A homily on Mark 16.1-8 adapted from my Mark as Story application.
For the video, see Homily on Mark 16.
I would like to say from the start that it is not my intention to deliver an exhortatory, per se. Rather it is to attempt to tell a familiar story in a new way in order that you may have the freedom to connect this narrative with your own. If I am going to exhort in any great way, let it be this: exercise your imagination and allow this story to shape your own. As we get into the story, let us work slowly through it because I am afraid that perhaps this is one that has become so familiar it has lost its potency.
First, let us examine the forest before we lose sight of it for the trees. Though, admittedly, the forest I have in mind is not the greater context of Mark’s gospel nor is it the historical background. Rather, it is the narrative approach itself. We can allow it to inform us in a general way when we consider the nature of narrative and some characteristics of the narrator. In narrative—in good narrative at least—there is no incidental information—that is not to say that we should painstakingly exegete every word, deriving hyper-nuanced interpretations from every little choice in case or word order, but that details (including word choice) are purposeful. Think about it: when we tell stories, do we give every detail or do we select some over others because they help achieve our purposes in telling these stories? Anytime we construct a narrative, we are automatically making evaluations. When the narrator is omniscient, etc., creating a persona whom the audience can trust, and when the narrator is biased, trying to make certain points and to direct the audience to certain conclusions and to elicit certain responses, which are both the case with the narrator of Mark’s gospel, we should be especially attentive to what we are reading, or hearing. In Mark’s gospel, details about characters, such as what they are wearing or if they are given proper names, are especially important, as it is not common place and as we mostly learn about characters through their actions.
With these things in mind, let us work through the passage, honing in on the trees. As we do so I would like to ask to you to keep in mind the visual flow of the narrative—that is, the imagery and those things pertaining to sight. And after the Sabbath passed, Mary the Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought aromatic oils that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb while the sun was rising. At this point in the story, if we are aligned with the ideal audience, we are at the edge of our seats. After the Sabbath passed… It is now the third day. Jesus has already been arrested, put on trial, mocked, beaten, crucified, and buried just as he predicted. At this point, whether or not Jesus is trustworthy is no longer even a question in the back of our minds. He has already predicted these events three times, though with slight variation. But, it is not enough that he has predicted these things. For, within reason, anyone could have made such predictions and done what was necessary to bring them about. At this point, we are hanging onto the last phrase of Jesus’ predictions, the part which has yet to be fulfilled. It is the third day; now is the time. Will we see the risen Christ?
…Mary the Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome… Throughout the narrative of Mark’s gospel, minor characters—and within this category, women—have generally been shown to be good examples of what it means to be faithful disciples: recall the woman with the flow of blood, the Syrophoenician woman, the widow in the Temple, and the woman who anointed Jesus. We are first introduced to these characters when they are named among a group of women who followed Jesus and witnessed his death (15.40), and meet them soon after when they are named as seeing where Jesus was buried (15.47). (Though, Salome is absent for the later.) It seems significant to note that these women followed Jesus in Galilee (15.41). Among other places, this verb describes the responses of Peter, Andrew (1.18), and Levi (2.14) to Jesus’ call. Also notice that none of the other disciples are present, not even Jesus’ inner three. In a sense, Mary, Mary, and Salome have taken the mantle, so to speak. Now that they are in this position the question becomes: Will they remain exemplar disciples, or will they follow in the footsteps of their predecessors?
…[they] bought aromatic oils that they might go and anoint him. From a post-resurrection perspective, especially our modern, evangelical one, we may be tempted to be somewhat disappointed in the women already: it seems they too have failed to understand what Jesus meant when he said he would be “raised on the third day.” However, we must resist this temptation, remembering that no one else understood and it is reasonable that they did not, in which case we can applaud their continued faithfulness and bravery shown in their desire to complete the process of Jesus’ burial: they risked much in being associated with him.
And they were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?’ Then, looking up they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (You see, it was very large.) On the way to the tomb, the women face a dilemma: how are they going to get in? How will they ever get past the extremely large stone blocking the entrance? They have come this far, but will they remain? Will this massive stone entomb their determination? But, what is this? They find the stone has been rolled away. Our hope still lives. Though, perhaps, alongside the relief that this obstacle has been overcome, confusion and alarm begin to sink into the women: how has this happened? Perhaps someone has robbed the tomb. Nevertheless, the tomb is open: our suspense grows, becoming palpable as we anticipate the revelation of the Risen Lord.
Then, going into the tomb, they saw a young man sitting to the right, wearing a white robe, and they were alarmed. Now, he says to them, “Do not be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified: He has been raised! He is not here! Look! The place where they put him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he said to you.’” Here it is! The anointed one has risen! Our anticipations have come to fruition! But let us back up a minute. Not to our surprise, the Three are alarmed. They did not expect this. The stone’s being rolled away is enough, and now there is a strange young man in the tomb, saying something like, “Relax; Jesus is alive and well, and he’s making his way to Galilee.” Indeed, this is good news, however astonishing. But, there is more yet to hear from the young man. The women are to give the news to the disciples, even to Peter, that Jesus will be in Galilee just as he said he would. Here is a wonderful thing: not only are the disciples given the opportunity for redemption, but even Peter, who denied Jesus three times! The flock that was scattered is able to come together again. There is hope for those who have gone astray!
Before addressing the cliff-hanger ending that is the last verse, I would like to explore the mysterious character of this passage, the young man in the white robe. Now, if we allow Matthew’s gospel to influence our reading of Mark’s, the character is less of a mystery; for, we might say, “Surely, this is an angel!” I do not think, however, that this reading is faithful to Mark’s narrative. While he plays the role of messenger, which is the same Greek word from which we derive the word “angel”, he is not identified as one. He is a “young man.” This is one word in the Greek and only occurs twice in Mark’s gospel. He also happens to be introduced in a climactic passage involving critical decisions of discipleship. Sound familiar? He makes me think back on the young man in the linen cloth, in 14.51-52, who fled naked in the garden from Jesus’ captors. (This is the other occurrence of the word.) I never quite understood why this young man is mentioned; it just seems so random. However, as I have already established, happenstance does not occur in narratives—at least I do not think it is simply a coincidence that in two similar situations a young man with clothing that is of interest to the narrator is mentioned. What could the connection be then? Perhaps, the young men are the same or are at least acting as parallel symbols. Perhaps, they are symbolic of the disciples. The young man in the linen cloth leaves behind his cloth that he might flee. He is shamed and separated. The young man is then clothed in a white robe, having been redeemed. The young-man-in-the-white-robe’s good news for the disciples is made possible by the redeeming act of Jesus, and, perhaps, is reflective of the fate that resides in the decisions of the disciples, in their remembering Jesus’ words, in their forgiving themselves, perhaps. They are given the choice to capitalize on the offer of redemption.
At this point we may think we can just stop. The story is over; it ends happily-ever-after. The women who have been exemplars of faith have listened to the young man and told the disciples about the risen Jesus. Except for the fact that this is not what happens. And going out they fled from the tomb, for trembling and panic seized them. And they did not tell anyone anything, for they were afraid. This is the close of Mark’s gospel. In this final verse, irony abounds. Previously, when people were told to be quiet, they would not be. Now, when told to deliver the message, the response is silence, and the new Three have fled like those before them. Now, we are the alarmed ones, trying to figure out: what just happen. At this point, all have failed, moving the mantle of discipleship onto the audiences’ shoulders, our shoulders. Here we reach the final climax of the story, the final catalyst for transformation. The question lingers over us: will we be faithful disciples? Let us go back to the beginning of Mark’s gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God. Let us go back to Galilee. Let us work our way through this wonderful story and see what it means to be faithful disciples.