Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mark: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary. I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The gospel of Mark is the earliest, shortest, and most action-packed of all the gospels.  it jumps right into the action, and the narrative moves along at a brisk pace until the end.  Marks says nothing about the virgin birth, or anything about Jesus’ infancy or childhood.  Rather, Mark begins with John the Baptist preaching by the Jordan river, and baptizing people, one of whom is a man from the tiny village of Nazareth named Jesus.  When John baptizes Jesus, the heavens open, a dove descends, and the voice of God booms, “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well-pleased.”

"Baptism of Christ" by Giotto di Bondone (1304-06)

Then Jesus goes into the wilderness alone, where he is temped by Satan.  Meanwhile, John the Baptist is arrested.  Jesus follows in his baptizer’s footsteps, and becomes a wandering preacher.  Jesus calls his first disciples—a motley crew that includes unlikely figures from the margins of society—fishermen, tax collectors, etc.

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus does a LOT of healing and exorcisms.  He heals all kinds of diseases common in first century Palestine—leprosy, paralysis, blindness, deafness, etc.  Jesus is a very popular healer and exorcist, and gains quite a following.

"Christ Healing the Blind Man" by El Greco (1570)

Jesus often clashes with a group of observant Jews called the Pharisees, who get a pretty bad rap in the gospels.  They did their best to follow the laws of Moses and the traditions of Judaism.  Jesus (an observant Jew himself) often criticizes them for following religious laws at the expense of human charity.

As in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches people in parables, which are like little allegorical stories meant to illustrate some spiritual truth.  These parables are a bit esoteric, and require explanations.  Interestingly, Jesus only explains them to his disciples.  Everyone else is left to make sense of them on their own.  Throughout Mark, Jesus seems reluctant to let people know who he really is.  Often, after healing someone, he instructs them not to tell anyone.  This, of course, doesn’t work, and Jesus’ fame continues to spread.  I’m not sure why Jesus is reluctant to reveal his identity.  Perhaps this is related to Gnostic Christianity, which claimed to possess “secret knowledge” about Jesus.

Jesus also performs a number of miracles.  He feeds 5,000 people with just a little bread and fish.  He stills a mighty storm.  He walks on water.  His fame continues to spread—people are intrigued by his miracles, hearings, exorcisms, and cryptic teachings.

"The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" by Rembrandt van Rijn (1630)

Jesus has some lovely interactions with people as he wanders around Palestine.  One time, a man approaches Jesus and asks him to heal his son, who is both sick and demon-possessed.  Jesus says, “All things are possible to him who believes.”  The father replies, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”  I love the honesty of his response.  Faced with the living Jesus, the man still has doubts.  Then Jesus heals the man’s son.

In another instance, a rich young man approaches Jesus and asks, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  (This scene is also in Matthew)  Jesus first tells the man to follow the laws of Moses.  The rich young man says he does this.  Jesus replies, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  The young man walks away sad.  He cannot part with his wealth.  Jesus tells his disciples: “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! … It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  

Continuing this sentiment about the necessity of poverty and humility, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

To further hammer home the problem that money creates for those who wish to follow him, Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem and violently overturns the tables of those who are attempting to sell things and turn a profit from people’s religious devotion.

"Expulsion of the Moneychangers from the Temple" by Luca Giordano (1675)

Now that Jesus has entered Jerusalem, the seat of political and religious power in the region, he knows he will be killed.  He is too radical.  But before he is killed, he will say some more lovely things.  When some religious leaders ask him which commandment is the most important in the laws of Moses, Jesus quotes a passage which basically says, “Love God and love people.”  Pretty simple.  Jesus’ message is one of simple love.

Eventually, Jesus is arrested by the temple guard of the “chief priests,” and placed on a kind of religious trial.  It’s important to note that Jesus’ accusers are not the Pharisees, but the “chief priests,” who lived in affluence and were complicit with Roman exploitation of Jews in Palestine.  Jesus “beef” is not with ordinary Jews (he was a Jew) but with the corrupt religious and political establishment.  Unfortunately, many Christians throughout the ages have used Jesus’ clash with Jewish leaders as a basis for anti-semitism.  This is a poor reading of scripture, and it does not “gel” with Jesus' message of love.

"Christ Before Pilate" by Tintoretto (1567)

Anyway, Jesus is declared a “blasphemer” by the high priests and taken before the local Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.  At this time, Palestine was a part of the Roman empire.  Jesus is beaten, mocked, and ultimately crucified.  In Mark’s gospel, the only words Jesus speaks while dying on the cross are, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Then Jesus dies, like a common Roman criminal.

"Crucifixion" by Jan Provoost (15th century)

This, of course, is not the end of the story.  Jesus is buried, and three days later he rises from the dead, defeating death!  What a badass.  The last verses of Mark, in which Jesus appears to his followers and  commissions them to go out and preach, are a later addition, not included in the earliest manuscripts of Mark.

"The Resurrection of Christ" by Peter Paul Rubens (1611)

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