“They said nothing to nobody — they were afraid, you see.”

March 27, 2016

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Commentary on Mark 16:1-8

“They said nothing to nobody — they were afraid, you see.”

That’s a fairly literal, inelegant English rendering of Mark 16:8. Could the evangelist have ended his Gospel like this? What kind of victor is vindicated from death, yet no one gets to see it? You might as well ask, what kind of Messiah dies crucified (15:16-39)?

Although various manuscripts add endings to Mark (including 16:9-20, best known from the KJV), there’s no question that our earliest texts of this Gospel end at 16:8. Did the author continue beyond 16:8 with an ending that was lost? Did he intend something beyond 16:8 but was prevented from writing it? Neither alternative is impossible, but both are speculative: they lack any biblical or traditional basis for verification. Is it preposterous that Mark deliberately ended his Gospel at 16:8? Some think so. I think not.

Visiting the tomb at dawn after the Sabbath (Mark 16:1) is the same female trio who beheld Jesus’ crucifixion and death at a distance (15:40). Two witnessed his burial (15:47). Long after the Twelve fled the scene (14:50, 72), these are among many women who followed and ministered to Jesus (15:41). Though well intentioned, the mission of these three is superfluous and futile: Bethany’s anonymous female benefactor has already anointed their teacher’s body for burial (14:3-9). Soon we shall learn that the tomb is empty.

Mark 16:3-4 refers to the stone-stopper Joseph used to seal the tomb (15:46). Elsewhere in this Gospel “looking up” (anablepo) describes Jesus’ regard of heaven before performing mighty works (6:41; 7:34) and restoration of sight after two blind men have encountered him (8:24; 10:51-52). The verb “behold” (theoreo) connotes wondrous apprehension (3:11; 5:15, 38; 12:41). The stone’s removal from the tomb’s mouth is expressed with a verb conjugated in the passive mood: its unseen mover must have been God, “for this was a very big rock” (16:4b).

The stage is set for a revelation, but Mark’s description (16:5) is more restrained than that of Luke (24:4), John (20:12), and especially Matthew (28:2-4). “Sitting on the right side” was favored in antiquity (Mark 10:37, 40), especially if seated beside the right hand of power (1 Kings 2:19; Psalm 110:1; Mark 12:36; 14:62). Other than Jesus at his transfiguration (9:3), this “young man” is the only character in Mark who wears white, the color of apocalyptic glorification (Daniel 7:9; 12:3; Matthew 13:43; Revelation 7:9, 13). Mark foregoes supernatural pyrotechnics, but this vision is enough to leave the tomb’s visitors flabbergasted.

The declaration to the women — and, this day, to us — contains four important elements.

  • “Don’t be alarmed.”
  • “You are looking for [zeteite]” Repeatedly in Mark (11:18; 12:12; 14:1, 55), those searching for Jesus are up to no good. While intending nothing ill, these women, like others (3:21, 32; 8:11-13), have mistaken what they found because of what they were looking for: a dead Jew instead of a living Messiah.
  • Because of God’s direct intervention, “Jesus, the Nazarene [1:24; 10:47; 14:67], the one crucified, has been raised,” no longer in the place where they laid him. This is one of the New Testament’s primary claims (Acts 4:10; Romans 4:24; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; 2 Timothy 2:8).
  • The women are entrusted with a message for his disciples, among whom Peter is singled out (cf. Mark 14:66-72). The risen Jesus has gone before them to Galilee, where he awaits. Again, as throughout this Gospel (Mark 6:45; 10:32), Jesus is in the lead and others must catch up. The return to Galilee indicates a fresh start, for it was there that Mark’s narrative began (1:14). Jesus will appear to his disciples: alongside the resurrection itself, the other basic Easter confession (John 21:14; Acts 2:32; 1 Corinthians 15:5-8). This announcement is “just as he said” (to the Twelve at their last supper: Mark 14:28). At the empty tomb two promises of fidelity are validated: God’s final vindication of Jesus, and Jesus’ continuing dedication to his disciples.

A final, ironic twist: the women flee the tomb, tremulous and bewildered (Mark 16:8). They who had followed Jesus longer than all others fall short from fear, as Jesus’ disciples have typically done (4:40-41). The time has now come to speak in faith (cf. 8:29-30; 9:9) — and the proclaimers are muted by fear.

Mark’s Gospel ends with a mysterious confirmation that God and Jesus have kept faith and have done just what they promised (16:6-7; cf. 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34; 14:28). For this Gospel to have ended on another’s triumphant flourish would have undermined everything this evangelist has said about God’s kingdom, its Christ, and his subjects. Mark is a book about God’s shattering of human expectations. Mark as a book shatters everything its readers thought it understood — even the conventions of how a Gospel should end. “The good news must be preached to all nations” (13:10): if Jesus commanded that, then it shall happen. But when it does, it is likely to occur as much in spite of his disciples as because of them. Reaching into Genesis 17–18, Paul articulates what Mark’s narrative suggests: a summons to “[trust] in God, who makes the dead live and calls things that are not into things that are” (Romans 4:17) — both life and speech.

Back to the beginning are sent the women and Peter and the disciples and all of us this holy day. We start anew, follow Jesus to the end, then repeat over and again a process by which imperfect disciples are being reformed. Mark has tailored his entire Gospel into a parable: a testimony of good news that perplexes and provokes us in the same way Jesus does by deed and word. The evangelist offers us that message, for delivery to others this Easter Sunday. With Jesus, the crucified–risen Christ, God’s kingdom has secretly exploded into this world. No matter how often we fall off, we ride that missile of salvation, inviting others aboard to hold on tight.

Holy Lord Jesus, on this day we rejoice in your glory and stand in awe of how you have transformed this world with your dying and your rising. Receive our joyful praise. Alleluia! Amen.

Jesus Christ is risen today   ELW 365, H82 207, NCH 240
Christ the Lord is risen today   ELW 369, UMH 302, NCH 233

Alleluia, Ralph Manuel