On the Feast of St Mark (26 April), we remember the faith of this great evangelist. Mark’s community had been suffering severe persecution for some time, and many had died. Mark 13:12–13 describes the betrayal and hatred experienced by his community, most likely the church of Rome, and we know from Tacitus that they were subject to persecution from the year 64 under Nero. It is most likely that Mark’s Gospel was written after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in August, 70, and probably after the victory march through Rome by Vespasian and Titus in June, 71. This means that the Roman church had suffered for perhaps seven years.
The Gospel certainly reflects a traumatised community. The last words of Jesus on the cross (15:34) — “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” — is the cry of each suffering Roman Christian. But their cry is also found in 4:39: “Master, don’t you care?”
The Roman Christians must have been wondering why Jesus didn’t come and save them from this suffering. Does he really have the power to save them? After all, he was killed himself! Does he have any power at all over evil (cf. 15:31: “He saved others; he cannot save himself”)?
Mark wrote his Gospel to show his readers (or hearers, since it was read to most of them) how the power of God really works. The section we focus on here begins with the storm scene in 4:35–41. It is a strange scene: in the middle of the storm, Jesus is asleep, with “his head on a cushion” (why would you have one in a fishing boat? Yet, in the Old Testament, the just sleep peacefully, and the cushion does give a regal note to the scene).
The disciples cry out “Master, don’t you care?” This is the question Mark must answer. Jesus simply speaks a word to calm the storm, just as God controlled the waters of chaos in Gen 1:9 with a word. Jesus then admonishes the disciples for their lack of faith.
In the next four stories, however, Mark continues to answer the question. With the calming of the storm, deliverance of the Gerasene demoniac (5:1–20), the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage (5:25–34), and the resuscitation of the daughter of Jairus (5:21–24, 35–43), Jesus succesively shows that he has power over (a) the elements, (b) demons, (c) illness, and (d) death. In each case, he uses his power with great ease. In each case, the persons suffering are shown to be in great need, and unable to do anything by their own efforts. They are shown to be in need of saving: the disciples cry out, “We are lost!” (4:29), the demoniac appears to be more of a beast than a human being, the woman had spent all she had and “was getting worse,” and Jairus is desperate (5:23).
Through these stories, Jesus demonstrates that he does care, and that he does have the power to save people from suffering. But does he have power over all things? In 6:1–6, Jesus comes to his own home town. There, they will not accept him, and he can do very little. He may have had power over the elements, demons, illness and death, but he does not have power over the will of human beings. Isn’t this amazing? God respects our free will, and will not interfere.
In this way, Mark makes clear that the reason why the Roman Christians have been suffering is because of the actions of Roman society. The problem is not with God, but with other human beings.
Yet Jesus is not totally powerless to help them. They will be promised something far greater. They will receive “a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land” (10:30) — probably a list of what they have lost. But they will also receive persecutions (10:30) in this mysterious kingdom of God.
Mark will go on in the remainder of the Gospel to show that the sort of power they were looking for (earthly power) is not the way of Jesus. Even Peter is shown to have expected earthly power (see his dismay in 10:28 when he finds he hasn’t been following the next earthly king). Rather, this king will reign from a cross. His glory will be in his suffering, in his losing of his life for the sake of revealing the truth about God.
One of the deftest touches of Mark in the Gospel is that the first thing that happens after Jesus dies is that the veil of the Temple is torn in two “from top to bottom” (15:38). Only God could do this, and he subtly shows that he has been present and in control all along. He has not been asleep (an ancient accusation of the gods; cf. Ps 44:23; 1 Kings 18:27). His presence in the midst of suffering is their assurance that they will be vindicated.
The disciples think that Jesus does not care because he seems to be asleep in the moment of trial (4:39). Yet they will be asleep in Gethsemane when they should have been praying for strength and readiness for their moment of testing. Mark, showing his sense of humour, has Jesus reverse the storm scene, and ask, “Simon, are you sleeping?” (14:37).
St Mark is a model of faith for us. He believed in the power of God working despite all appearances, and that faithful disciples would be vindicated in the end: “Anyone who stands firm to the end will be saved” (13:13). On 26 April, we should thank God for Mark’s faith. It was through his faith that God’s Word came to us, and to all others who cry out in the darkness of their suffering: “Jesus, don’t you care?”