by Ralph W. Klein
Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor Emeritus of Old Testament
The Easter account in Mark is short and enigmatic, and it was considered unsatisfactory almost from the start. When Matthew and Luke wrote about Easter, with the book of Mark lying open before them, they added a number of details, including various details and appearances of the risen Christ. By the second century scribes who were copying Mark began to add different endings to Mark’s gospel.
One of them was only two verses long. It said that the women did in fact tell the story—briefly—to those around Peter, and then Jesus appeared to the disciples and sent them out from east to west with the imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Other scribes added a longer ending of twelve verses, recounting an appearance to Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons, to two fellows walking in the countryside (somewhat like the disciples on the way to Emmaus), and to the eleven disciples. The author of these verses scolded those who did not believe, but promised that those who would believe would find their faith confirmed by significant signs—they would cast out demons, speak in tongues, handle snakes with their bare hands, drink poisons without ill effects, and have the ability to cure the sick. Then, in this longer account, Jesus ascended into heaven, and the disciples launched a worldwide mission.
Almost everyone today agrees that the shorter ending of Mark is the original ending, but what does this short and enigmatic gospel mean? I offer three readings, some more adventuresome than others, but all of them providing inspiration and encouragement for our own celebration of Easter.
The first, more or less traditional reading points out that Mark is written for an audience that was oppressed and experiencing persecution and told them the story of Jesus, who despite all his troubles remained steadfast in his trust in God. Even the Roman centurion who saw how Jesus died exclaimed, “Truly, this was God’s child!” But Mark also told the story about how the disciples consistently did not get it, and so it is no big surprise when the women too remained silent about what they had heard—because they were afraid.
The Gospel of Mark invites its readers to finish the story in their own way, and countless individuals and groups have accepted the invitation. Our colleague David Rhoads, in The Diversity of the New Testament, singles out the members of religious orders, who have given up so much in order to serve humankind, or foreign missionaries who went to lonely and sometimes dangerous places to tell the story, or Mother Teresa who lived out the Easter gospel in the slums of Calcutta, or Civil Rights workers in the 60s in the United States, who tried to lift our sights to the vision of our founding documents, which stated that all people are created equally and are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But the kingdom of God in Mark is given to ordinary folks, and millions of them have said, “I will tell and live this story because I am not afraid!”
My second reading of this story is indebted to my late colleague Robert Smith. Robert pointed out that fear is not always something negative in the Bible, but it is the believing response people have to an awesome experience, such as the announcement of the resurrection of Jesus. He also pointed to Mark 1:44 where Jesus told a leper whom he had just cleaned not to say anything, but with singleness of purpose to go to the priests and offer an appropriate sacrifice. Robert suggested a paraphrase of the final verses of this gospel reading: “Filled with awe and wonder at what they had seen, the women ran from the tomb to tell the disciples, not stopping to chit chat with the women who had come out to the wells on this Sunday morning, and not even texting anyone.”
Rather than failing in their assignment, these women exemplify an appropriate response to the Gospel of Mark: because of their awe they told the story. I love this interpretation, not least because it strikes another blow at a patriarchal understanding of the Bible. Instead of being deadbeats like the disciples, these women are the first and among the best interpreters of Mark’s message.
A third reading of the Gospel focuses on that young fellow, that neaniskos, who was clothed in a white robe. He was a young fellow or even a new fellow, sitting on a big stone on the right side of the tomb, sort of “the new kid on the block.” As I was preparing for this sermon, I thought of all of you neaniskoi, all of you neaniskai—it’s hard to speak inclusively in Greek. Most commentators identify the neaniskos as an angel or heavenly messenger, but I thought of all of you new kids on the block, many of whom are about to go out as God’s messengers on first calls or internship assignments. Almost everyone in this room has worn a white robe at one time or another—as presider, preacher, assisting minister, choir member, confirmand, or even as an angel in a nativity program.
I thought of all of you new kids on the block, in your own time and your own way, saying “Go and tell the believers, and especially Peter.” In Mark’s gospel, Peter had denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed twice. But I want to let Peter stand for that person who can’t accept your ministry or your leadership, that person often dismissed with a sneer as an “alligator.” Go and tell the believers and especially Peter that he is going ahead of you. Does that mean that since Jesus can fly he will get there first? Or does it not rather mean that Jesus, as the good shepherd, is at the head of a great procession of believers?
Go and tell the believers and especially Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. Galilee is the place where Jesus spent most of his time, in humble service, patient ministry, and passionate mission. Galilee is not Jerusalem, Rome, or Washington. It is not the place where elites hang out or a place of tall steeples. Each of us has our own Galilee. Galilee is your first struggling congregation in an unglamorous synod, Galilee is your classmates or even your teachers, whom you have been given or whom are stuck with, Galilee is the faithful members at that congregation or the staff at this seminary, who have been carrying on their ministry long before you showed up or long after you are only a distant memory.
Go and tell the believers and especially Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as Jesus promised. Many commentators take the verb “see” as an indication that Mark knew of or anticipated a resurrection appearance in Galilee. But I think it means that you will see Jesus in places of humble ministry. Go and tell the believers and especially Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see the risen Christ; there you will see the risen Christ, in Galilee! Alleluia! Christ is risen.