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In the book of Mark, Jesus eagerly proclaims the Good News: the Kingdom of God has come. What does that mean for those of us who follow Jesus? Mark: Getting to Know Jesus is an excellent introduction to the book of Mark and the important themes contained in this earliest gospel.
A Guided Discovery of the Bible The Bible invites us to explore God’s word and reflect on how we might respond to it. To do this, ...
In the book of Mark, Jesus eagerly proclaims the Good News: the Kingdom of God has come. What does that mean for those of us who follow Jesus? Mark: Getting to Know Jesus is an excellent introduction to the book of Mark and the important themes contained in this earliest gospel.
A Guided Discovery of the Bible The Bible invites us to explore God’s word and reflect on how we might respond to it. To do this, we need guidance and the right tools for discovery. The Six Weeks with the Bible series of Bible discussion guides offers both in a concise six-week format. Whether focusing on a specific biblical book or exploring a theme that runs throughout the Bible, these practical guides in this series provide meaningful insights that explain Scripture while helping readers make connections to their own lives. Each guide
• is faithful to Church teaching and is guided by sound biblical scholarship
• presents the insights of Church fathers and saints
• includes questions for discussion and reflection
• delivers information in a reader-friendly format
• gives suggestions for prayer that help readers respond to God’s word
• appeals to beginners as well as to advanced students of the Bible
By reading Scripture, reflecting on its deeper meanings, and incorporating it into our daily life, we can grow not only in our understanding of God’s word, but also in our relationship with God.
How to Use This Guide
You might compare this booklet to a short visit to a national park. The park is so large that you could spend months, even years, getting to know it. But a brief visit, if carefully planned, can be enjoyable and worthwhile. In a few hours you can drive through the park and pull over at a handful of sites. At each stop you can get out of the car, take a short trail through the woods, listen to the wind blowing in the trees, get a feel for the place.
In this booklet we’ll drive through the Gospel of Mark, making half a dozen stops along the way. At those points we’ll proceed on foot, taking a leisurely walk through the selected passages. The readings have been chosen to take us to the heart of Mark’s message about Jesus.
After each discussion we’ll get back in the car and take the highway to the next stop. “Between Discussions” pages summarize the portions of Mark that we will pass along the way.
This guide provides everything you need to explore Mark in six discussions—or to do a six-part exploration on your own. The introduction on page 6 will prepare you to get the most out of your reading. The weekly sections feature key passages from Mark, with explanations that highlight what his words mean for us today. Equally important, each section supplies questions that will launch you into fruitful discussion, helping you both to explore Mark for yourself and to learn from one another. If you’re using the booklet by yourself, the questions will spur your personal reflection.
Each discussion is meant to be a guided discovery.
Guided. None of us is equipped to read the Bible without help. We read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in and with the Church. So each week “A Guide to the Reading,” drawing on the work of both modern biblical scholars and Christian writers of the past, supplies background and explanations. The guide will help you grasp Mark’s message. Think of it as a friendly park ranger who points out noteworthy details and explains what you’re looking at so you can appreciate things for yourself.
Discovery. The purpose is for you to interact with Mark’s Gospel. “Questions for Careful Reading” is a tool to help you dig into the Gospel and examine it carefully. “Questions for Application” will help you consider what Mark means for your life here and now. Each week concludes with an “Approach to Prayer” section that helps you respond to God’s Word. Supplementary “Living Tradition” and “Saints in the Making” sections offer the thoughts and experiences of Christians past and present in order to show you what the Gospel has meant to others—so that you can consider what it might mean for you.
How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and a half when you get together. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of the discussions if you read the weekly material in advance of each meeting. But if participants are not able to prepare, have someone read the “What’s Happened” and “Guide to the Reading” sections aloud to the group at the points where they occur in the weekly material.
What about leadership? If you happen to have a world-class biblical scholar in your group, by all means ask him or her to lead the discussions. But in the absence of any professional Scripture scholars, or even accomplished biblical amateurs, you can still have a first-class Bible discussion. Choose two or three people to be facilitators, and have everyone read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” before beginning (page 92).
Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need their own copy of this booklet. It contains the sections of Mark that are discussed, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary—but each participant will find it useful to have one. You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussion. (See page 96 for recommendations.)
How do we get started? Before you begin, take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 92) and individuals (page 95).
Unexpectedly Good News
Introducing Mark’s Gospel
Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s play about life in a New England village, opened on Broadway in 1938—well before most of us were buying theater tickets. But, growing up, each new generation of Americans has a fair chance of seeing or reading the play, because high school English teachers consider it a classic.
If Our Town was part of your school experience, you may recall that the stage manager appears at the beginning to set the scene. “The name of the town,” he tells the audience, “is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire—just across the Massachusetts line: latitude 42°40’; longitude 70°37’. The first act shows a day in our town. The day is May 7, 1901. The time is just before dawn.”
Later the manager brings a local professor on stage. He lectures the audience on the geology of the region and on the American Indians who lived there in centuries past.
Grover’s Corners is a small place. But by providing it with real space-time coordinates and historical background, the playwright suggests that the lives of its residents have global significance.
Unlike Thornton Wilder, Mark did not put an informative stage manager at the beginning of his work. Mark dives into the action with hardly a preliminary. An introduction, however, might have helped orient us to the universal significance of his account. Apparently the other Gospel writers thought so. When, as scholars suppose, Matthew and Luke sat down to adapt Mark’s Gospel, each added a couple of introductory chapters.
It is interesting to imagine what an Our Town–type opening to the Gospel of Mark would be like. I picture a guide standing on a hillside, looking down at a cluster of stone houses in the valley. “The name of this town,” he says, “is Nazareth in Galilee. Galilee is a hilly region rising up from the Mediterranean to the west and descending eastward to the lake we call the Sea of Galilee. The lake’s been there for five million years, since the earth split open and formed the Great Rift that stretches from Lebanon to Africa.
“This area’s seen a lot of coming and going. Some thirty thousand years ago, Neanderthal people kept house in a cave yonder. It’s almost two thousand years since Abraham traveled through these hills. Israelites settled here a thousand years ago. According to your modern reckoning, the year is a.d. 30.”
If Mark had written a lead-in of this sort, it would have alerted us to the striking contrast between his story’s small scale and its cosmic importance. In his Gospel, Mark reports events that seemed insignificant to most people at the time. He chronicles the brief notoriety and untimely death of a man from an obscure village—a man hardly mentioned in writings of the period outside the reports of his own followers. Yet before the Israelites appeared on the stage of history, before prehistoric people lived in caves, before the shaping of the earth, God had conceived the plan for humanity that reached its climax in this man, Jesus of Nazareth.
Like Thornton Wilder, Mark tells a story of universal significance, yet with a staggering difference. Our Town speaks to everyone because it explores our common human condition. The Gospel speaks to all of us because it tells about the measures the creator has taken to alter the human condition.
Pattern, promises, and expectations. Earlier I said that Mark did not give his Gospel an introduction. The reason may well be that he thought it already had one: the Scriptures of Israel. In his first verses, Mark indicates that the gospel, or “good news,” of Jesus unfolded in accord with God’s promises recorded in Israel’s prophetic writings (1:2–3; biblical references are to Mark unless otherwise noted).
In Mark’s view, Jesus brought what God had been doing with Israel to its climax. For this reason, getting some notion of God’s dealings with Israel is indispensable if we are to understand who Jesus was and what he came to do. Let’s look briefly, then, at the background.
The Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament, communicate a distinctive view of God and human beings. The Old Testament portrays a single creator, who has made humankind in his likeness, that is, designed to be in a relationship with him (Genesis 1:26). The Old Testament writings depict God as passionately committed to justice, yet forgiving; he is a God both majestic and merciful (Sirach 2:18). In the historical accounts and poetry of the Old Testament, we humans are portrayed as noble creatures who nevertheless have a sad tendency to set ourselves in conflict with God’s purposes—and with each other.
The Old Testament shows that God focused his love for the human race on a small Near Eastern people called Israel. God rescued the Israelites from their enemies. He formed a covenant—a permanent, faithful bond—with them. He instructed them in how to worship and trust him and in how to live in faithfulness and peace with one another. The Israelites sometimes failed to respond wholeheartedly to God’s initiatives. Periodically, the painful consequences of their sins afflicted the Israelites and impelled them to turn back to God. God then renewed his relationship with them and helped them in their need.
In 587 b.c. an accumulation of idolatries and social injustices among the people of Israel led to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. This event was the watershed disaster in the history of Israel. God promised the Jews a splendid restoration. He would forgive their sins and even heal their sinful hearts (Jeremiah 31:31–34). Exiles would return to the land of Israel (Zephaniah 3:14–20). The Jerusalem temple would be rebuilt, and God would dwell there gloriously at the center of his people (Ezekiel 40–48). There would be prosperity for the people of Israel and defeat for their enemies (Zechariah 14). But God’s blessings on the Jews would ripple out to the rest of the human race as well (Zechariah 8:20–23).
Six centuries later, at the beginning of the first century, these promises seemed to have been only half fulfilled. The land of Israel was part of the Roman Empire—a situation both oppressive and offensive to pious Jews. Yet, far from fading, the Jews’ expectations for God’s intervention intensified. Many looked for God to act on their behalf in a decisive, once-and-for-all transformation that would bring the history of humanity to a conclusion. God, they thought, would come to reign as king, inaugurating a final age of justice and peace. Even the dead would rise to enjoy new life. The expectations of God’s action, combined with the Jews’ painful political and economic circumstances, gave rise to numerous insurrections against the Romans. Eventually two unsuccessful rebellions against Rome brought catastrophe on Jewish society in the land of Israel (a.d. 66–70 and 132–135).
In this tense situation, around a.d. 30, Jesus made an electrifying declaration: The period of waiting is over! God’s reign is about to arrive! (1:14–15). Jesus presented himself as the fulfillment of God’s dealings with Israel. He acted as the fully authorized representative of Israel’s God. His proclamation of God’s reign, his miracles, his declarations of forgiveness, his gathering of disciples, his teaching and symbolic actions—all should have signified to the Jews of his time that their expectations for God’s action on their behalf were being fulfilled.
Expected, yet surprising. But it quickly became apparent that Jesus was fulfilling Jewish expectations in a very unexpected way. Jews of the time who observed Jesus and listened to his preaching would have found several aspects of his “program” surprising.
A messiah greater than expected. Jesus claimed to play a larger role in the coming of God’s kingdom than Jews had expected any human being to play. Jews had various expectations of how God would act on their behalf. Some thought God would appoint a special leader, or messiah—perhaps more than one—to spearhead his intervention. But Jews hardly expected a messiah to act with the sweeping divine authorization that Jesus claimed to have. God’s healing, life-giving rule was becoming present in Jesus’ words and touch. The restoration of Israel began as men and women took their places in the company of Jesus’ disciples (see 3:33–35). Equally remarkable, Jesus gave authoritative rulings on Israel’s basic, God-given law (2:23–28). He forgave sins as God’s representative (2:1–11).
A more radical program. Surprisingly, Jesus did not aim at a literal fulfillment of prophetic predictions of military triumph and national sovereignty. Rather than raising an army to liberate the land of Israel, Jesus promoted a kingdom without ties to any particular land. Jesus did bring liberation, but not from the Romans. He liberated people from sicknesses, guilt, sinful attitudes, and broken relationships.
Nor did Jesus announce an intensification of God’s presence in the temple in Jerusalem. In fact, he performed an action in the temple symbolizing that its usefulness was at an end (11:15–17).
Jesus bypassed the Mosaic rule permitting divorce. Instead, he directed people back toward a fulfillment of God’s original purpose of marital permanence through a change of heart (10:2–12).
Thus Jesus reinterpreted Israel’s central values: Promised Land, Jerusalem temple, and Mosaic law. He was aiming at a deeper liberation and restoration than expected—a renewal of people’s hearts, so that they might become what God created them to be.
Jesus did not undertake a mission to non-Jews, but by shifting the focus of God’s activity from the distinctive Jewish essentials of land, temple, and law, he opened the way for non-Jews to share in God’s kingdom. On occasion he used his miraculous powers to aid non-Jews as well as Jews (7:24–8:10).
A kingdom now but not yet. Jews in the first century envisioned various scenarios regarding the last days. Generally, they did not expect the material universe to end. Rather, they thought God would transform the world and begin a new, final age of holiness and peace. By declaring that God’s kingdom was about to arrive, Jesus indicated that this final age was dawning. Yet it was not descending from heaven with manifest power and glory but springing up mysteriously in small, seemingly insignificant ways (chapter 4). The final age of God’s loving care for men and women was beginning, bringing forgiveness and healing and God’s guiding Spirit, yet this did not mean the immediate end of suffering and persecution (8:34–38; 10:29–30). Unexpectedly, God’s reign was both present and still to come.
A suffering messiah. Most surprising was Jesus’ understanding of the chief task God had given him. Jesus shocked his followers by informing them that, in fulfillment of God’s purposes, he was going to allow himself to be arrested, tortured, and executed by the religious and political authorities; after this, he would rise from the dead (8:31). While resurrection belonged to Jewish expectations of the final age, the humiliating death of the Messiah certainly did not.
How we can connect with the story. If Jesus had fulfilled God’s promises according to Jewish expectations of the time, his life might not have had much meaning for us, since we are not Jews living in the land of Israel in the early first century. The meaning of Jesus’ life for us lies in the unexpected way that he fulfilled God’s promises. As we read Mark’s Gospel, we will explore how Jesus’ surprising fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel is very good news for us. Before we begin, I would like to point out a couple of handles to grab hold of in your reading of Mark that may help you hear what God wishes to say to you through the Gospel.
The secret of Jesus’ identity. Jesus evoked sharply different reactions—admiration and fear, faith and consternation. Because of his authoritative manner, the miracles that supported his claims, and the crowds that were drawn by his miracles, Jesus was difficult for people to ignore. They were forced to wrestle with the question of his identity (1:27; 6:2–3). Was he a nobody from nowhere, merely the carpenter of Nazareth, who was leading people astray from God’s covenant with Israel? Or was he someone immeasurably greater? The men and women who became his disciples were not freed from this struggle to understand him. Far from it. They experienced firsthand the bafflement and terror of following a man who rejected earthly ambitions and regarded crucifixion as the capstone of his work (10:32–34).
Mark portrays Jesus as exercising his authority openly yet being secretive about his identity. Jesus sometimes commanded the people he healed not to spread reports about their healing (1:43–44; 5:43). He ordered evil spirits, who knew who he was, to be silent (1:34). He told his disciples not to broadcast their knowledge of him (8:30; 9:9). He referred to himself as “the Son of Man” (2:10, 28; 8:31), a term that would intrigue his listeners without giving them a clear answer to the question Who are you?
While Jesus bears various titles in Mark’s Gospel—Messiah, king, son of David—the title that comes closest to expressing his fundamental identity is the title that most clearly expresses his relationship with God: Jesus is the “Son of God” (1:11). This is how God thinks of Jesus. Jesus kept this title secret, publicly affirming it only at his trial (14:61–62). Mark’s Gospel is thus the drama of the revelation and recognition of Jesus as the Son of God. The dramatic interest lies in whether the people around Jesus will come to grasp who he is.
As readers of Mark we are in no suspense regarding Jesus’ true identity. Mark tells us plainly at the outset that Jesus is God’s Son (1:1). Early on, Mark lets us listen in as God declares Jesus’ divine sonship at his baptism (1:11—a declaration not heard by any of the human bystanders). We watch the people around Jesus struggling to discover who he is, but we already know.
Ah, but do we? As we watch the people in the story stumbling around, failing for the most part to discover who Jesus really is, should we pat ourselves on the back for our superior insight? Or should we ask ourselves whether, for all our superior knowledge, we really know Jesus any better than the people in the Gospel? Mark invites us to enter into the drama of his Gospel by asking ourselves questions about how well we recognize Jesus. What, after all, does it mean to know Jesus, the Son of God? Does knowing him involve merely being informed of his title, or is it something more personal, more rewarding, more demanding? How well do I know Jesus? What does knowing Jesus mean for my life? If we keep these questions in mind as we read, Mark’s Gospel will be an opportunity to grow in knowledge of Jesus at the level of experience and commitment.
The disciples’ mediocre response. After Jesus began to preach, his first act was to call a handful of men to become his disciples (1:16–20). From then until the moment of his arrest, he was constantly surrounded by his followers, who included women as well as men (15:40–41). Jesus kept his disciples close to him and gave them special instructions and opportunities to share in his work (3:14; 4:10–11; 6:7–13).
At times, Jesus’ disciples showed signs of understanding what he was about (8:29). They took steps toward genuine discipleship (1:16–20; 10:28). But it cannot be said that they set an example of how to follow him. Sometimes they seemed resistant to the truth about Jesus (8:14–21). They even attempted to stand in his way as he sought to carry out God’s plans (8:32). In the end, when he was arrested, they embarrassed him by running away and even denying any relationship with him (14:50, 66–71).
Jesus of Nazareth, as Mark portrays him, was a man of intense personal magnetism, a man for whom men and women were willing to leave everything. The promise that he would bring Israel’s hopes to fulfillment was deeply motivating to them. Yet it was not easy for them to follow this man who took such an unexpected path to the fulfillment of God’s plans. Their attempts to follow him exposed their weaknesses. Their “first round” of discipleship—the round we see in Mark’s Gospel—ended in failure.
Again, Mark invites us to enter into the story. He invites us to identify with the disciples in their initial responsiveness to Jesus and enthusiasm for his mission. That is how we would like to be! Then, when the disciples fail to understand Jesus, when they try to block him, when they abandon him, we are brought up short. We are forced to ask ourselves whether we have the tendencies these first disciples displayed. If these tendencies led the first disciples to abandon Jesus, where might the same tendencies lead us? If we recognize something of ourselves in the first disciples and do not like it, what are we going to do about it?
These are serious questions. But then, Mark relates a serious story. Only if we are serious about facing the deepest questions about God and ourselves are we ready to read Mark’s Gospel. Only then will we perceive the surprisingly good news that it contains.
Are you serious?
The Kingdom of God Has Come Near
Questions to Begin
15 minutes Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.
1 What’s the most difficult change of diet you have ever had to make (when you left home, moved to college, traveled in a foreign country, experienced health problems)?
2 What’s your approach to morning?
I love to get up very early. (How early is that? What do you do then?)
I’d like to get up early, but I rarely get to bed early enough to get up early. (What keeps you up at night?)
I hold on to every last minute in bed.
Please don’t talk to me before ten o’clock.
Opening the Bible
5 minutes Read the passage aloud. Let individuals take turns reading paragraphs.
The Reading: Mark 1:1–39
The Advance Man
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
A Day in the Life
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried 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!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Questions for Careful Reading
10 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 In verse 2, who seems to be speaking? Who is the “messenger”? Who is “you”?
2 Who speaks in verse 11?
3 What do verses 16 to 20, 29 to 30, and 35 to 38 suggest about the relationship between Jesus and his first followers? How well do his followers understand him?
4 What impression of Jesus do you get from the things he says and does in this reading?
A Guide to the Reading
If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise go on to “Questions for Application.”
Who is Jesus of Nazareth? Many of us would answer, “He is the Son of God.” But what does that mean? And what does it mean for us? If Jesus is God’s Son, he is an inexhaustible mystery, and being in a relationship with him is also an inexhaustible mystery. Mark writes his Gospel to help fellow Christians grasp more deeply the mystery of Jesus, “the Son of God” (1:1), and what it means to follow him.
John the Baptist is a man with a single-minded sense of urgency. He has stripped his life down to the bare necessities in order to focus on what he expects God to do (1:6–8). John’s manner of life is an unspoken sermon. The message: If you want to prepare for God’s action in your life, structure your life on the conviction that whatever God wants to do is the most important thing in the world. That involves facing up to your sins and seeking God’s forgiveness (1:4).
John’s ministry is the beginning of the good news of Jesus (1:1). John continues to stand at the beginning of the good news in each of our lives. John advises us that if we wish to experience Jesus’ coming, we must put aside whatever sins or encumbrances hold us back from responding to God’s grace.
Jesus’ first public act is to be baptized by John (1:9). Immediately afterward, God declares that Jesus is his Son, sending the Holy Spirit to give him the authority to carry out his mission (1:10 –11). Jesus’ relationship with God is the basis of his ability to carry out his mission. Similarly, our relationship with God provides the basis for carrying out whatever mission God gives us.
Jesus returns to Galilee and announces that the moment of God’s decisive action among human beings has come: “The kingdom of God has come near” (1:15). God is beginning to rule over men and women in a direct, liberating way. Jesus repeats John’s call to repentance, but in light of God’s action, the call now has a new shade of meaning. We might paraphrase it as “Stop thinking and acting as though God were inactive and far away. God is on the move! Make whatever changes are necessary to respond to him!”
The announcement that God’s reign “has come near” has an already-almost quality. In one sense, God’s kingdom is now arriving. In another sense, his kingdom is near but has not yet arrived. God’s kingdom is visible but not yet fully visible. God is not immediately setting right all the wrongs in the world, so it takes faith to recognize his action. Thus Jesus calls people to believe in the good news of God’s arriving, but still somewhat hidden, kingdom (1:15).
Before recounting any of Jesus’ teaching or miracles, Mark tells us about the calling of the disciples. This action spotlights Jesus’ central purpose. His efforts are directed toward gathering and training a group of followers and sharing his mission with them. This continues to be his purpose in our lives. He calls us to become his followers, a commitment that involves joining his other followers.
The fishermen that Jesus calls immediately leave their nets and boats—and even their father—and begin to walk along the lakeshore with him (1:16–20). Presumably they have heard Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom, but they are responding not only to his message but also to his invitation to a personal relationship with him.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ sudden call to these men conveys a sense of Jesus’ personal authority over men and women. The next episode further underlines Jesus’ unique authority. People are amazed that Jesus teaches about God on his own authority rather than by referring to learned opinions, as other Jewish teachers did (1:21–22, 27). To give us a visual image of the power of Jesus’ teaching, Mark describes Jesus’ confrontation with an evil spirit that is afflicting a man—probably with illness (1:23–26). When Jesus speaks, people are changed!
Almost in passing, Mark mentions that Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law (1:31). Far from being unimportant, this episode expresses the dynamic that lies at the heart of following Jesus—being called, being healed, and beginning to serve. The woman is obscure and her service seems insignificant, but that is exactly what makes her a sterling example of the response that Jesus is looking for.
Questions for Application
40 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 How has God helped you come to faith and openness to him? What can you learn from your experiences?
2 If you believed that God was about to intervene in your life, what would you do to prepare?
3 How has your baptism shaped your identity and relationship with God? How could you live your baptism more completely?
4 In what part of your life do you find it especially difficult to detect God’s presence? If you were more confident that God wishes to bring his kingdom into that part of your life, how would you handle it differently?
5 What hidden service to other people is Jesus inviting you to provide at this point in your life?
“It is deadly to request that each person take a turn sharing. . . . Speaking ‘in turn’ destroys spontaneity and forces individuals to focus on themselves.”
Loretta Girzaitis, Guidebook for Bible Study
Approach to Prayer
15 minutes Use this approach—or create your own!
Ask one person to read Mark 1:16–20 aloud and then repeat it. Ask another person to read this excerpt from a sermon by John Henry Newman, a nineteenth-century English theologian:
We do not understand that his call is a thing which takes place now. We think it took place in the apostles’ days; but we do not believe in it, we do not look out for it in our own case. We have not eyes to see the Lord.
Take a few minutes for silent reflection. Close the reflection time with a short prayer such as “Lord, help each of us hear your call. Give us the grace to respond to you.” End with an Our Father.
Saints in the Making Touching
This section is a supplement for individual reading.
Jesus touched and healed a man suffering from leprosy (1:40–45). For this man, being touched by Jesus was doubly significant. His disease made him a social outcast. Jesus’ touch not only brought him physical healing but also ended his isolation from other people.
Leprosy produces horrible deformities, and until modern times it was mistakenly thought to be very contagious. As a result, victims of leprosy were shunned, literally regarded as untouchable. But through the centuries, Christians have imitated Jesus by caring for men and women suffering from leprosy. For some, the simple act of touching a person with leprosy has been a life-changing experience. St. Francis of Assisi was one of these people. The sight of leprosy filled him with horror. If people suffering from the disease approached him, asking for a handout, Francis would give them a coin but avoid any physical contact. One day, however, when a man with leprosy came up to him, on a sudden inspiration Francis placed the coin in the man’s hand and then bent down and kissed his fingers. It was a victory over self-protectiveness, which Francis followed up the next day by visiting the local hospital for leprosy victims. Later Francis wrote, “The Lord granted me to begin my conversion. As long as I lived in my sins, I felt very bitter to see the lepers. But the Lord took me among them, and I exercised mercy towards them.”
In the 1980s, a Florida businessman, Ferdinand Mahfood, began to organize relief efforts for poor people in the Caribbean. “On my first visits to leprosariums,” he wrote, “I shrank from touching anyone. The sight of so many bodies so ravaged by this terrible disease left me shaken and fearful. ‘Jesus,’ I prayed one day. ‘I know you want me to love these sick people as you have loved them. Please help me to express your love by touching them.’ It wasn’t easy to shake hands with the next leprosy patient I encountered, but that was the turning point. Truly, God makes his grace well up inside us when we ask him to help us.”
Whose pain are you afraid of? What suffering person are you reluctant to touch, to get close to? Will you let God help you to love?
The first chapter of Mark creates a strong impression of God’s initiative. God made plans long ago (reflected in the Old Testament prophecies—1:2–3) and is now putting them into operation. John’s desert life and preaching repentance express an almost physical sense of anticipation of God’s action. Jesus announces that God’s kingdom is near, and he makes an immediate impact on the people he meets.
The coming of God’s reign means that God is beginning to care for men and women in a new way. We, in turn, are called to respond to him in a new way. If God were uninvolved in human affairs, it might be enough merely to follow whatever general guidelines for living he laid down. But if God comes personally to free us from evil and reconcile us to him, we should answer with our whole being.
God’s activity is not ghostly or vague. It has a visible, tangible focus: Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the point at which God is making himself present. Thus the way to say yes to God is to say yes to Jesus. Mark’s simple account of the calling of the first disciples illustrates how this works. Jesus invites Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow him; they put everything aside in order to do so. The episode is a kind of icon-in-action of God’s initiative and man’s response.
An aspect of Jesus’ activity that may puzzle us involves his encounters with people troubled by “unclean spirits,” or “demons” (see 1:23, 34). People at the time thought that many illnesses were due to these evil entities. While the Church continues to recognize the existence of the devil and evil spirits (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 391–395), it abandoned long ago the prescientific mentality that viewed demons as a major source of sickness. While we may not agree with the demon diagnosis of many first-century people, it is clear from Mark’s account that Jesus actually frees people from physical and mental suffering. By doing so he shows that he exercises God’s power over all evils, material and spiritual—including all the evils that we ourselves will ever face. His exorcisms signal that the final struggle between God and evil expected by many Jews in the end times has begun.
John the Baptist exhorts people to step into the Jordan River and receive a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4). Through this baptism, people express their sorrow for sins and their expectation of God’s forgiveness. This expectation leads us to suppose that forgiveness will be a major part of Jesus’ activity, and indeed forgiveness quickly comes to the fore in the section of Mark that we skip on the way to our next reading.
Jesus heals a man of a skin disease that makes him ritually impure under the Jewish law (1:40–45). Since the disease is regarded as a symptom of guilt, Jesus’ healing of it is a symbol of forgiveness. Then Jesus tells a paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven (2:5). Finally, Jesus calls into discipleship a man whose occupation involves unjust practices and accepts an invitation to dinner at the man’s home with some of his colleagues in injustice (2:13–17). Simply by his presence at the meal, Jesus implicitly extends God’s forgiveness to host and guests.
Only when Jesus’ actions are seen against the background of Jewish expectations can we perceive their full meaning. Given Jewish hopes that God will liberate his whole people, Jesus’ small-scale acts of forgiveness and healing are signals that a large-scale action of God is under way—an action that will have implications for the whole world. Yet Jesus exercises an authority that goes beyond Jewish expectations. Unlike the rabbis, who wait for students to come to them, Jesus calls disciples, as though he has the right to determine the direction of men’s and women’s lives. He overpowers the forces of evil. He cures diseases with a word or a touch—an expression of creative power. He does what only God has the authority to do: forgive sins. He restores people’s relationship with God through his own friendship with them, bypassing the system of reconciling sinners through temple sacrifices. To the religious authorities, Jesus’ behavior seems an infringement on the prerogatives of God and a threat to the Mosaic law and the temple in Jerusalem (2:7, 16). He is heading into conflict with these religious figures.
4 How to Use This Guide
6 Unexpectedly Good News
14 Week 1
The Kingdom of God Has Come Near
26 Week 2
Who Is This Man?
38 Week 3
50 Week 4
The Hour Has Come
62 Week 5
Messiah and Son of God
74 Week 6
The Ransom Is Given
Mark 15:1– 41
84 A Surprise Ending
88 Unfinished Business
92 Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups
95 Suggestions for Individuals