The Rt. Rev. Dr. Paul Wheatley's Presentation on Mark in Year B
2023 11 03 Preaching Mark in Year B, The Rev. Paul D. Wheatley, Ph.D.
Episcopal Diocese of Dallas Clergy Leadership Day Epiphany Richardson
It’s an honor to be back in Dallas and to see so many of you again since I left to go do my doctoral work back in 2017. We’ve all lived a lot of life since then, but I am grateful to be able to talk with you about the Gospel of Mark, which we will be digging into in the lectionary Year B, with a little supplementation by John in key places.
I went to Notre Dame with a mind to do more work in Matthew. In the three-year preaching cycle, I always had the most fun with Matthew, his expansive sections of Jesus’s sermons and discourses. If I’m being honest, in my time preaching through Year B alone without a curate or assistant in my second year at St. Augustine’s, I found it to be challenging.
One of my teachers at Notre Dame, John Meier, of blessed memory, referred to the second gospel as “stark, dark, laconic Mark,” and this is how I found it on my first time preaching through Year B in toto. Leaving out the extended session in the Bread of Life discourse in John 6 that takes up the better part of Year B summers— You’ve been warned, preachers!—Mark can be a difficult gospel to get at. The stories are short, tight, and sometimes include details that are hard to comprehend in the smaller sections we get week-to-week. For this reason, I want to take my time with you today to highlight some of those difficulties, talk about some of the things I found in my doctoral research that might help make sense of some of the difficulties, including a big idea that unifies Mark around the idea of identification with Christ in baptism. Then I want to dig into some passages that illustrate how the way of reading Mark that I propose helps make sense of the gospel as a whole. But first, a few of those difficulties, as it comes to preaching.
In ethical matters, Mark often presents Jesus’s harder sayings without some of the softening that Matthew and Luke include: I remember one of the first homilies I gave after my ordination to the diaconate—It was Year B, Proper 22, Jesus on divorce in Mark 10. I remember looking at the gospel parallels and thinking, “Matthew has this list of exceptions, a very pastoral, Anglican-ish or Jesuitical way of approaching the topic, but Mark just pulls the gloves off and hits you with ‘remarriage is adultery’ full stop.” Like John Meier said, stark.
Mark is short and terse when it comes to hard teachings. He’s a “pull the band-aid off fast” guy. Then at other times his camera seems to linger on stories that feel out of step with the quick, immediate pace of the rest of the Gospel. For example, Mark devotes more space to the death of John the Baptist in Mark 6:14–29 than he does for the feeding of the 5000 in the following passage in Mark 6:30–44. Mark also gives more space to Jesus’s suffering in Gethsemane in Mark 14:32–42 than he gives to the institution of the Last Supper in the same chapter. Jesus can’t have a triumphant moment in Mark without reminding his disciples that he’s going to die. The disciples, on the other hand, can’t seem to do much in Mark before they trip over themselves saying something Jesus has to correct, or sometimes even rebuke. Mark is no propaganda brochure for the Messiah’s merry men. Mark’s narrative eye lingers long on scenes with darker themes, and a full twenty percent of the Gospel is devoted to his Passion, in comparison to closer to fifteen percent in Matthew and Luke. Mark is stark and dark.
And after it all, if you take a cue from the earliest manuscripts of Mark, the Gospel ends with a resurrection scene that isn’t much of a resurrection scene at all. The women find the empty tomb, hear the message from the young man in the white garment that Jesus “isn’t here, He has risen,” and Jesus never appears. Mark 16:7–8 just has the young man telling the women to go to Galilee to see Him, and the narrator simply reports, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The End. No resurrected Jesus! No restoration of Peter. No Great commission. No Ascension. [sullenly] Happy Easter.
Mark is not only stark and dark, but he’s laconic. Mark doesn’t fill the air with words, or stuff the Gospel full of teachings. He speeds through scenes that Matthew and Luke give more time to develop. He skips the infancy narratives and the resurrection appearances, but gives us two feeding miracles, a bunch of sea-crossing stories, a few circuitous journeys around Galilee, and a long walk on the way to the cross in Jerusalem where Jesus can’t seem to stop talking about how he's going to die, and the disciples just might die too: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
But in my doctoral work, Mark’s uniqueness intrigued me. Maybe it was the cloudy, moody winters in South Bend, but the more I looked into Mark, the more I began to see a story that defied some of the expectations I had about what a Gospel is and how Gospels communicate their message, reared as I was on Matthew’s didactic expansiveness and Luke’s well-constructed parables and backstories. People love to call Mark an action gospel. Everything’s always happening immediately, but then Mark will take an entire chapter, like Mark chapter five, and devote it to a few long stories of these healings of people who never get a name.
For all that immediate action, though, Mark is also a bit repetitive. There’s those two feedings, first for 5000 and then for 4000, the second of which Luke and the Year B Lectionary both nix. There are these different miracles at sea, once where Jesus is asleep in the boat, and another where he walks across the water, the second of which, again, Luke and the Lectionary leave out. Jesus calls disciples beside the sea three times. He teaches his disciples in sea crossings three different times. Jesus predicts his passion three different times. He heals either blindness or hearing three times. In Mark 5 Jesus heals three unnamed characters oppressed by the forces of death in different ways. Three women come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body after his burial. And three different times Jesus is named as God’s son, once at the beginning, at the descent of the Spirit after his baptism by John, the voice from heaven says, “You are my son the beloved, with you I am well pleased” (1:11). Once at the Transfiguration, with Moses and Elijah there at his right and left, again the voice from heaven declares to the three, Peter, James, and John, “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him” (9:7). Finally, at his crucifixion, with bandits at his right and left, the Temple veil tears, and the centurion sees him give up the Ghost, and cries, “Truly this person was God’s son” (15:39). Is it coincidence or symbolism?
Jesus says to his disciples in Mark, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables” (4:10). For those outside, is it just Jesus’s teaching that comes in parables? That’s how Matthew gives it (and you can compare these on the handout I’ve supplied:
“Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ 11 He answered, To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matt 13:11–12).
For all the discomfort we may have with Mark’s language of disciples vs. outsiders, for Matthew it’s the haves and the have nots, and even what those have nots do have will be taken away. Put simply, the mystery of the kingdom has not been given to them. But in Mark, that’s not the case. It isn’t the teaching that is in parables. Did you catch what he said? “For those outside, everything comes in parables.” Everything?
A mystery, in Greek μυστήριον, is far more than a secret Jesus is keeping just between him and his disciples. The Biblical use of this terminology most often refers to knowledge, plans, or counsel that are hidden, known only to God until the time in which God reveals it to chosen prophets or vessels of this knowledge to others. The disciples, who seem to have received the mystery, are seemingly no different from those outside, receiving things in parables, and I quote,
“‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven’” (Mark 4:12, quoting Isa 6:9).
Jesus describes the disciples just in this way a few chapters later in Mark 8:17–18, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?”
To be a recipient of the mystery, Jesus seems to be saying in the broader context of Mark, is not necessarily to have perceived it. In fact, the mystery seems to be something, if you take the context of this passage right between Jesus’s Parable of the Sower and its explanation, that the sower spreads literally everywhere, regardless of whether it’s good soil or not. The implication seems to be that the mystery of the kingdom has been given not only to the disciples, but it is also being given to those outside, but this mystery, this hidden thing, is given in a way that it is hidden in parables, but not just Jesus’s spoken parables, but in everything. In Mark, it isn’t just Jesus’s teaching, but everything is in parables. The question then is what this mystery is.
Throughout the Gospel Jesus goes around calling disciples, preaching, healing, and casting out demons, but almost every time he does this, he also turns around and asks them not to tell anyone about him. In the synagogue in Capernaum in chapter one, the man with an unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (Mark 1:24–25). The response of the bystanders is nothing but questions, “What is this? A new teaching with authority? He commands the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (1:27). With the healed leper, he says, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but show yourself to the priests” (1:40). It says later, Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God!” 12 But he sternly ordered them not to make him known (3:11–12). This tells us about the mystery. Unclean spirits, and the people Jesus heals seem to have special insight into who Jesus is, but the religious leaders, the disciples, even Jesus’s family, are not able to recognize who he is. Some have said that the mystery is Jesus’s identity: that he’s the Son of God, that he’s the Messiah. That’s part of it, but I don’t think it’s the whole picture.
Looking at the climax of the Gospel, Peter’s confession, leading up to the Transfiguration, Peter says, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And [again!] Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (8:29–30). “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). Now I think we’re getting to the heart of what the mystery is. There’s something in the mystery that is both who Jesus is, and what he has come to do, but to get to the bottom of it, I want to take us to the beginning of the Gospel, and if you have Bibles with you, I’d encourage you to open them to Mark 1. We’re going to stay there for a little bit.
Mark 1:1 “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as it is written in the prophet Isaiah.” Mark begins by telling us so many things. First, we have to say that if we take Mark to be the first gospel, as most modern exegetes do, we should say that the word Mark is using here, Gospel, doesn’t refer to a book about Jesus. Not yet. In order to assign something a genre like Gospel, there has to be something like that before you so that when you say it, they know what you’re talking about. What is a gospel then? It’s good news: εὐαγγέλιον. It’s something Paul talks about quite a bit before Mark starts writing. Here’s how he describes it in 1 Cor 15:1–8:
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. 3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
What is the gospel for Paul? First of all it’s something preached: “I would remind you of the good news that I proclaimed to you.” But Paul isn’t the first one to use this word either. In the Roman empire, whenever a general or emperor would have a significant victory over opponents, they would send heralds throughout the region or the empire, and they carried with them an official proclamation of the good news of this victory, the εὐαγγέλιον: “Hear ye, hear ye! Caesar has defeated the rebellion in the capital and he reigns forever over Rome the eternal city.” What’s the content of Paul’s good news? “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures… he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures… and he appeared to Cephas and the twelve…” For Paul, the Gospel is that Jesus died “according to the scriptures” and he resurrected “according to the scriptures.”
Hear again how Mark begins: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as it is written in the prophet Isaiah…” Isaiah, it seems is speaking of John, preparing the way for the Lord, the God of Israel. When Jesus arrives at John’s baptismal ministry, John has been saying, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:8). Jesus comes, is baptized by John, and then I want us to pay really close attention to what happens. “Immediately as Jesus was coming up out of the water” the first thing that happens is that Jesus sees something: “as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven saying, ‘You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased’” (1:10–11). Jesus sees the heavens tear open and the Spirit descend, and then he hears a voice that no one else in the Gospel seems to hear. It’s addressed only to Jesus. In Matthew, it’s addressed to the bystanders, “This is my beloved son…” In John, it’s addressed to John the Baptist, “‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’ and I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:33–34). But in Mark, it’s only said to Jesus. It’s a secret between the Father, the beloved Son, and the Holy Spirit. And anyone who reads the Gospel.
But remember, Mark is writing the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, as it is written. What is the message to Jesus “according to the scriptures”? It says, “You are my son,” which sounds a lot like Psalm 2:7, “You are my son, this day have I begotten you,” and that’s what a lot of scholars hear echoed here. Jesus is the Davidic Son of God in a way that exceeds the way David himself was said to be God’s son. I think this is very likely, but the next word has an even stronger evocation of the Torah, specifically God’s word to Abraham in Genesis, which in the Greek Septuagint reads almost verbatim with voice from heaven in Mark: “Take your son, your beloved son, the son whom you love, Isaac, and offer him up on the mountain that I will show you” (Gen 22:2). This is language that gets repeated throughout Mark: On the mountain of Transfiguration, the voice from the cloud says, “This is my son, my beloved son, listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). What does Jesus say before and after this? “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (8:30) “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31). “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:33–34). Jesus sounds a lot like Paul in 1 Corinthians 15! “Jesus died for our sins according to the scriptures, he was buried, and he raised on the third day according to the scriptures” How is what Jesus saying according to the scriptures?
I think Genesis 22 is the key. God commands Abraham to offer his beloved son on the mountain he would show him. Abraham says to Isaac as he carries the wood up the mountain, God will provide the lamb for the offering, my son. Jewish interpreters of this story in the later first and second centuries held a midrashic interpretation of this passage that has Abraham actually killing Isaac, and Isaac rising again. The way they read this passage is that Abraham says, “God will provide the lamb for the offering… MY SON!” But in the Biblical story, they get to the top, Isaac is bound, and as Abraham is raising the knife, God stops him. Now here’s the thing about God’s commands, when God commands something, does God change his mind? I don’t think so. God has commanded the beloved son to be offered up, and even though God provides a ram in the place of the son, God has not yet provided the Lamb for the offering. This language evokes the Passover offering and the Temple sacrifices that were to come. But the lamb is not the Son, until it is: In John 1, Jesus arrives on the scene and John the Baptist says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). John’s words in the Gospel of John convey something akin to what the voice from heaven is saying in Mark. Jesus is God’s beloved son, the second Isaac, whom Paul calls Abraham’s seed, Jesus the Messiah, the anointed one, the one anointed by the Spirit as God’s beloved son to be offered up on the mountain to be shown.
Listen to what else Jesus says in the parable of the wicked tenants, all the way at the end of the Gospel in Mark, chapter eleven and twelve. Jesus has just come triumphantly into Jerusalem, he has cleansed the Temple, and he has answered questions from the Temple authorities about the authority by which he does these things, and he says this, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me” (11:29–30). This is more than a riddle in Mark. Jesus’s authority does in fact relate to his baptism. The very next story Jesus tells, after they refuse to answer him, fearing the crowds is the parable of the Wicked Tenants: The landowner builds a vineyard and goes away. He leases it out, then he sends servants to collect the fruit. This is a clear metaphor for Israel in Isaiah 5, and in the context of the Temple precincts, it is a very thinly veiled reference to the Temple leadership. God sends messenger after messenger, and “some they beat, and others they killed. 6 He had still one other, a beloved son… But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’” (12:6–7). The role of the beloved son is to be killed and become the chief cornerstone. It’s been told about him from his baptism, according to the scriptures.
Fast forward to the end of the Gospel, just like at the beginning we have Jesus there, but now crucified. Just as Mark gives the readers an inside view into what Jesus sees and hears at his baptism, so now at his death, Mark flashes into the Temple, and just as Jesus saw the heavens torn and the Spirit descending, now we see the curtain of the Temple torn from top to bottom, from heaven down to earth, and Mark tells us, this happens right when “Jesus cried out and expired.” Now, the NRSV has it that “Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last” (15:37), but the way it goes in Greek, Jesus cries out and ex-spires. He lets out a spirit: “And Jesus let out his Spirit, releasing a great voice.” The word for breathing there is the same root for the word Spirit. Jesus Spirits out, literally. This is how John’s Gospel portrays it too. “When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave over his spirit” (John 19:30).
What’s more, that secret, the thing that people keep crying out in Mark, and Jesus keeps asking them to be silent? Here, we have a full confession, but not from the disciples, not from the Temple authorities. Throughout the gospel the only people who seem to really know who Jesus is are those who are under the influence of a spirit, usually unclean spirits. Now we have a centurion, a gentile, and not just a gentile, but a crucifying gentile. This centurion, doesn’t admire Jesus’s manly death. He doesn’t see what happens in the temple. What does it say? “When he saw in what way Jesus released his Spirit, he cried, “Truly this person was God’s Son” (15:39). Just like at the baptism and Transfiguration, the voice that comes from God now comes from a Gentile who has seen Jesus, crucified and giving forth his Spirit. Jesus’s identity as the beloved son, the one to be offered on the mountain, foretold in his baptism at the descent of the Spirit, who keeps telling the disciples that he will be crucified and raised? This is the mystery of the kingdom of God, revealed in the baptismal giving of the Spirit, which no one can understand until the Spirit reveals it.
St. Paul says something really similar in Galatians 3 and 4 and Romans 6 and 8. When we are baptized, Paul says in Galatians, we are clothed with Christ. We receive his Spirit, whereby we cry “Abba, Father!” testifying that we are no longer slaves, but sons of God. In Romans, Paul goes further: “We have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry Abba Father, His Spirit testifies with our Spirit that we are sons of God, and if sons, then heirs, heirs of God, and co-heirs with Christ, provided that we co-suffer with him, in order that we may be co-glorified with him” (Rom 8:15–17). A few verses later, Paul will talk about how God did not spare his only son, in language echoing Genesis 22. Receiving the Spirit in baptism, for Paul, unites us with Christ’s death and resurrection, and we too become sons and daughters of God, called to suffer with him.
Here's my thesis: The Gospel of Mark reveals the mystery of the kingdom of God to the reader in a series of parabolic acts that clarify and specify what it means for Jesus, named as the beloved son at the descent of the Spirit, to baptize us with the Spirit, who reveals us in Him as beloved sons and daughters, called to suffer with Jesus, the crucified and risen beloved Son.
In Mark, the whole Gospel proceeds from the baptism into a series of parabolic stories that model the calling, baptism, illumination by the Holy Spirit, and ultimately, the calling of all who follow Christ to embody his crucifixion, resurrection and glory, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be experience Christ present in their midst through the sacraments in which he makes himself present by the power of the Holy Spirit. The promise to those who read Mark, like the women at the tomb are told is that “There you will see him.”
This works on a macro and a micro level in Mark. Before we take a break, I want to show you how I think this works in the macro, that is in the structure of Mark’s Gospel, and then when we come back from the break, we’ll take a closer look at a few passages that show up in the lectionary, give an overview of the Lectionary Year as a whole, and talk a little bit about how John supplements Mark in Year B.
Baptism: water, seeing, open heaven, spirit, son
In Advent, you get John the Baptist, once in Mark, and then in John.
-First and Last Epiphany: Baptism and Transfiguration, followed again by Lent 1, the Baptism and Temptation of Jesus and the proclamation of the Gospel.
-Epiphanytide: Jesus’s ministry, casting out demons and sickness, and calling disciples.
Lent is mostly John. But in Lent 1 & 2 you get Mark: Jesus’s baptism and temptation, and then his call to discipleship, the call to take up the cross. This would be a good place to highlight the beloved Son stuff from week to week.
-Proper 7 & 8 First Sea Crossing and Jairus’s Daughter / Hemorrhaging Woman.
-Proper 9 & 10 Calling of a disciple is to go out, not just proclaiming but embodying the message of dependence on God for his kingdom, despite rejection. Death of John as the fate of the disciple who is rejected to the uttermost: the corruption of power, and the power of the cross.
-Proper 11 Jesus’s compassion, leading into Feeding of 5000
-Proper 12–16 John 6
-Proper 17–25 “On the way” with Jesus to the cross
-Proper 17 Questions of washings: Baptism and ritual purity – Thiessen
-Proper 18 Mark 7 Syrophonecian Woman – If you set up the idea of ritual purity, then you can read the two stories in Proper 18 as Jesus’s engagement with Gentiles, who would be considered impure: He welcomes them to his table, and he opens their ears to hear and tongues to proclaim.
-Proper 19, 20 Peter’s confession, passion predictions, call to discipleship as humility.