Commentary on Mark 16:1-8
There is no way around it. The ending of Mark’s Gospel is disappointing.
This Gospel that begins by announcing “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1), ends in fear and silence: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8). There are no resurrection appearances, there is no final commissioning of the disciples; there is only confusion, fear, and silence.
This is hardly the satisfying ending we would hope for. After all, Jesus has been preparing his disciples for what is to come. Three times he has told them that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. After his transfiguration, when Jesus came down the mountain, he told Peter, James, and John to tell no one what they had seen until after he had risen from the dead (9:9).
Yet neither Peter, James, nor John is now around to tell. When the hour of trial came, when Judas showed up in the garden to betray Jesus and the soldiers arrested him, all the disciples deserted him and fled. Peter did show up at the courtyard of the high priest’s house while Jesus was on trial. But when confronted as one who had been with Jesus, Peter emphatically denied knowing him—not once, but three times.
The women seem to provide some hope—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. They at least stand at a distance and witness the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. They see the tomb where Jesus’ body is laid. They come early on this first day of the week to perform one final act of service for Jesus—to anoint his body for burial. There is no body to be found, however. Instead, a young man dressed in a white robe greets them at the tomb with the news that Jesus has been raised, and then commissions them to “go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (16:7).
Throughout his ministry, Jesus has told his disciples and those he has healed not to testify about him, knowing that their understanding of his mission was incomplete. Finally, the time for telling has come. The women are now commissioned to proclaim the good news that Jesus has been raised. And yet, the angel’s words fail to dispel the women’s fear. Like the male disciples, the women flee, overcome by terror and amazement. “And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8). There Mark’s Gospel ends, shrouded in darkness and disillusionment.
No wonder scribes and interpreters throughout the ages have felt compelled to finish Mark’s story for him. (See, for example, the two additional endings to Mark included in most modern translations of the Bible.) We want closure; we want an ending that ties up the loose ends in the story and brings it to a satisfying conclusion. Most of all, we want a happy ending. We want to see Jesus, touch him, and rejoice with the disciples that he is alive! But the risen Jesus does not appear in Mark. We are left, with the women, in their fear and confusion.
One angle for preaching this text would be to tease out the tension between the disappointment and the anticipation the story creates.1 Is not this unfinished story closer to our actual experience of the world? In the real world, tensions are often unresolved; loose ends are rarely all tied up. Our lives are full of unfinished stories—the opportunity we let pass by, the relationship that fell apart, the family member or friend who died far too young. We try to find ways to make sense of our stories, to find an ending that satisfies, but every ending we fashion inevitably disappoints.
Mark’s Gospel is jarring in its realism. Yet despite its unsettled, unsatisfying ending, it creates anticipation and gives reason to hope. Why? Because the tomb is empty, because death could not hold Jesus down. And because the women have received the message: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (16:7).
Mark’s story has given us every reason to believe that what Jesus promises will take place, because his word has already been fulfilled in many important ways. He suffered and died and was raised, just as he foretold. Judas betrayed him, the other disciples scattered, and Peter denied him three times, just as Jesus said would happen. There is every reason to believe that the rest of Jesus’ promises will also be fulfilled: Jesus will meet his disciples in Galilee, and the good news will be proclaimed. The women must have spoken eventually, after all; otherwise we would not have this story Mark tells.
The Gospel creates a momentum that drives beyond its ending and into the future. Not only has Jesus promised to meet his disciples in Galilee, he also has promised that one day he will send his angels to gather the elect from the ends of the earth. So the story is not finished and will not be until Jesus returns.
The life of faith is lived between the resurrection and Jesus’ return. We walk by faith and not by sight, clinging to the promise that we will see the Lord, despite the fear and confusion we often experience. The preacher might help hearers envision what this walking by faith might look like in any number of life situations in which a satisfying ending is nowhere in sight—in the midst of a terminal cancer diagnosis, for example, in the midst of a relationship that seems broken beyond repair, in the midst of a natural disaster, or any other kind of tragedy.
Though we can and must do our best to work for good, ultimately, a satisfying ending can only come from outside ourselves. Finally, our hope is that God will bring to completion the redemptive, reconciling work already begun in Jesus Christ, as God has promised.
- In my reflections on preaching this text, I am influenced by my late teacher and mentor, Donald Juel, and his work on the ending of Mark, particularly in his commentary, Mark (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1990), 231-235.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
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, GG 232, H82 207, NCH 240
Christ the Lord is risen today ELW 369
Alleluia, Ralph Manuel
April 12, 2020