Jesus bursts onto the scene in Mark as a strong man, conquering enemy after enemy.
After His baptism, the Spirit drives Him into the wilderness, where He overcomes the devil and survives wild beasts.
He enters the synagogue at Capernaum to teach on a Sabbath, and is met by a “man with an unclean spirit.” Jesus rebukes the spirit and commands him to come out, and the spirit obeys. “What kind of authority is this?” everyone wonders: “He commands unclean spirits.” This is his first act of power in Mark, a sign of Jesus’ mastery over demons.
In the country of the Gerasenes, he faces another demoniac who lives among the tombs, too wild to be restrained even with shackles and chains. As soon as Jesus comes ashore, the demoniac runs up and begs for mercy: “I implore you by God, do not torment me.” Jesus sends out the Legion of demons into a herd of pigs nearby. Jesus can defeat single demons. He can also expel an entire demonic regiment with a word.
Jesus is so strong that some claim that He’s relying on the power of the devil. They accuse Him of casting out demons by the power of the prince of demons. Jesus responds with a little parable, an allegory: No one can plunder the strong man unless he can bind him. Only a stronger man can bind and plunder a strong man. Jesus is that stronger man, the royal “son of God,” the Davidic warrior-king, who has come to demon-infested Israel in order to take the human plunder from the devil’s house.
Exorcisms are central to Jesus’ mission. He comes to exorcise the house of Israel.
In the Old Testament, Israel was regularly enslaved by this or that enemy. Israel spent a couple of centuries in Egypt, decades under the thumb of Philistines and Midianites and Moabites and Canaanites, seventy years exiled in Babylon. During Jesus’ lifetime, some Jews thought that the Romans posed the greatest threat to Israel’s well-being. If only they could take out the Romans, peace would flow like a river and they could suck honey from the rock.
Mark shows us a different picture of Israel’s predicament. Her real enemy isn’t Rome, which barely figures into the gospel story. Israel’s real enemy is Satan. She suffers a more oppressive slavery than ever before – not to human rulers but to demons, who are bold enough to enter synagogues on the Sabbat.
Israel doesn’t a savior who can fight off a legion of Roman soldiers. She needs someone strong enough to cast a legion of demons into the sea, like Pharaoh and his hosts. That’s the exodus that Israel needs. It’s the exodus that Jesus has come to lead, an exodus from slavery to the prince of this world.
No wonder the disciples want to follow this Jesus. No wonder Peter recognizes Him as one who is greater than John the Baptist, greater than Elijah, greater than all the prophets. No wonder Peter confesses that Jesus is “the Christ.” He’s doing Christ-y things, proving Himself the stronger man who binds the strong man and plunders his house.
Then, quite suddenly, as soon as Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, Jesus veers off in a completely different direction. Jesus has been going from strength to strength, from one triumph to another. Once Peter confesses that he is the Christ, Jesus starts talking about rejection, defeat, death.
For the first time, He “states the matter plainly,” and tells them what they are going to face when they get to Jerusalem: “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).
Jesus keeps saying it. “The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later” (9:30).
They start up to Jerusalem, and along the way, Jesus says, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and will deliver Him to the Gentiles. And they will mock Him and spit upon Him, and scourge Him, and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again” (10:33-34).
Peter can’t accept this. Jesus is going to be rejected, captured, killed? Jesus is the stronger man. He can’t lose. Jesus must be depressed; He must be down. Peter tells Him to buck up and be more positive.
To Jesus, Peter’s rebuke isn’t reasonable or well-intentioned. It’s Satanic. The easy way, the way that avoids rejection and death, is the demonic way. When we walk in the way of self-interest, we abandon God’s way. There’s no third option.
That’s par for the course of the disciples of Jesus. Their incomprehension is a recurring theme of Mark’s gospel. They aren’t part of the solution to Israel’s slavery. They exemplify the problem.
The disciples’ ignorance provides the thematic architecture of the entire gospel. Mark’s gospel turns on dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows something that characters in the story don’t.
We know that Juliet isn’t dead, but Romeo doesn’t. We watch with horror because we know that he’s going to kill himself over a misunderstanding. We know all about the Oedipus Complex before we read or see Oedipus Tyrannos. As Oedipus relentlessly tracks down the identity of the man who killed his predecessor, we know that he’s hot on his own trail. The fascination of the play is watching Oedipus discover something we’ve known all along.
Mark’s gospel functions in the same way. We know, from the first line of the book, that Jesus is the “Son of God.” We hear the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, which announces Jesus as the Father’s “beloved Son.” He is the king of Israel, the heir to David’s throne. The Son of God is Yahweh’s warrior-king.
We know that Jesus is the Son of God, but the characters don’t. That includes the disciples. No one is more perplexed about Jesus than the Twelve. No one is more the victim of Mark’s dramatic irony. Demons recognize Jesus as Son of God; eventually, a Roman centurion recognizes Jesus as Son of God. None of the Twelve ever do.
They’re in the dark even though Jesus has explaining His parables to them. He speaks to the crowds in parables because they have hard hearts. Like Isaiah, Jesus speaks in riddles to a blind and deaf people so that they will see and not understand, so they will hear and not perceive. He speaks in parables to harden their already hard hearts.
Not the disciples. They get private tutorials in parabolic interpretation. Jesus explains things to them, openly and without riddles. But they still don’t get it.
Jesus teaches in parables. He also acts parables (the following relies on Rikki Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark). His miracles are signs that need to be read and interpreted. Three times in Mark’s gospel we see the disciples in a boat crossing the sea of Galilee. Each time, they end up confused and frightened. Each time, they prove as uncomprehending as the rest of Israel.
The first time, Jesus stills a storm at sea, and they ask in bewilderment, Who is this? (4:41). The next time they’re at sea without Jesus, in distress again because the wind is against them. Jesus comes strolling out across the sea. They’re scared, until Jesus enters the boat and the wind stops. Again they are astonished, Mark tells us, because their hearts are hardened.
Twice Jesus feeds multitudes in the wilderness, first a crowd of 4000 and then a crowd of 5000. In the third boat scene, the disciples fret because they don’t have any bread with them. Jesus warns them about the leaven of the Pharisees, and they think that it’s a rebuke for not bringing bread.
Of all people, they should be able to interpret the parabolic signs of Jesus. They see Jesus calm the sea, walk on the waves, multiply loaves, but they can’t figure out what it all means.
Who can calm a storm at sea with a rebuke? Who can speak authoritatively to the sea? Who can walk on the waves? The disciples should have known: “You rule the swelling of the sea,” David says, “when its waves rise, you still them” (Psalm 89:9). Yahweh “tramples down the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8). Only Yahweh can do this. By stilling storms and strolling on the sea, Jesus shows that He’s more than a mighty man. He is the Mighty One of Israel, Yahweh the Divine Warrior Himself.
Who can feed thousands with a few loaves? Who makes the multitudes sit on the “green grass” to feed them? Yahweh did it before, providing bread from heaven when Israel came out of Egypt, and Jews were expecting Yahweh to do it again. The disciples are supposed to interpret the parable of the loaves, but they miss the point.
Even after they have seen Jesus calm the storm and walk on the sea, even after they have eaten miracle bread, they don’t understand. They still don’t know what we know – that Jesus is Son of God.