The strange Jesus of Mark
After not having read the Gospels for a few years and after abandoning the standard paradigm of already knowing who Jesus is and what the text means and thus coming to the text with assumptions, a prioris, and prior commitments, resulting in a Jesus who more conforms to our conventions and our fossilized religious framework, reading Mark anew provides for a fresh encounter.
Mark’s Jesus is strange. Forget all you know from Paul, Luke, Johan, and Matthew and enter a hurried account that never tarries long, does not provide background information, but only narrates in a staccato manner brief instances and moments of the ministry of a strange rabbi who moves about uttering a new and yet strangely familiar message and purportedly manages to undo this message for a contemporary public by healing the sick and casting out demons. What? Yes, demons! A strange rabbi who is apparently so much more than yet another teacher of the law.
Mark provides us a distant glimpse, a narrative that recounts from very far away with only the barest information necessary to primitively understand the account. He paints with broad strokes a brief episode in the life of a man who remains utterly enigmatic, but who, from the vantage point of the writer is in the process of revolutionizing the world. He provides us with a stark silhouette of a man whose face remains in the shade, but nonetheless commands our attention.
Who is this man who appears so strange but who seems to possess great authority? Who is this mystery man who, according to the author, lays claim to authority over disease, demonic power, people’s lives and, by extension and obvious authorial implication, my life? Who is this mystery man of legendary past about whom we are reading this cursory, abbreviated, hurried report?
Forgetting All I’ve Have Learned So Far
Without coming to this man with my previously obtained portrait, as interpreted by my faith community, with its specific predetermined take on the person of Christ, without the answers that my tradition has afforded itself concerning this man, without the help of the additional information from the other gospels of the early theological interpretation of the apostles in Acts and later Paul, I want to ask: who are you?
To the extent that we know who he is and decide about this man that he is such and such or so and so, to the extent that we cognitively master the man’s message and his ministry, to the extent that we embrace what others have thought and said about him and drawn up theories about the meaning of the Christ-event, to that extent we don’t know him. To that extent our a priori knowledge acts as a barrier to the real Christ; to that extent we safeguard ourselves from laying hold of by Christ. We evade his claim precisely by integrating him into our system, our theology, our way of life.
But to the extent that we get up and follow him and leave behind the fishing nets and the tax tables, to the extent that we let our frameworks to be rent apart by that strange man, Jesus, who encounters us through the Gospel of Mark, we will be freed of ourselves, our mental constructs, in order to be followers; in order to obey.
There is no doubt that the author of Mark has a very clear picture of what he wants to communicate, but it is equally true that this picture of Christ is framed by ambiguity, strangeness, and foreignness. Before answering the question of how Jesus can lay claim to authority in my life, I need to let go of all that I knew about him and ask Mark’s Christ: who are you?
The opinion that the question, of how he can lay claim to authority in my life, needs to be preceded by my knowledge of the man and his claims withers away. I realize that only in the following does the encounter bear fruit. Only in leaving behind what occupies me and giving up my need to understand and master what is strange to me in Christ, will I get to know both the One who commands my attention and what he wishes me to become.