Below is a brief description of what I understand to be the dynamic behind Mark’s sixth chapter, particularly as it is expressed through the pronouns that Mark uses. For a detailed verse-by-verse exegesis of the Mark 6:30-34 and 53-56, which I have updated slightly from three years ago, click here.
My perspective of the flow of Mark’s gospel has been influenced partly by Werner Kelber’s argument, in Mark’s Story of Jesus, that from Mark’s perspective, the disciples are depicted as having failed in their calling. At key is Jesus’ message to the disciples to meet him in Galilee and the curious abrupt original ending of Mark’s gospel in 16:8. If that ending actually ends the story, the disciples did not meet Jesus in Galilee after the resurrection. We are accustomed, of course, to Luke’s description of the disciples and their Spirit-empowered ministry that begins in Jerusalem and radiates out from there. But, that is Luke’s story, not Mark’s.
I’m further influenced by Richard Horsley’s argument in Hearing the Whole Story, that Mark’s gospel shows Jesus’ ministry to be a Galilean-based ministry that is quite distinct from a Judean-based ministry and is grounded in a village-based Galilean piety that is different from the Jerusalem-based Judean piety.
Finally, I have wrestled with a well-known concept in Markan studies, of the so-called “messianic secret” in Mark’s gospel. Here is an excerpt from my blog regarding Mark 6:1-13, the gospel reading from two weeks ago:
The ‘messianic secret’ attempts to name a motif that certainly is central to Mark’s gospel – the repetitive ‘don’t say anything’ moments right where we don’t expect them. For me, however, it is not so much a secret as a re-direction. By attempting over and over to make him ‘the Messiah,’ people were missing the point of his message, which was that the Reign of God was present and that they all were invited to participate in it. As long as they had the Messiah to embody the reign, they were missing the participation part. To ‘follow’ is less to point, observe, marvel, or coronate and more about joining along, taking up the message, and doing the deeds. My point is, I don’t think the “messianic secret” is a literary device by Mark, but a theological point, that Mark saw Jesus trying to re-direct his message away from himself and toward the participating followers. The message in Mark’s original ending, “Go to Galilee and there he will meet you” is a way of sending the followers back to this village-based activity-message.
Rather than “messianic secret,” I see these moments throughout Mark’s gospel as “participatory redirections.” When I put all of these perspectives together – and I dearly hope that I am not misrepresenting either Kelber or Horsley – I see Mark 6 as showing the best and worst of the disciples.
The best moments are when the disciples are doing as Jesus does. When Jesus proclaims that the Reign of God is at hand, it is an invitation for others to turn around and to participate in it. When Jesus heals, exorcises demons, and even brings life from death, the point is not to show how magical Jesus was, but to demonstrate what it means to participate in the Reign of God here and now. The “participatory redirection” from a group of Jesus’ fans to a group of Jesus’ co-workers, from those marveling as Jesus does great things to those who are likewise participating in the Reign of God at hand, is realized when the twelve go out, vulnerable with regard to possessions but empowered, and do what Jesus has been doing. The “mission of the twelve” (Mark does not use the term ‘mission,’) is the story of disciples being participants. It shows how they cast out demons and heal and proclaim, and it concludes with the disciples needing Sabbath rest and restoration, needing to elude the crowd, not being fully able to do so – all of which are the precise way that Jesus’ ministry is described in the first five chapters of Mark. (It is all framed around the arrest and death of John the Baptizer. At his arrest, Jesus’ public ministry begins. The story of John’s death is sandwiched between the beginning and end of the story of the twelve in mission.)
In verses 12-13, then 30-33 (interrupted by the story of Herod and John’s death), the pronouns are plural “they” pronouns. Every instance of “they” is an echo of something that has been said about Jesus prior to this story. During these best moments, the “ministry of Jesus” has become the ministry of the twelve. The hero has become the empowering model.
However, the pronouns and the demeanor shift again, beginning in 6:34. Jesus invites the disciples to feed the crowd and they answer with incredulity. It is Jesus who goes alone to pray. The disciples do not recognize him as he walks on the water, mistaking him for a ghost. Even though Jesus had delivered the abundance of bread through the disciples’ own hands, they did not understand. Mark circles back to the bread story and the disciples’ lack of understanding what was happening there to explain why the disciples were frightened in the boat (16:52). Sadly, Mark says, “their hearts were hardened.”
The disciples’ cardio sclerosis was not just a momentary fright. Mark 8:14-21 is a story of how Jesus is frustrated with the disciples because, after being instrumental in TWO feeding stories, they still do not understand. The glory of the mission, when the disciples were full participants in Jesus’ ministry, seems to be a receding vision in the rearview mirror, an exception to the rule of the disciples’ failure to embrace the present Reign of God.