In Mark’s Gospel Jesus announces that God is conquering the perversity of a broken creation and restoring it to life and harmony under his reign as king. Mark assumes that this restoration will not be “good news” for everyone. Those who are not sheltered by the cross, who have not joined Jesus in the new humanity he has inaugurated, will be swept away with all the corruption of this broken age. Those who align themselves with the present order of things will share its fate when it is undone to allow for the world’s restoration. What is the difference between these two groups? What is it that, for Mark, aligns someone with God’s act of restoration in Jesus?
Trusting and Turning Around
This is where we have to remember that Jesus’ basic message in Mark is not simply the announcement of the coming kingdom. It also includes a call to respond: Repent and believe the good news! To repent is to turn around. The assumption is that everyone in Jesus’ audience has, in some sense, been going the wrong direction. The same invitation is issued to all. Obviously this means that people must leave their sin and return to the pattern of life for which God created us. We must get in line with the new order of things so that we are ready when it comes. Yet Mark also depicts Jesus as the only one who really succeeds in this repentance. He is alone when he conquers the Tempter in the wilderness. So how can anyone actually repent?
The key seems to be, in Mark’s understanding, that our repentance goes hand in hand with “believing the good news.” To “believe” in Jesus’ message here is not just to give our mental assent to a set of ideas. It is to trust in them as well. Jesus calls human beings to recognize their need and live in active dependence on God’s act of restoration. As Mark’s narrative unfolds it becomes clear that Jesus himself is the centre and focus of this divine rescue, and so the faith and reliance Jesus requires is above all a trust in himself. Hence it is when people trust in Jesus to rescue them that they experience glimpses of the coming restoration: physical healing, forgiveness of their sins, even resurrection from the dead. As we move through the passion to Jesus’ resurrection, the implication for the audience is that we must entrust ourselves to God in Jesus as our Passover sacrifice, the one who by his death shelters us from the coming wrath.
It must also be said that the “good news” is not obviously true! There are lots of reasons to doubt Jesus proclamation that God is re-asserting his reign. In the world of Mark’s narrative, there was little indication that anything in the world order was about to change. Indeed, when Jesus finally arrived in Jerusalem he was brutally executed and life seemed to go on as usual. The Romans still held the reigns of power. No-one lived for a thousand years. The lions did not suddenly lie down with the lambs. Yet there were hints, signs, when people came in contact with Jesus. The restoration of their bodies, their relationships. These glimpses of the coming restoration seem to serve, for Mark, as the evidence that despite all appearances Jesus is right. Above all, Jesus’ resurrection itself stands as a sign for Mark that his message was true. To believe the good news thus means embracing a message of impossible hope in the midst of a hopeless world, daring to believe that these small signs are merely a taste of what is coming, and letting this message shape our sense of what is real and possible even when our common sense says it is not.
To trust in Jesus as our rescuer also implies an active ethical response. Jesus is continually telling people to change their lives. One’s dependence on him implies that we are willing to follow this call and embrace the radical pattern of life which (as we will see below) he sets out for us. Those who reject that radical call in Mark’s Gospel are clearly not going to share in God’s dawning reign (see, e.g., Mk 10:22-23). At the same time, however, the emphasis often falls on forgiveness as an aspect of God’s rescue. It is precisely because we cannot align ourselves with God’s will that we need Jesus to free us from the dominating power of sin (the demonic) and shelter us from the wrath which would sweep us away in the healing of the world. Peter, Jesus’ chief disciple, is the one who abandons his Master in his darkest hour, failing to follow the self-sacrificial path which Jesus has laid out. To “repent and believe” thus seems to be a matter of acknowledging our need, trusting that God will actually rescue us, and continually coming back to take shelter in Jesus as our Passover lamb as we strive again to learn to follow.
Cruciform Living: The Way of the Disciple in Mark
What is this new pattern of life that Jesus calls his followers to embrace? It is above all, in Mark, the way of the cross. Jesus spends most of his time, in Mark’s portrait, teaching and working in Galilee (1:16-8:26). The climax of his mission, the act which will shatter everyone’s expectations, takes place in and around Jerusalem (11:1-16:9). In the middle of the Gospel, however, is an extended section in which Jesus is on the move, traveling from Galilee to the holy city (8:27-10:52). This is often called Mark’s “Way Narrative,” since he repeatedly reminds us that the events take place on the way to Jerusalem. It is on this journey that Jesus begins to shift his disciples’ understanding, to prepare them for what will happen once they reach their destination. This is in part a matter of re-defining for them the task of the Messiah. Over and over again, while they are on the way, Jesus tells them that he will die (8:31-33; 9:9-10; 9:31-32; 10:32-34). At the same time, this journey toward Jerusalem is the context in which Jesus re-defines their own role as his disciples. Since his messianic conquest will be accomplished through death and defeat, those who follow him must walk the same path. Immediately after his first passion prediction, Jesus drives home this link: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (8:34).
What in the world could this mean? Since the victims of crucifixion usually carried their own cross-beam to the site of their torture, Jesus is calling them to accept the same fate he will face. They too will be horribly maimed and executed. Literally? No. Although tradition tells us that Peter did, in the end, die on a cross in the Roman capitol, Jesus seems to use his crucifixion as a metaphor for a broader set of attitudes and the lifestyle to which they lead. The choice of this metaphor underlines that this life will not be pleasant. It will, at times, be agony. This is hard to hear in the midst of a society that spends all its energy avoiding pain of any kind. We are constantly told that life is only worth living if we feel satisfied, if we can fulfill our desires. Life is only meaningful if we can be free to “fulfill our potential.” In Mark’s Gospel, the lifestyle to which Jesus calls his disciples is exactly the opposite. The call is to expect and embrace our own suffering, to deny ourselves. In Mark Jesus does not suffer to prevent our pain in this life. He suffers in part as a model which we must follow.
What does this look like in Mark’s mind? One thing it means is that disciples have to give up their desire for status, recognition, and power. This is hard enough in our own democratic society. It would have been almost incomprehensible in the first century Mediterranean world, in which status and honour were more important than life itself. Hence we see the disciples killing time on the road toward Jerusalem by arguing about who will have the highest status when Jesus becomes king and they get to be his senior officials (9:33). Jesus tells them that they have it all backwards: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (9:35). Those who follow Jesus on his path to the cross must go through the pain of giving up their hopes for status. It is in this context that Mark has Jesus take a child on his lap and hold him up as an example to emulate (9:36-37; cf. 10:14-16). The point is not that children are innocent. The ancient world was not burdened with the illusion that children are any less corrupt than adults. The point was, rather, that children were in every sense weak. They had no physical force, no influence, no standing in the community. They had none of the things that Mediterranean society said should define human beings and give them there value. Jesus is saying that disciples have to give up their desire for these things and be willing to be as weak and (in the eyes of their society) insignificant as a child. They must be willing to become what everyone around them, what even they themselves, would at first regard as a failure.
Why? Is Jesus just sadistic? Mark does not explain clearly, but the idea seems to be that our desire for power over others, for status which impresses others, is all part of the corrupt, fallen pattern of life. It is inherently destructive, based as it is on the competitive drive to gain approval at the expense of those further down the scale of honour. Hence, when the other disciples hear that James and John have taken Jesus aside and asked for the two plum positions in the coming kingdom (the right and left hand of Jesus’ throne), they are angry (10:35-41). Each of them wants to out-do the others by taking a higher place, leaving the low seats for the others. Jesus insists that this competitive drive is incompatible with the pattern of his own life and those who follow him. “The Son of Man,” he says, “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). If they want to follow him into the restoration of God’s reign, then they too must learn to abandon their violent competitiveness and promote others’ welfare at their own expense.
Just as importantly, this addiction to reputation involves a sort of idolatry. We define ourselves, gain our sense of meaning and value, from other human beings. Instead we ought to be re-oriented toward God. Instead of looking for our identity and significance in fleeting, fickle, arbitrary human societies, we ought to be grounding who we are in the One who makes us and provides all we need. This seems to be the point, in Mark, of Jesus’ second interaction with children in 10:13-16. Jesus is emphasizing that the scale of honour and value which governs fallen human relationships is irrelevant to God. The disciples do not want to allow the children near Jesus. They are not important enough on the social scale to merit the Messiah’s time. Jesus does not just object – he is “indignant” (10:14). People like this, who have no standing whatsoever in human society, are welcomed and blessed by God. God’s kingdom belongs to them (10:14). Our competitive standards of evaluating one another are utterly meaningless to God, so that the very people we neglect and despise are often the ones embraced and honoured by their Maker. If we are to stop making idols of ourselves or one another, we must come to accept that divine standard of value as the only one which really matters.
Abandoning their addiction to status is not the only way in which Jesus calls his disciples to take up their cross. When he meets the rich young man in 10:17-31, he also calls him to give up his possessions: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (10:21). Living in the wealthiest society human history has ever known, this hits us with the force of a freight train if we let it. We may not care about status (at least in theory), but we want our “stuff.” We want movies to watch and big TV’s to watch them on, good food and too much of it, trips to the Mexican beach, more clothes than we can stuff in our closets, and more house than we can clean. The fact that we can even think about having any of this means we stand with the rich young man among the wealthiest few, no matter that we feel poor in comparison to our neighbours. Why did Jesus call this man to give away his wealth? It was a barrier keeping him out of God’s kingdom, keeping him from experiencing restored life. Why? On the one hand, here again it seems to stand as an idol for him, something other than God to which he looks for his life and satisfaction. That is why, in the end, he cannot give it up. At the same time, here again, Jesus calls him not just to deny himself, but also to help the poor. As with status, wealth too is always accumulated at someone else’s expense. Jesus’ call is for the man to “deny himself” by helping others at his own expense. This is not mere charity. He is not called to give a small percentage and keep enough back to preserve a more modest standard of living. Jesus calls the man to give it all away, to become so compassionate toward the poor that he is willing to become poor himself in order to help them. This is what it would mean for the man to take up his cross.
Some in Mark’s first-century audience would before long be forced to suffer actual violence and death in order to continue following their Lord. For the rest, though, Mark insists that Jesus calls us to a life of suffering – not suffering for its own sake, but a self-denial in which we give up our idolatries and love others enough to hurt for their benefit. This is the cross-shaped life, the “cruciform” existence, of those who want to follow Jesus.