Commentary on Mark 16:1-8
The Sabbath now complete, three of Jesus’ women disciples approach his tomb with the intention of anointing his body (in deference to certain Jewish funerary customs). With this final act of devotion, they will close the curtain on a once promising but now tragic story.
Only the curtain will not close. The women discover the tomb not only already open but empty —or rather occupied by the wrong figure. Inside the tomb they encounter a mysterious “young man,” an angelic messenger.
The messenger leads with pastoral assurance: “Do not be alarmed.” He then shows his understanding: “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.” Next he relays the most incredible news: this crucified Jesus “has been raised” and “is not here.” Indeed, the women can see for themselves “the place they laid him.” Finally, as if to anticipate their disorientation, the angel gives the women precise instructions: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that [Jesus] is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
Having celebrated the angel’s announcement for over two millennia, we Christians struggle to appreciate the disorientation and panic of this moment. Even if we had heard Jesus’ own prophecies about his suffering and resurrection, would our stepping into his empty tomb, and hearing this announcement from a mysterious figure, automatically bring everything into clear perspective? Even if we, like many first-century Jews, had anticipated a general resurrection of the dead at the climax of human history, would we not also be confused, even panicked, at the site of Jesus’ personal, bodily absence?
As I see it, this is too much for any human to take in, at least in the moment. The angel has handed to these disciples a message containing the weight of the world. So it does not surprise me that they flee from the tomb in “terror and amazement.”
What continues to surprise me, however, is that the women say nothing to anyone. Or, more to the point, what continues to surprise me is that this silence concludes the Gospel of Mark. Conversely, I am not surprised that some ancient scribes, clearly dissatisfied with Mark’s concluding silence, later added an amalgam of Easter stories featuring the risen Jesus (the so-called shorter and longer endings of Mark 16). We can hear these scribes asking: who in their right mind would write a Gospel that ended with fearful silence?
But to be clear, I don’t think Mark wants us to imagine Peter and the others never hearing the good news of Easter. After all, Jesus had already promised them precisely what the angel describes to the women: a post-resurrection rendezvous in Galilee (Mark 14:28). Also, I have to think Mark’s first Christian hearers had some knowledge, however rudimentary, of disciples spreading the Easter message and the risen Jesus appearing to them (see 1 Corinthians 15:5-8, which predates Mark).
That said, Mark has clearly thrown up a narrative roadblock. By concluding with fearful silence, he forces us to contemplate how the story can move from empty tomb to disciple rendezvous after the connecting human link has been broken.
Why throw up this roadblock? According to one common interpretation, Mark’s ending functions rhetorically as an invitation of sorts, an opening into which the Gospel audience is invited to step. It invites Mark’s hearers (past and present) to finish the story that the disciples in the narrative—not just these women but also the men who abandoned, betrayed, and denied Jesus—failed to finish themselves.
This interpretation dovetails with Mark’s emphasis on faithful discipleship. For even though the Markan disciples can prove notoriously thickheaded, their mistakes nonetheless contribute to the audience’s understanding of faithful discipleship, which for this Gospel consists mainly of extending Jesus’ mission of human healing and wholeness (Mark 3:14-15; 6:7, 12-13).
This may not seem like a quintessential Easter message. But if the divine, life-giving power by which Jesus heals broken humans and communities is the same divine, life-giving power that raises Jesus from the dead, then it would seem that disciples, to the extent that they participate in Jesus’ healing mission, do in fact participate in a kind of resurrection ministry. This is not to place Jesus’ human followers on the same plane as God. It is simply to acknowledge that God brings life in various ways, and that God can work through us to bring life and wholeness to the broken and downtrodden. Maybe we are not “miracle workers” in the normal sense of the phrase. But if life itself is a miracle, then who are we to say that the God of miraculous life is not at work among us and through us? Christian discipleship is always Easter ministry.
At the same time, if Mark’s ending is an invitation to Easter ministry, it is also a stark reminder of human fallibility. For there is nothing in Mark’s Gospel—least of all its ending—to suggest that disciples are capable of faithfulness to Jesus apart from Jesus’ empowering faithfulness toward them. Consider, for instance, that disciples do not initially seek out and find Jesus. Rather Jesus pulls disciples into his orbit (Mark 1:16-20; 2:13-14).
When disciples fall short, Jesus is there to pick them up and empower them again. When they struggle to understand a parable, Jesus explains it (Mark 4:10-20, 33-34). When they are slow to anticipate their role in feeding a hungry crowd, Jesus walks them through it (Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-9). When they show self-aggrandizing priorities contrary to the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ ministry (Mark 9:33-34; 10:35-37), Jesus shows them the way. And when the way of Jesus leads to disciple abandonment, Jesus emerges from an empty tomb and summons them to Galilee for reconciliation and mission.
This last point is crucial. Jesus’ resurrection saves the fellowship, binds it together instead of allowing it to disintegrate. To be sure, Mark does not depict this moment of post-Easter reconciliation and mission. But the Markan Jesus promises it (Mark 13:9-13; 14:28). And the Markan Jesus is faithful. The Markan Jesus is always a step ahead of our fearful flights. Always waiting for us in Galilee. Always holding us together. Always guiding us back to himself and to our first collective calling: “Follow me.”
The ending of Mark thus leaves us in a paradox. It invites us to break the silence with proclamation, and to redirect our flight instinct to a ministry of human healing. But it also makes clear that, without the sustaining and empowering presence of Jesus himself, we will never make it back to Galilee. After all, this has never been our story to finish. This has always been God’s story. It is Jesus’ story. Mark may have composed a Gospel with a surprisingly open ending, but Jesus is the steadfast one who pulls us into that opening.