Quick Off the Mark:The Style of Mark S Gospel

Quick Off the Mark:The Style of Mark S Gospel

Lent Talk One:

Quick off the Mark:The style of Mark’s Gospel

By Bishop David Wilbourne

(Reading: Mark 10:17-22)

I am a great fan of Father Ted.

There’s one episode where

the parish is being visited by not one but three bishops,

and Father Ted is worried about

what the outrageous retired Father Jack will say to them,

so he trains him like a parrot

to give three answers

to any question the bishop poses:



That would be an ecumenical matter.

I sometimes wonder whether something like that

has gone on before one of my visits!

When I was newly ordained

I recall all too well being lost for words

when the bishop came calling,

and rehearsing a sentence

to bail me out:

‘Prayer counteracts the twist given to our loving

by the demands of the ego.’

Another good one

would have been a quote from Martin Buber’s book I/Thou

‘Primary words do not signify things

but they intimate relations.’

What Buber is trying to say

is that we may think that words describe things

in a very clinical abstract way,

where we play the part of

cool impartial observers,

loftily distanced from the situation.

But words actually give away a relationship

in the situation they are describing,

whilst drawing us into that relationship.

Take for example the pop song Love Hurts.

That’s just two words.

‘Love’ is a very abstract quality,

and linking it with the verb ‘hurts’

flags up that love, though much desired,

is invariably painful.

But as soon as you hear those words,

you wonder about what experience

the writer and the singer

have had of love to make them so plaintive.

And then you start wondering about your experience

and the wounds dealt out and received.

‘Primary words do not signify things

but they intimate relations.’

Mark’s words,

through a series of freeze-frames, snapshots, stills

flag up relationships with Christ,

Christ’s relationships with the people Mark describes,

Christ’s relationships with Mark’s readers,

Christ’s relationship with you.

Anthony Bloom grew up in Russia and Iran

at the time of the Russian Revolution 100 years back.

Like many adolescents, dazzled by communism,

he thought the Orthodox Church

of his day was tired and hypercritical

and was grossly misleading people.

He decided to read Mark’s Gospel

to arm himself to be the Richard Dawkins of his day

and take on the Orthodox Church.

‘By the third chapter

sitting at the other side of my desk

was a presence.’

The rest is history.

Rather than taking on the Orthodox Church,

he was ordained

and eventually became

Moscow’s Archbishop, its Metropolitan.

A presence there certainly is.

A marvellous presence,

yet also a disturbing and alien presence

which fills people with awe and amazement,

and puzzles them:

Who is this who can forgive sins?

Who is this who commands unclean spirits?

Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?

‘Who is good but God alone?’

Jesus says to the rich young man,

after he has greeted him

as ‘Good Teacher.’

Mark presents us with

the most human of human beings

but at the same time

the most other of human beings,

never before or since have we seen the like,

prompting the answer to all those questions

‘Who can do this or that but God alone?’

that this is indeed God alone

in our midst

and in the very humanity of the person before us.

Mark’s words aren’t polished,

Daily Mail Greek is his mother-tongue,

but his subject is far from tabloid

exploring the most important relationship

you will ever have

this side of the grave and the other side of the grave.

‘Mark’s Kingdom of God

is not a state of being without which

one can get along quite well,’

concluded poet/theologian Charles Williams.

In other words,

for Mark,

the kingdom of God

is not the icing on the cake;

it is the cake.

‘God did not become man to make small talk,’

Soren Kierkegaard quipped.

This is serious, serious stuff,

Mark’s curtain goes up with a clatter:

his first chapter

includes an all-star cast:

John the Baptist baptising Jesus,

four fishermen to be fishers of men,

a synagogue congregation,

a local madman,

Peter’s mother in law,

sundry diseased and sick

and a leper,

all singing from one hymn sheet

as heaven, hell and earth

witness that God himself is in town.

That hyperactivity is typical of Mark.

If any word is his catch phrase,

that word is ’s: immediately.

He uses it no less than forty times in his Gospel,

eleven times in his first chapter.

For a bit of variety,

English translations use alternatives,

such as at once, or just thenor just as or as soon as.

Whilst such variety is the spice of life

and we were all taught in our tedious English lessons,

not to use the same word too many times,

it blunts Mark’s force,

reducing the synonyms for immediately

to little more than conjunctions.

Just take seven instances from Mark’s first chapter.

‘And immediately coming up out of the water,

He saw the heavens opened,

and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him.’

‘And immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness.’

‘And when He had gone a little further,

He saw James the son of Zebedee,

and John his brother,

who also were in the ship mending their nets,

and immediately he called them’

‘And they went into Capernaum;

and immediately on the sabbath day

he entered into the synagogue, and taught’

‘And immediately

when they were come out of the synagogue,

they entered into the house of Simon.’

‘And He came and took her by the hand,

and lifted her up, and immediately the fever left her.’

‘And He sternly charged him,

and immediately sent him away.’

What is Mark trying to tell us

with all these immediatelys?

That there is an urgency about Jesus’ mission,

packing a lot into a short time,

as Mark packs a lot into a short space.

That there is a lot of activity,

especially at the start,

Jesus hitting the ground running.

Maybe an encouragement there

for us at the start of any ministry,

don’t faff about taking stock,

get on with it,

make an impact!

The word ‘immediately’

is about action rather than inaction –

we don’t say,

‘Immediately he had a think about all this,’

‘Immediately she did nothing.’

‘Immediately’ is about the now,

taking action in the present,

not putting it off

for another day

or week or month or year,

or never:

just do something.

Mark’s Jesus attends immediately

to the need presented before him,

whatever that need.

He doesn’t thrash about worrying

over the 1001 things he isn’t doing,

he doesn’t dilute himself

trying to be a bit of everything to everybody.

He gives his all to the situation before him,

sensitive to that situation,

selective in opting for the now

rather than the recriminations of yesterday

or the uncertainties of tomorrow.

We don’t half waste a lot of our lives

talking and planning and worrying

over things that are never going to happen.

How much time do we spend talking about doing stuff,

or rather talking about not doing stuff?

Are our meetings spring-boards or murder-boards,

do they prime us for action

or are they elaborate mechanisms

enabling us to avoid any action?

‘Get on with it!’

Mark’s Jesus shrieks.

Maybe one way to respond to Christ’s call

is to make immediately our catch-phrase.

Start with just a day,

have an immediately day

and then see what difference it makes.

In Mark’s first chapter

we have Jesus’ first terse 14 words,

economic in their intensity:

‘The time is now,

the kingdom of God is come near,

repent and believe in the good news.’

He makes a quantum leap through 2000 years

and speaks those words to us today,

putting our chat-up lines

and our procrastinations to shame.

The good news marked by Mark

is not what you think,

it is unconventional, perverse.

Confronted by the leper at the end of chapter one

two of the earliest versions of Mark’s Gospel

give two possible responses by Jesus:

He is either gutted with compassion or is angry.

Really gutted or really angry.

Whatever, he is clearly stirred to do something

by the person in need before him.

Person after person,

the paralysed, the blind, the deaf,

the bleeding, the possessed, a hungry football crowd,

even a dead little girl,

all are touched and restored by Christ

to life in all its fullness.

Was that the good news,

all those miracles

putting the wrongs of the world right?

I don’t know,

Mark’s Jesus seems embarrassed by them,

time and time again telling people to keep quiet,

not shout it from the roof-tops,

playing his role down,

‘My daughter, my son, your faith has made you well.’

People relate to him, trust him, expect great things,

and miracles just happen.

Mark gives us no great treatises on theodicy,

how it is immoral for one lame man

to take up his bed and walk

when tens of thousands die of bone cancer,

how it is immoral for one blind man to be healed

and a million to stay condemned to darkness,

how it is immoral for one 12 year old girl

to come back to life

when thousands of 12 year old girls

died in the gas chambers.

Mark’s Jesus doesn’t thrash about

over God’s particularity,

rather he has nerves of steel

to be sensitive if selective

and is simply stirred,

stirred to relate,

stirred to heal.

Almost as if miracles are the fall out

from relating to Christ.

I have God’s touch about me:

get over it,

or rather never get over it.

Who is Mark’s audience,

who is he talking to?

As I said at the start,

he’s a go-between,

enabling Christ and you to relate.

And that you could be many things,

a you

who is like the rich young man in our reading,

a little Jack Horner,

dazzled by success,

so pat,

a church dazzled by success,

so pat.

Or you could be so down, so lost, so forlorn,

all hopes dashed,

fearful of where the next disaster is coming from,

a church with all hopes dashed, fearful of persecution.

Dazzled by success;

all hopes dashed -

and all stops in between,

Mark speaks to the whole spectrum.

And Mark makes it personal.

Unlike the other gospels,

which tend to sanitise Jesus

or make him impassive,

above it all,

Mark’s Jesus really feels it.

He shows anger,






looking at the rich young man and loving him.

He is direct, very direct

with his disciples and his opponents,

showing favour to no one,

accusing them of hardness of heart,

ignorance of the Scriptures and the Power of God,

In Mark’s Gospel

the disciples are hardly role models,

time and time again they just don’t get it,

so dumb,

arguing over greatness,

shouting Christ’s secret from the rooftops

when he implores them to be quiet,

chirping the Gospel when there are predators

lurking behind every corner,

one preferring the embarrassment

of running away naked

rather than standing by his Lord,

one shrieking

‘I do not know this man of whom you speak,’

as the cockerel crowed on Good Friday’s frosty dawn.

If the miracles aren’t Mark’s good news

neither are the disciples,

they are very bad news indeed.

The other Gospels try to tone down their failure,

but never manage to banish

Mark’s bold honesty.

What a shower they are;

what a shower we are;

take heart, the good news is still for you,

is especially for you.


having set up a track record of failing to keep quiet,

at the end of the Gospel

when they should be

shouting resurrection from the roof-tops,

it is then they keep quiet,

Mark ending with the women at the empty tomb,

‘They said nothing to anyone, you see,

for they were afraid.’

What a weird, mysterious ending for any book,

let alone a Gospel.

Thucydides’ long history of the Peloponnesian War

similarly comes to an abrupt end in mid sentence

which has perplexed people for centuries.

Those who copied down Mark’s Gospel,

with the best of intentions,

redacted bits from the other Gospels,

even from Paul,

giving more details of the days post-Easter

rather than leaving the Gospel to end so abruptly.

Yet the style of these additions

and the vocabulary they employ

is obviously not Mark’s,

definitely not his trademark!

Or maybe Mark himself gave further details,

but the end of the scroll was torn off and lost.

That’s unlikely,

because if it was the original,

the readers could go back to Mark for the ending.

If it was a copy,

they could find another copy

and correct the damage.

Maybe Mark was scribbling his final words

and broke off,

a heavy chain-gauntleted hand

slapping itself on his shoulder

with a centurion barking

‘Off to the Coliseum for you, my lad!’

Obviously they must have gossiped the Resurrection


but at the very Event

with a capital E eight feet tall

they were struck dumb.

The women, the disciples

chatter on about Easter in the other Gospels,

only in Mark are they silent.

An eloquent silence

too great for words

when the love of your life

has been mangled on the cross

yet somehow that is not the end

but the beginning,

a glorious beginning.

Mark’s sudden stop to his Gospel

might also be a start,

over to you,

continue this Gospel

write it with your life,

with the marvellous man

you have discovered here,

the most marvellous man in the history of the world,

walking beside you.

Get on with your life-in Christ,


One post script on Mark’s distinct style.

I noticed in last Sunday’s Gospel

that Mark is the only Gospel

that describes Jesus as being

with the wild beasts

during his forty days in the wilderness.

Was Mark alluding to Isaiah’s vision

when nature red in tooth and claw

would be replaced by a kingdom of perfect harmony,

when the wolf would lie down with the lamb

and a little child play with the adder?

Or was he harking back to Genesis 2,

when Adam names each of the animals

as they present themselves before him,

with Jesus the second Adam

doing a sort of check on how things are going,

‘How are you finding being a bear?’

The Pre-Raphaelite artist

Holman Hunt

painted one wild animal

who certainly would have accompanied Christ:

the scapegoat.

At the feast of Atonement

the high priest figuratively

placed all the sins of the people

on the goat’s head,

sins like scarlet,

and it was released into the wilderness

to die.

And as he died, the peoples’ sins died with him.

Here it is on the poisoned shores

of the poisoned Dead Sea,

legs buckling,

starving to death.

Robert Graves painted a poem

about the connection:

And ever with Him went,

Of all His wanderings

Comrade, with ragged coat,

Gaunt ribs—poor innocent—

Bleeding foot, burning throat,

The guileless old scapegoat;

For forty nights and days

Followed in Jesus’ ways,

Sure guard behind Him kept,

Tears like a lover wept.

The Scapegoat,

the ultimate wild animal in the wilderness,

connects with the One

who truly takes away the sins of the World.

Holman Hunt painted another picture

of Christ in the wilderness amongst the wild animals.

The Light of the World.

It’s a Victorian domestic wilderness,

a scary dark wood by night,

with fruit rotting on the ground,

weeds growing up an old

clearly unused door.

Christ bears the marks of crucifixion,

the crown of thorns,

scarred hands.

But the full moon

looks like a halo,

Christ’s cloak the robe of a king.

His lantern lighting up the whole dark scene,

a marvellous light even in the wilderness.

He’s knocking on the door,

which, as I say, has not been opened for a long time,

even the handle has fallen off

so it can only be opened on the inside.

Where are the wild animals?

You are the wild animal,

skulking on the inside,

too scared to go out.

Christ wants to bring his light to your darkness,

but only you can let him in.

But also this is a picture of Christ in a troubled place,