Jesus is a constant surprise and shock. Jesus confounds expectations and refuses to be domesticated. That was the experience of Jesus’ contemporaries – his disciples, hearers and opponents. This is central to Mark’s message. Jesus is the centre of constant controversy and conflict.
Jesus vs Rome
He is the epicentre of a conflict between the political and religious leaders of his day. His message of the kingdom of God is a deliberate and provocative refusal to accept the lordship of Rome. Mark’s opening title for Jesus is “Son of God” – politically explosive because this is how the Roman emperor was regarded. Jesus, not the emperor, is the Son of God, Mark tells us. Jesus, not the emperor, is divine and therefore worthy of worship. It is the kingdom of God which is to hold sway over all creation, not the Roman Empire. Mark even borrows the genre of his work – “gospel” – from Roman political discourse: Caesar Augustus’ birth was announced to the Roman world as “Good News”. Mark’s opening verse informs us that it is Jesus who is Good News, not the emperor!
Jesus is also the Son of Man. Mark reinterprets a Hebrew colloquialism for “a human being” – “a bloke” – in the apocalyptic terms of Daniel chapter seven. Jesus is the heavenly Son of Man of Daniel 7: 13-14, to whom God gives dominion over the whole world. The world belongs to Jesus, not to Rome. Jesus is to be served and worshipped as God – as divine. Significantly, the Danielic Son of Man is the one who triumphs over the wild beasts of Daniel’s vision – the political leaders of world empires.
In other words, the advent of Jesus is the entry of God into a cosmological conflict over the world. The political powers of empire are ranged against the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man. These are the powers that hold people in captivity. Jesus’ message and mission is a direct confrontation with these powers. It is a deadly confrontation, which the powers win. Jesus is crucified as a pretender to the Jewish throne. However, his death unleashes a new, ultimate power into the world: the power of resurrection.
Jesus vs the temple
His message of the kingdom of God and his own divine authority set Jesus on a collision course with the religious traditions and authority of his day. Mark presents Jesus as the culmination of all that Yahweh has being doing in the history of Israel. He is the fulfilment of the prophetic visions of the Old Testament – particularly of Isaiah. In Markan terms, the Hebrew Scriptures are quite genuinely and appropriately the Old Testament, or covenant. This is not to denigrate their importance but to highlight the unexpected and radical newness of what God does in Jesus. The Good News about Jesus demands that we rethink all that we thought we knew and understood about God up to that point.
The action in Mark’s gospel takes place on the margins, in the Galilee. Not only is there an emphasis on the obscurity of God’s acting in Jesus: the point is that it takes place away from Jerusalem and the temple. It was inconceivable to the religious authorities of Jesus’ day that the fulfilment of God’s purposes in history would not centre on the temple and Jerusalem restored to former political glory. It was inconceivable that the Messiah would not come to purify God’s Chosen People and re-establish the autonomy of the Jewish state. Mark’s point is that Jesus is not a Messiah in any of the established and expected categories, and that God’s intentions are not so narrowly defined.
Jesus will indeed gather a messianic community around him – a new Israel. Yet it is a community of nobodies and ne’er-do-wells. It is drawn from those whom the dominant religious tradition cast out and condemns, as they will Jesus. It is a community of radical inclusiveness whose sole qualification for inclusion is that they are needy and hear Jesus’ no-strings-attached invitation as the most glorious Good News. That invitation is exceedingly Bad News for the religious authorities.
It is not just a theological conflict. It is a power battle. The question of religious authority is a question about the power of the Holy Spirit. Who has it? Who exercises it? Who has the ability to break the stranglehold of the powers of sickness and demon possession that cripple human living? Jesus is not only a teacher, but also a healer and exorcist. It is the power of the Markan Jesus that so enrages the religious authorities that they attempt to explain its origin as demonic. They cannot accept it as the working of the Holy Spirit because to do so would be to acknowledge their own spiritual powerlessness and therefore lack of authority.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem brings the conflict to a head. It is not the people who need cleansing, according to Jesus, but the temple and the religious system that has prostituted itself and cut itself off from God. The cleansing of the temple is not simply a prophetic criticism of a system that has become corrupt, but the eschatological judgment upon a religious system that has ranged itself against the kingdom. Jesus is the Messiah – the true Son of the Father – but a Messiah who has come to free the people from all that enslaves them … including the purity system.
Jesus vs the Strong Man
Behind all the incarnations of the political and religious powers that have governed throughout human history lies the power of Satan, the Strong Man. This is the power of chaos and darkness, destruction and death. It is the antithesis of the power of God – the power of Light and Life. It is the power that is ranged against human living and flourishing. It is all that is meant by building a world on resistance to God instead of wholehearted love of God, and on dominion over neighbour instead of love of neighbour as self. It is the power that is incarnated in sickness, demonic possession, oppression and idolatry.
Mark presents Jesus as the true king of the universe, but who enters a world held captive by a usurper. Jesus is Mark’s Aslan, coming to free Narnia from the power of the White Witch. Mark’s White Witch is Satan, the Strong Man, and his gospel is his version of the Great Battle between the two for control of the world. It is an eschatological battle – a battle in which the principal adversaries have had many, many skirmishes in the past, but must now face each other in final, deadly conflict. Jesus’ mission is the battle for the soul of the universe.
For all the elements of cosmic drama, we must not mistake the gospel for a mythical, other-worldly tale of heavenly battles between good and evil. The action takes place in our world. It is not the “heavens” which are under threat, but this world which is at stake. This is Good News for our world – the world of human beings, politics, economics, military might, poverty, starvation, oppression, disease, natural disaster and alienation. The powers – both of the demons and the Holy Spirit – are powers at work within human beings. We are not slaves or pawns of the gods. Mark’s Jesus confronts us with our everyday choices and priorities. Mark discloses in Jesus’ person, message and ministry the new world in which human beings love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and neighbour as self. This world need not be as it is. It is not godforsaken and we are not abandoned to misery and death. Rather, this world is to be transformed. We are not offered an escape from earth to heaven, but instead challenged with possibility of heaven on earth – the world as the arena where God’s will is done.
Mark the dramatist
Mark’s gospel is a pot-boiler. The action is intense, fast-paced and concentrated. From the first, we are hurried from incident to incident. The gospel unfolds like scenes from a thriller, or high drama. For all Mark’s poor Greek, he is no slouch when it comes to literary drama. He chooses his words with care and precision. He works his material to take his readers on a high-octane roller coaster of a ride. To be drawn into the gospel is to be drawn into the heart of conflict. We cannot remain passive spectators. We are called on to take sides and recognise the hard, fundamental and life-searching issues that are at stake. It isn’t only football that is about things far more serious than life or death – it is Jesus, too!