May 7th 2017
Jonah 3: 10–4:11 Mark 16:1-8
‘The women went out and ran from the tomb, trembling with amazement, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’
What an extraordinary way to end a book! Those of you who struggle regularly
to compose essays for your supervisors will know that one of the rules of good essay-writing is to come up with a strong conclusion. Whatever you do don’t just peter out.
What, then, are we to make of the ending of Mark’s Gospel? It sounds, for all the world, as though he ran out of steam – or perhaps he simply ran out of time. Three weeks after Easter Day, we are still, as it were, waiting for the end of the story. Surely these cannot be Mark’s final words? In our printed Bibles there are, indeed, two more paragraphs, but they were certainty not written by Mark himself, for they are missing from our earliest manuscripts, and neither their style nor vocabulary is Mark’s. Clearly other people, long ago, agreed that this was a strange way to end a Gospel, and decided to round it off with a nice tidy ending.
So why did Mark stop writing where he did? Did he in fact stop there? It’s sometimes been argued that the original copy of the Gospel contained something more, and that the ending was lost; perhaps mice got into the church cupboard and chewed the end off! Or perhaps he was prevented from completing it: could he perhaps have been martyred before he had a chance to bring his story to a triumphant conclusion?
But what we have of Mark’s work ends abruptly, and perhaps he ended where he meant to. So was he simply a clumsy author, who didn’t know how to round his story off satisfactorily? Did he run out of material? Or did he end in this way for a deliberate purpose?
When we start to analyze Mark’s final sentence, things seem to get worse, for he ends his Gospel – a book which claims to be telling us good news – with the statement that the women were overcome by trembling and fear. Is that what we expect from people who have just been given the Easter message? Surely they should have been overcome by joy – and if you look at Matthew’s version of this story you will find that this is precisely what he tells us. But Mark ends with the bleak statement ‘they were afraid’. Moreover, the women apparently fail to deliver the message that they have been commissioned to pass on to the disciples. They said nothing to anyone’, says Mark. The Gospel ends with fear and failure. And with no account of any resurrection appearance.
And this, surely, is the remarkable thing about Mark’s ending. The other Gospels all end with a meeting between Jesus and his disciples, but Mark seems to break off before he reaches the end of the story – breaks off with a promise that the disciples will see Jesus, but with no tangible proof that he has in fact risen. Like one of those modern novels that seems to stop in the middle, he keeps us guessing, wondering what happened next. Did the women ever deliver the message? Did the disciples make their way to Galilee? And if so, did they see Jesus when they arrived?
Even what Mark does tell us is full of unanswered questions. Who had rolled away the stone from the tomb, and how had they done it? Who was the young man sitting by the tomb, and why was he dressed in white? He told the women that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb – but was he speaking the truth? Did anybody ever check? Why should the disciples be sent off to Galilee? The obvious place for Jesus to show himself was in Jerusalem. And if the women said nothing to anyone, how did anyone ever hear what had happened that Sunday morning? Was the whole story merely a rumour?
Mark’s ending provides us with no concrete evidence. Why should we believe this message that Jesus has been raised from the dead, when it was delivered by an unknown person to a few women – who were, incidentally, according to Jewish law, not considered capable of giving testimony in court? We expect something better from the writer of a Gospel.
After all, people who claimed to be speaking the truth used to swear that what they said was ‘Gospel truth’; the Gospels, it was assumed, were giving us reliable evidence, facts that could not be disputed. What kind of evidence is Mark offering us?
But ‘Gospel truth’ is not quite so straight-forward as people once supposed, for what the Gospels offer us is not a list of facts which are self-evidently true, but a series of stories that can be interpreted in different ways – stories which the evangelists think amount to being ‘good news’, and which they invite us to see in the same way.
Think of some of the stories Mark tells us earlier in his Gospel. Jesus cures sick people; how does he do it? His enemies say he is working in the power of Satan, but Jesus claims that it is in the power of the Spirit of God. He teaches with great authority. When asked who gave him this authority, he claims that it was God himself, but his enemies have a different answer – he is, they say, uttering blasphemy.
Now we have a story of an empty tomb. Why is it empty? One possible answer is that someone has come and removed the body; Mark’s answer is that Jesus has been raised from the dead. But here, as everywhere else in his Gospel, Mark tells his story and leaves us to make up our own minds about the answer. If we want clear proof, we are not going to find it.
And, of course, we cannot expect to find it. Even in the scientific world, it is rare to be offered clear proof of a belief – and again and again, experimenters have found their assumptions challenged by later investigation.
Even if Mark had done what the other evangelists do, and told a story of how people met the Risen Jesus, that would not be cast-iron evidence for the resurrection. We could accept the evidence of those who claimed to have seen him; or we could conclude that they were the victims of hallucination, or even the perpetrators of some kind of fraud. The kind of evidence we would like just isn’t available.
So perhaps our unease with this story is due to the fact that we expect to find the wrong things here. Let’s take another look at some of its mysterious features. The young man reminds the women of Jesus’ earlier promise to go before them into Galilee. Now they must set off there. Why? Well, everything else Jesus told them would happen has happened. If his betrayal and death took place as he said, why should he not have been right about the rest of the story?
But there is only one way to find out whether he was, and that is to go to Galilee. If they sit around in Jerusalem, nothing will happen. But if they believe Jesus’ promise and set off to Galilee, where Jesus first called them to follow him, they will see him. Is this the message that Mark wants his readers to grasp? If they want to see the risen Jesus, they must respond in faith to his summons. Disbelievers will never see him, but those who believe and follow him on the path of discipleship will meet him.
The women, Mark tells us, were overcome with terror. If we are surprised by that, then perhaps it is because we have heard the story of the resurrection too many times. Imagine that you are hearing it for the first time: if it is true, then it is the most extraordinary demonstration of God’s power. Of course the women are afraid. Joy comes later; for the moment they are overwhelmed by what has happened.
And they said nothing to anyone! It would seem that the women failed to deliver the message – a strange way, indeed, to end a Gospel! And yet it clearly wasn’t the end of the story, or Mark wouldn’t be telling it. We can only conclude that the power which was able to raise Jesus from the dead overcame their fear and opened their mouths. This ‘good news’ is able to deal with human failure.
Why doesn’t Mark tell us what happened when the message was eventually delivered and the disciples finally saw Jesus? Could it be because he knows that stories about empty tombs and appearances cannot provide the kind of evidence that his readers need to persuade them of the resurrection? You can argue about them all day, and be no wiser. Could it be because he knows that they may distract us from something far more important?
Like those modern novelists who seem to leave the readers to finish the story for themselves, Mark leaves his readers to complete the narrative. Did you notice, in our Old Testament reading, how the book of Jonah ends with a question mark? We turn the page, expecting to discover the answer, but find nothing. We’re meant to answer the question for ourselves. And in the same way, Mark challenges us to action. By breaking off with that challenge to set out in faith, he offers us the way to discover the only evidence that can persuade anyone to believe that Jesus has been raised – the opportunity to meet him for ourselves. For the only proof of the resurrection comes from responding to the Gospel in faith, and in personal encounter. The Easter story wasn’t concluded on Easter Day: it had only just begun. If Mark’s story seems unfinished, then it is because he expects us to complete it for ourselves.