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Reading aloud the Gospel According to Mark

I recently read aloud the Gospel according to St. Mark. I last read Mark seven years ago, and my takeaways were

  • “The Gospel of Mark is so fast it leaves you dizzy,”
  • and, “We are told to carry the cross. And the man who did so lives in Africa, with sons named after Roman politicians and Greek kings,”
  • and “The message of Mark is that Jesus is for everyone.”

This time the feel of Mark was different but still terrific.

A few things varied. First, the ordering was different. Last time I began the four gospels with Matthew (which leans heavily on the Hebrew roots of the Gospel), while this time I began with Luke. This rotates the context. Reading Mark after Matthew emphasizes universality, as Mark in this context minimizes everything you thought was core (the Kingdom, the Law, the Prophecy) while maximizing the person of Jesus. But to me, the greatest contrast is now with John: instead of philosophy Mark presents action. Or as Joseph Ratzinger might say, salvation history instead of ontology.

Reading for an audience made me realize what appeared to be missing passages: for instance, what did Jesus teach?:

He saw the vast crowd as he got out of the boat. He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. He started teaching them many things.
Mark 6:34

Well, the author of Mark provides the key: Mark provides the teaching through comparisons that the Teacher can, and sometimes does explain:

Using many comparisons like these, we would tell his message to them, adapted to what they were able to hear. He would not express anything to them except in comparison. But when he was alone, with his disciples, he would explain everything.
Mark 4:33-34

What follows immediately is just such a case, a story adapted to what the listener can understand. There are multiple levels of meaning in the following adventure, adapted to numerous levels of listener comprehension:

That day, as night was approaching, he tells them, “Let’s go across to the other side.” After they dismissed the crowd, they took him along with them – he was in his boat, and other boats were with him. A violent squall rose up with high winds. The waves were spilling into his boat so that the boat was just about filled to the top. As for Jesus, he was at the stern, on a pillow, sleeping. So they wake him up and say to him,

“Teacher, does it make no difference to you that we are going to die?!” Getting up, he rebuked the wind, and he spoke to the sea,

“Be silent! Quiet down!”

And the wind abated. The sea became completely still. He said to them,

“Why are you so cowardly? Don’t you have faith yet?”

They were overcome with fear. They kept saying to one another,

“So who is he then, that even the wind and the sea listen to him?”
Mark 4:35-41

Another example of this is the miracle of the loaves, which is immediately followed by humorous worrying over lack of bread for a much smaller group, and Christ providing meta-commentary on the narrative:

There was a time, in those days, when there was another great crowd of people who did not have anything to eat. So he calls his disciples and tells them,

“I am deeply concerned about this crowd. They have been with me now for three days. They do not have anything to eat. If I send them back to their homes fasting, they will collapse on the way. Some of them have come a long distance.”

His disciples said to him in reply,

“Where in this remote place could anyone get enough bread for them to eat?”

He asked them,

“How many loaves do you have?”

They said,

“Seven.”

He instructed the crowd to take places on the ground. Taking the seven loaves and giving thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to serve. They served them to the crowd. They had a few small fish. After blessing them, he said that these should be served as well. They ate and were full. They collected seven baskets of broken pieces that were left over. They numbered about four thousand. He sent them on their way.”
Mark 8:1-9

Then, on the very next page:

They neglected to bring any bread. Except for one loaf, they had no bread with them on the boat. Now he was instructing them, saying:

“Be on guard. Look out for the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeard of Herod.”

So they were saying among themselves that they did not have any loaves. Aware of this, he says to them,

“Why are you saying that you do not have any loaves? Do you still fail to see? Do you not understand? Do you have a hardened heart?”
Mark 8:14-17

The Gospel according to Mark brings forward to the New Testament the teaching strategy of much of Genesis where the narrative itself is the parable. As an example, take this striking exchange between Abram (our father in faith), Melchizedek king of Salem (the “Righteous King of Peace”) and the King of Sodom:

After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”

And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. And the king of Sodom said to Abram,

“Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.”

But Abram said to the king of Sodom,

“I have sworn to the Lord God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say,
‘I have made Abram rich.’”
Genesis 14:17-23

While Matthew concludes the Hebrew Bible, John has a didactic theological message, and Luke combines the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount with literary techniques to share the news, Mark teaches the Gospel through actions, not speeches.

I read the Gospel according to Mark in Michael Pakaluk’s translation.

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