“Before I begin, let me give you the genealogy of Jesus, so you know this is about a real person” (so says the author of the book of origins, whom we label as Matthew).
“Before *I* begin, let me tell you the backstory that led up to all of this” (so we read in the orderly account of the things fulfilled amongst us that we attribute to Luke).
“Well, before I begin, let me explain why it’s important to believe that Jesus is the Son of God” (in the book of signs, as the author we name as John launches into his Gospel).
By contrast: “Let’s get down to business”, says Mark. And so he does!
The first chapter of Mark’s Gospel rips right in to the story. No preface, no prologue, not set up; just straight down to business. The various scenes in this opening chapter are offered in the revised common lectionary in Year B, largely during the season of Epiphany.
First, the striking moment when Jesus of Nazareth was declared to be the beloved Son, anointed by the Spirit, equipped for his role of proclaiming the kingdom of God (Mark 1:1-13, offered in the lectionary back during Advent, and part-repeated two Sundays ago for the Baptism of Jesus). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/01/advent-two-the-more-powerful-one-who-is-coming-mark-1/
Then, the succinct summation of the message of Jesus; just four short, snappy phrases: “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, believe in the good news” (1:14-15). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/the-kingdom-is-at-hand-so-follow-me-the-gospel-according-to-mark/
This summary is followed by two compressed accounts, told in formulaic exactitude, in which Jesus calls four of his key followers, brothers Simon and Andrew (“follow me; they left their nets, and followed him”), and then brothers James and John (“he called them; they left their father, and followed him” (1:16-20). Mark 1:14-20 is the Gospel passage offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (24 January).
These two call narratives establish the nature of the movement that Jesus was initiating. He sets out a call to all four brothers; an exclamation, to which they must respond: “follow me!” The call invites a specific, tangible, and radical response: “leave everything”. And both encounters result in a new, binding commitment to Jesus: they “followed him”. The same pattern repeats with Levi in 2:14, and then with others (2:15; 8:34-36; 15:41). A rich young man comes to the brink, but then pulls away at the last moment (10:21).
Ched Myers offers a good exploration of how this scene establishes the dynamic of radical discipleship which permeates Mark’s Gospel, at https://inquiries2015.files.wordpress.com/2002/08/02-1-pc-mark-invitation-to-discipleship-in-ringehoward-brook-discipleship-anthology.pdf
After these stories of announcement and call to follow, there comes a scene in a synagogue, revealing the authority that Jesus had, in calling people, to command “the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, [to] come out of him” (Mark 1:21-28—the lectionary Gospel for 31 January).
This scene defines the cosmic dimension in which the story of Jesus is set, as he grapples with unclean spirits (1:23-26; 3:11; 5:1-13; 6:7; 7:14-29), also identified as demons (7:24-30; 1:32-34, 39; 3:14-15, 22; 5:14-18; 6:13; 9:38). Jesus is a human being, situated in first century occupied Palestine—but he is engaged in a contest in a cosmic dimension.
Ched Myers offers a compelling interpretation of the scene in the synagogue: “The synagogue on the Sabbath is scribal turf, where they exercise the authority to teach Torah. This “spirit” personifies scribal power, which holds sway over the hearts and minds of the people. Only after breaking the influence of this spirit is Jesus free to begin his compassionate ministry to the masses (1:29ff).” See https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2015/01/29/lets-catch-some-big-fish-jesus-call-to-discipleship-in-a-world-of-injustice-2/, and the complete commentary on Mark by Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988).
This is followed by a number of scenes (Mark 1:29-39) which are offered in the lectionary for Sunday 7 February. We begin with a pair of complementary scenes—the first set in the hustle and bustle of the village, where Jesus heals the sick and casts out more demons (1:29-34); the second an early morning start, where Jesus prays “in a deserted place” (1:35-37). This contrast is deliberate, and instructive. Both settings are vital for his project of radical discipleship.
This latter scene evokes an earlier scene, immediately after the public dunking of Jesus in the Jordan river (1:9-11), when Jesus spends a highly symbolic forty days “in the wilderness” (1:12-13). Although it was the Spirit which drove him into wilderness (1:12), it was Satan who tested Jesus during this period (1:13). And that seminal encounter sits alongside the first public declaration of Jesus as “beloved Son”, made over the waters of the Jordan (1:11).
The author then provides a characteristic summation of the activity that Jesus was called to do: “he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (1:38-39). Subsequent summaries in this vein appear at Mark 3:7-8, 4:33-34, 6:12-13, 6:56, 10:1. The opening chapter sets the pattern of behaviour by Jesus.
A final, intensely emotional scene brings this substantial opening sequence to a close. Jesus is approached by a leper, seeking to be “made clean” (1:40-42). The way Jesus responds to this need is striking: what the NRSV translates as “moved with pity” is actually better rendered as “being totally consumed by deep-seated compassion” (1:41). An alternative textual variation renders the emotions of Jesus more sparsely: “and being indignant”.
The command to adhere to the law by bringing a sacrificial offering to the priests for his cleaning (as any teacher of Jewish Torah would advocate—Lev 14) is, strikingly, expressed in the typical manner of a wild magic healer; the NRSV translation, “sternly warning him”, is better expressed as “snorting like a horse”—the use of striking, dramatic language being a characteristic feature of ancient healers (1:43-44).
The final scene collects all the activity of the opening chapter into the bustling energy of the swarming public square. Jesus can no longer remain isolated or removed; “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45). This passage, along with other section of chapter 2, appears in the lectionary only in a year when Easter is later and thus the season of Epiphany is extended by further weeks.
It is worth our while considering the flow of events and sequence of scenes that Mark provides, as he hurriedly “gets down to business” in his narrative of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one. Why has this author chosen these particular scenes? What insights into Jesus, and his followers, does he want to offer us, as his story gets underway?
One clue is in the way that he portrays Jesus: Jesus is intensely religious (1:9-11, 35), articulately focussed on his key message (1:14-15, 22, 39), building a movement of committed followers (1:16-20), regularly living out his faith in actions alongside his words (1:26, 31, 34, 39). Jesus was energised by personal contacts with individuals: the brothers whom he called (1:17, 20), the man in the synagogue (1:25), Simon’s mother-in-law (1:30-31), and a begging leper (1:40). In the midst of all of this, he makes sure that his central message (1:14-15) is conveyed with clarity and passion (1:27, 39, 45).
Jesus is nourished by quiet moments, in his wilderness testing (1:12-13) and in early morning prayer (1:35), and yet is consistently immersed in the public life of his community. Mark most likely exaggerates, but he does indicate that Jesus was with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” (1:5), teaching a crowd in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:21), renowned “throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (1:28), visited by “all who were sick or possessed with demons”, indeed by “the whole city” (1:32-33), told that “everyone is searching for you” (1:37), and touring throughout Galilee (1:39), where “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45).
It is an holistic portrayal of Jesus, setting the scene for the story that follows. Jesus is passionate and articulate, compassionate and caring, energised and engaged, focused on a strategy that will reap benefits as the story emerges. And yet, as we know, that passion and energy will also lead to conflict, suffering, and death; a conflict already depicted in some of these opening scenes, as the story commences, but soon to make its presence felt in full force as the narrative continues.