Read an Excerpt
How to Use This Guide
You might compare this volume 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 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, and get a feel for the place.
In this volume we’ll travel 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 either to explore the Gospel of 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 volume 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 a Closer Look” is a tool to help you dig into the Gospel and examine it carefully. “Questions for Application” will help you discern 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.
If you are using this volume for individual study, pay special attention to the questions provided for each week (Warm-Up Questions, Questions for a Closer Look, Questions for Application). One advantage of individual study is that you can take all the time you need to consider all the questions. You may also want to read the Gospel of Mark in its entirety, and you will find that the “Between Discussions” pages will help you understand the additional portions of the Gospel. Finally, take your time making your way through the Gospel of Mark and this accompanying volume: let your reading be an opportunity for this Gospel to become God’s words to you.
Unexpected Good News
Introducing Mark’s Gospel
Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s play about life in a New England village, opened on Broadway in 1938. Today, more than 60 years later, many high school students still see or read the play as part of their English curriculum.
The play opens with the Stage Manager walking onto an empty stage 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 Stage Manager brings a local professor on stage to tell the audience about the geology of the region and the American Indians who had lived there in centuries past.
By providing the audience with the real space-time coordinates and the historical background of the town, the playwright suggests that the lives of its residents have universal meaning.
When Mark wrote his Gospel, he did not put an informative stage manager at the beginning of his work. He dives right into the story. It might have helped us appreciate the importance of his story if he had written an introduction, however. Indeed, when Matthew and Luke sat down to adapt Mark and write their own Gospels, they each added a couple of introductory chapters.
An Our Town-style introduction to the Gospel of Mark might include 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 comings and goings. Some 30 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.”
Such an introduction might have prepared us to appreciate the contrast between his story’s small scale and its importance for the whole world. Mark’s Gospel covers events that seemed insignificant to most people at the time. Mark tells about the brief life and untimely death of a man from an obscure village—a man hardly mentioned by anyone at the time besides his own followers. Yet before there were any Israelites, before prehistoric people lived in caves, before the shaping of the earth, this man, Jesus of Nazareth, had been at the center of God’s plan for humanity.
The play Our Town speaks to all of us because it helps us understand what it means to be a human being. Mark’s Gospel speaks to all of us because it tells about what God has done to change the human condition.
Pattern, promises, and expectations ~ Mark may not have given his Gospel an introduction because he thought it already had one: the Scriptures of Israel. He points out in his first verses that the gospel, or “Good News,” of Jesus unfolded in line with what God promised through the prophets of Israel.
Mark saw Jesus as the climax of what God had been doing with Israel. This means that it is important for us to know about God’s dealings with Israel if we are to understand who Jesus was and what he came to do. Let’s look briefly at the background.
The Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament, portray a single creator, who has made us in his likeness, designed to be in a relationship with him (Genesis 1:26). The God of the Old Testament is just, yet forgiving; he is a God both majestic and merciful (Sirach 2:18). The Old Testament portrays us as noble creatures who tend to set ourselves in conflict with God—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 did not always respond wholeheartedly to God, and they would suffer the painful consequences of their sins. When they turned back to God, he would renew his relationship with them and help them in their need.
In 587 b.c. the people of Israel, guilty of idolatries and social injustices, witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. This disaster was a turning point in their history. 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 benefit 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 that pious Jews found difficult to accept. In spite of their situation, however, the Jews’ expectations for God’s intervention intensified. Many of them expected God to take decisive action and bring human history to an end. God, they thought, would come to reign as king in a final age of justice and peace. Even the dead would rise to enjoy new life. These high expectations, combined with their political and economic suffering, led the Jews to rise up against the Romans on many occasions. Eventually two unsuccessful rebellions against Rome, in a.d. 66–70 and 132–135, resulted in catastrophe for the Jews.
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! (1:1sus claimed to be the fulfillment of God’s dealings with Israel and the fully authorized representative of Israel’s God. Everything that Jesus said and did should have made it clear 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 ~ Jews had various expectations of how God would act on their behalf. Some thought God would appoint a special person, a messiah, to take the lead in doing God’s work. But Jews hardly expected a messiah to act with the divine authority that Jesus claimed to have. The Kingdom of God 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). As God’s representative, he forgave sins (2:1–11).
A more radical program ~ The prophets had predicted military triumph and national sovereignty, but Jesus did not aim at a literal fulfillment of those predictions. He did not raise an army to liberate the land of Israel, but instead 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.
Jesus also did not say that God would increase his presence in the Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, he performed an action in the Temple symbolizing that the Temple would not be needed anymore (11:15–17).
Jesus bypassed the Mosaic rule permitting divorce. Instead, he challenged people to maintain 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. He wanted 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 he opened the way for them to share in God’s Kingdom by shifting the focus of God’s activity from what was essential to the Jews: land, temple, and law. 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 had different opinions on the subject of the last days. Most of them did not expect the world to end. They thought God would change the world and begin a new, final age of holiness and peace. When Jesus declared that God’s Kingdom was about to arrive, he was indicating that this final age was beginning. Yet it was not coming down from heaven with power and glory. It was springing up in small, seemingly insignificant ways (chapter 4). The final age of God’s loving care for men and women was beginning. It would bring forgiveness and healing and God’s guiding Spirit, but it would not bring an immediate end to 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 the way Jesus understood 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). The Jews expected resurrection in the final age, but not the humiliating death of the Messiah.
How we can connect with the story ~ If Jesus had been what the Jews of the time expected, 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. We find meaning in Jesus’ life because of the unexpected way he fulfilled God’s promises. Our reading of Mark’s Gospel will show us how Jesus’ surprising fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel is very good news for us. Before we begin, we should review a couple of themes in Mark that may help God’s message to come through in reading the Gospel.
The secret of Jesus’ identity ~ People reacted to Jesus with both admiration and fear, faith and consternation. They found it hard to ignore him because he spoke and acted with authority, he supported his claims with miracles, and he attracted large crowds. They had to wrestle with the question of who he was (1:27; 6:2–3). Was he a nobody, nothing more than a carpenter from Nazareth, who was leading people astray from God’s covenant with Israel? Or was he someone much greater than that? Even the men and women who became his disciples struggled to understand him. Sometimes they were baffled and terrified trying to follow a man who rejected earthly ambitions and seemed to welcome crucifixion (10:32–34).
Jesus exercised his authority openly, Mark says, but he was quiet about who he was. He would sometimes tell the people he had healed not to tell others about their healing (1:43–44; 5:43). The demons knew who he was, and he ordered them to be silent (1:34). He told his disciples not to tell others what they knew about 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 but did little to help them understand who he was.
Mark’s Gospel uses several titles for Jesus—Messiah, King, Son of David. The title that best expresses Jesus’ identity and his relationship with God is Son of God (1:11). This is how God thinks of Jesus. Jesus kept this title secret until his trial (14:61–62). Mark’s Gospel is thus the drama of Jesus being revealed and recognized as the Son of God. The dramatic interest lies in whether the people around Jesus will come to grasp who he is.
Mark does not keep his readers guessing about who Jesus is. He tells us plainly at the outset that Jesus is God’s Son (1:1). He lets us hear God’s declaration at Jesus’ baptism that Jesus is his divine son (1:11)—a declaration not heard by the human bystanders. We watch the people around Jesus struggling to discover who he is, but we already know.
Or at least we think we do. The people in the story struggle to figure out who Jesus really is, while we are tempted to pat ourselves on our backs for knowing it already. But do 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? Do we know Jesus if all we know is that his title is the Son of God? How well do we know Jesus? What does knowing Jesus mean for our lives? If we keep these questions in mind, our reading of Mark’s Gospel will give us a chance to learn more about Jesus, to increase our experience of him and our commitment to him.
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, teaching them and letting them share in his work (3:14; 4:10–11; 6:7–13).
At times, Jesus’ disciples would show signs of understanding what he was about (8:29). They took steps toward genuine discipleship (1:16–20; 10:28). But they did not always set good examples of how to follow Jesus. Sometimes they seemed not to want to know the truth about Jesus (8:14–21). They even tried to stand in his way as he sought to carry out God’s plans (8:32). When he was arrested, they embarrassed him by running away and even denying any relationship with him (14:50,66–71).
Mark portrays Jesus of Nazareth as someone for whom people were willing to leave everything. They were excited by his promise to bring Israel’s hopes to fulfillment. Yet it was not easy for them to follow him because the way he talked about fulfilling God’s plans was so unexpected. When they tried to follow him, their weaknesses were revealed. Their “first round” of discipleship—the round we see in Mark’s Gospel—ended in failure.
Mark invites us to enter into the story. He invites us to see ourselves in the disciples, responding enthusiastically to Jesus and his mission. That is how we would like to be! But when the disciples fail to understand Jesus, when they try to get in his way, when they abandon him, we have second thoughts. We have to ask ourselves if we share these same tendencies. These tendencies led the first disciples to abandon Jesus; what might the same tendencies lead us to do? If we see 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. We are only ready to read Mark’s Gospel if we are serious about facing the deepest questions about God and ourselves. Only then will we be able to understand its unexpected Good News.
Are you serious?
The Kingdom of God Has Come Near
1 What do you like to eat at home? at school? when you’re out with friends?
2 What are you like in the morning?
I like getting up early, but not too early.
I’d just as well sleep away the whole morning.
I like lying in bed, half awake and half asleep.
Please don’t talk to me before 10:00 a.m.
Opening the Bible
The Advance Man
1:1 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 a Closer Look
1 In verse 2, who seems to be speaking? Who is the “messenger”? Who is “you”?
2 Who speaks in verse 11?
3 Read verses 16–20,29–30, and 35–38. What do they suggest about Jesus and his first followers? How well do his followers understand him?
4 What do Jesus’ words and actions in this reading tell us about him?
A Guide to the Reading
Who is Jesus of Nazareth? Many of us would answer, “He is the Son of God.” But who can fully understand what it means to be God’s Son and how we should relate to him? Mark writes his Gospel to help fellow Christians better understand Jesus as “the Son of God” (1:1) and what it means to follow him.
John the Baptist is single-minded about what he wants to accomplish. He gets rid of all the comforts and pleasures of life so that he can focus on what he expects God to do (1:6–8). The way he lives his life is a lesson to us in opening the way for God to work in our lives. We must show that we really believe that whatever God wants to do is the most important thing in the world. We have to face up to our sins and seek God’s forgiveness (1:4).
John’s ministry is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus (1:1), and he can continue to open our lives to the Good News. John teaches us that for us to experience Jesus’ coming, we must rid ourselves of all the things that keep us from responding to God’s grace.
Jesus’ first public act is to be baptized by John (1:9). God declares after the baptism that Jesus is his Son and that the Holy Spirit will give him the authority to do his work (1:10–11). Jesus is able to do his work because of his relationship with God. In the same way, our relationship with God enables us to do the work God has in mind for us.
Jesus returns to Galilee and announces that the time has come for God to take decisive action among us: “The kingdom of God has come near” (1:15). God is beginning to rule over us in a direct, liberating way. Like John, Jesus calls people to repent, but his message is slightly different. The message might be something like this: “Stop thinking and acting as though God were far from us, doing nothing. God is on the move! Change whatever you have to so that you can respond to him!”
When Jesus told us that God’s reign “has come near,” he wanted us to understand that God’s Kingdom is now arriving but it has not yet arrived. We can see God’s Kingdom, but it is still somewhat hidden. It takes faith to see God at work because God did not immediately set things right. Thus Jesus challenges people to believe in the good news of God’s Kingdom, even though the kingdom is still somewhat hidden (1:15).
The first story that Mark tells is about Jesus calling his disciples. Jesus sets out to gather and train a group of followers so he can share his mission with them. Jesus does the same thing today, calling us to become his followers and join 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). They are not responding to just his message; they are also responding to his invitation to enter into a personal relationship with him.
In Mark’s story of Jesus’ sudden call to these men, we sense Jesus’ personal authority over people. The next story Mark tells, about Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, further illustrates the uniqueness of Jesus’ 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). The power of Jesus’ teaching can be seen in the story of Jesus’ confrontation with an evil spirit that is afflicting a man—probably with illness (1:23–26). When Jesus speaks, people are changed!
Mark mentions that Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law (1:31). This episode is important because it shows us what it means to follow Jesus—being called, being healed, and beginning to serve. While who the mother-in-law is and what she does seem insignificant, that is exactly what makes her a good example of what Jesus expects from us.
Questions for Application
1 How do you think God helps people be more trusting in him and more open to his love?
2 If you knew that God was about to get directly involved in your life, what would you do to get ready?
3 What have you been taught about the importance of your Baptism in your relationship with God?
4 When do young people find it especially difficult to feel God’s presence in their lives?
5 What are some ways in which you are serving others? What are some ways in which you are being served by others?
Approach to Prayer
Reflect for a moment on the story of Peter and Andrew leaving their nets and following Jesus when he called them. Then pray silently to Saints Peter and Andrew, asking their help in responding to Jesus’ call. Do the same with the story of James and John. Reflect for a moment on James and John leaving their father and following Jesus when he called them, and then pray silently to them for their help in responding to Jesus’ call.
Close the reflection time by praying this short prayer along with the group: “Lord, help each of us hear your call. Give us the grace to respond to you.” End with the Our Father.
Supplement for Individual Reading
Saints in the Making
Jesus touched and healed a man suffering from leprosy (1:40–45). Because of his leprosy, the man had been shunned by everyone else in society. Jesus’ touch, therefore, not only made the man well physically but also enabled him to have contact with others.
Leprosy deforms the body terribly. People used to think that it was very contagious, so they stayed away from the victims of leprosy, regarding them as untouchable. But Christians have always 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. Saint Francis of Assisi was one of these people. The sight of leprosy filled him with horror. If a leper approached him and asked for a handout, Francis would give him 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.”
Closer to our own time was Father Damien, who spent much of his life on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, caring for lepers and eventually catching the disease himself. At first he was afraid to touch them. But soon his love for them as people overcame his fears, and he would wash them and dress their sores. As Pope John Paul II declared in 1995 when beatifying Father Damien, “He became a leper among the lepers; he became a leper for the lepers.” Damien touched their suffering bodies with his hands, but he also touched their souls with his beautiful spirituality.
Are we afraid of someone’s pain? Are there suffering people whom we do not want to touch or even get close to? Will we let God help us to love them?
The first chapter of Mark gives us a clear picture of God beginning to put into operation the plans he had made long before. We can almost feel the anticipation building in the description of John the Baptist’s desert life and his preaching of repentance. Jesus announces that God’s Kingdom is near, and the people he meets are immediately affected.
The coming of God’s reign means that God is beginning to care for us in a new way. It also means that we are going to have to respond to God in a new way. If God were distant from us and not involved in our affairs, it might be enough if we only followed his general guidelines for living. But if God comes personally to free us from evil and reconcile us to him, we should answer him personally and completely.
God’s action among us is not vague or abstract. It is actually something, or rather someone, we can touch: Jesus of Nazareth. It is in Jesus that God makes himself present. Thus the way to say yes to God is to say yes to Jesus. Mark illustrates his point in his story about the calling of the first disciples. Jesus invites Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow him; they put everything aside so they can follow him. The story serves as a model of God’s invitation and people’s response.
Jesus’ encounters with people troubled by “unclean spirits,” or “demons,” seem rather puzzling. People believed that illness was caused by the presence of evil spirits. Christians today recognize the existence of the devil and evil spirits, but we no longer see demons as a major source of sickness. So while we may not agree with those first-century people who blamed sickness on demons, we can believe that Jesus really did free people from physical and mental suffering. He showed that he could exercise God’s power over all evils, material and spiritual. Indeed, he has power over all the evils that we ourselves will ever face. His casting out of demons signals that the final struggle between God and evil has begun.
John the Baptist encourages people to step into the Jordan River and receive a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4). Their baptism is an expression of their sorrow for sins and their expectation of God’s forgiveness. This expectation suggests to us that forgiveness will be a major part of what Jesus does, and indeed forgiveness comes to the fore in the next section of Mark.
Jesus heals a man of a skin disease that makes him ritually impure under the Jewish law (1:40–45). People regarded such a skin disease as a sign that the man was guilty of some sin, so Jesus’ healing of the man is a symbol of forgiveness. Then Jesus tells a paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven (2:5). Finally, Jesus encounters a man whose occupation involves unjust practices and challenges him to become his disciple. Then he accepts an invitation to dinner at the man’s home with some of his colleagues in injustice (2:13–17). Just by eating with them, Jesus seems to extend God’s forgiveness to the man and his guests.
We can only understand Jesus’ actions when we look at them against the background of what the Jews of his time expected—namely, that God would free all his people. When people see Jesus perform small acts of forgiveness and healing, they interpret them as signals that God is about to do great things that will impact the whole world. Yet Jesus acts in a way that goes beyond Jewish expectations. The rabbis wait for students to come to them, but Jesus calls disciples to him, as though he has the right to decide how people live their lives. He overpowers the forces of evil. He cures diseases with a word or a touch—with the power of the Creator. He does what only God has the authority to do: forgive sins. He brings people back to God through his own friendship with them, without their having to offer sacrifices in the Temple. The religious authorities saw Jesus’ behavior as something like an invasion of God’s territory and a threat to their law and the Temple in Jerusalem (2:7,16). He is heading towards a clash with these religious figures.