Faith & the Gospel of Mark

By James V. Zeitz

photo courtesy of ^riza^ via C.C. License at FlickrOur spiritual journeys are not always easy. We find ourselves sometimes angry at God rather than submissive. Rather than understanding God's ways, we are puzzled by them. We make our way through darkness, rather than bask in radiant light. Far from lacking competent guides, we have too many of them. If only one leader or guru would call out our names and direct us on a clear path!

The Gospel of Mark can help us in our spiritual journey. It tells us two important facts. First, it tells us that our very God teaches us through Jesus, his words, deeds, and what he experienced in suffering, death, and resurrection. God teaches us, moreover, about God's own being by teaching us how to interpret who Jesus is. This teaching calls for our response of faith in Jesus and, through him, to the Father. God's teaching through Jesus, responded to by us in faith, is the fundamental Christian religious experience that Mark endeavors to convey in his narrative, and which theology reflects upon, analyzes, and seeks to express anew for various historical periods. This religious experience is, more importantly, the basis of our spiritual lives.

The second truth that Mark's Gospel tells us is that faith comes in stages. This truth is especially helpful in dealing with the ups and downs of our spiritual lives. Mark's narrative includes not only Jesus' teaching, but his disciples' gradual growth in faith, both in the sense of a more firm commitment to Jesus and in the sense of a profounder understanding of what faith in Jesus implies. The disciples' development in faith suggests that we, too, grow in faith and hence in the vigor of our spiritual lives. We can expect, therefore, times of confusion, darkness, and misunderstanding in our relationship to God. We can expect periods of growing comprehension and moments of startling insight. The pattern of faith-learning narrated by Mark is likely to be repeated in our lives, leading us upward in a spiral from our first religious experience to ever more profound ones.

Let us, then, examine the Gospel of Mark. We will explore the various stages that Mark weaves into his continuous story that he formed from the traditions he inherited.

The basis for our division of the story into stages is a work on Mark's Gospel by John Radermakers (La Bonne Nouvelle selon Saint Marc).  He, and many others, have shown that, although Mark uses already existing collections of traditions, he has clearly "structured" these materials. The main evidence for this is the existence of summaries, followed by sections that place the disciples in relation to Jesus. These Markan additions punctuate the narrative and signal the introduction of new themes. They help us understand what Mark means by "faith" and "discipleship" -- how they are constituted and developed.

For example, a first section, beginning at 1:14-15 (a summary of Jesus' earliest preaching) and continuing with 1:16-20 (Jesus' call of four disciples: Simon, Andrew, James, and John), presents the beginning of faith as a vocation. A second section begins at 3:7-12 with the summary of Jesus' early success followed by the statement of a new relationship between Jesus and his disciples: the appointment of the Twelve (3:13-19). A third section begins with a short summary of Jesus' activity after his visit to Nazareth (6:6b-7) followed by the sending of the Twelve out on mission. Radermakers characterizes the themes of the six sections as vocation, election of disciples, sending on mission, invitation to serve, invitation to follow, and finally the call to prepare a new Passover.

Beginnings of Faith

The first section (1:14-3:6) presents an overall portrait of Jesus, Son of God, and his "good news." Jesus speaks with authority -- this strikes the crowds -- and he acts with authority over disease and over evil spirits, despite all the objections of the Pharisees, who would confine the possibilities of God's power to the limits of their prescriptions and laws. Clearly Mark's Gospel begins by presenting God's power as it is manifested in Jesus.

But the content of Mark's first section is not only Jesus but also the beginning of his disciples' vocation. The disciples are sincere but perplexed people, like us, who seek to know what the meaning of their life is, and who think they can do this through Jesus whom they come to know and follow. The beginning of Mark's Gospel thus contains not only information about Jesus but also the particular historical circumstances of his relationship to people -- first the whole crowd of Jews who hear his words and see what he is doing, then those who became his disciples (four fishermen and Levi), and finally those who refused to become disciples and were hostile to him.