Mark’s Gospel as it was meant to be heard

Mark didn’t write his gospel for silent devotional reading. He wrote it to be read aloud publicly. In a phenomenal and incredibly moving one-man drama, Max McLean does exactly that.

I was delighted to discover tonight that a new DVD edition of Max McLean’s one-man show, “Mark’s Gospel,” is now available. I interviewed Max about the production last year, when it was running as a live show in the Chicago Theater District. It is a word-for-word dramatic recitation of the entire Gospel of Mark.

I was even happier to discover that the whole performance is available for free online. Each video below represents a chapter of Mark’s Gospel. All said, it runs about an hour and a half in length. I think you’ll find hearing this interpretation—and hearing the whole book at once, rather than just piecemeal—to be an enriching, edifying experience.

via Mark’s Gospel, Performed by Max McLean: Free Online – Justin Taylor.

I’ve put together a playlist of the entire set of 16 videos on YouTube. Click here and then click “Play All” to watch the entire Gospel of Mark in one sitting (much more rewarding than watching one chapter at a time).

Jesus is a compassionate shepherd (Mark 6:31–44)

Suppose you’re having one of those days when you’ve been working hard all morning and all afternoon and have worn yourself out. Finally, the day is coming to a close; you collapse in a chair on your front porch. At least, that’s the plan…but you’re interrupted by your kids or the neighbor’s dog or someone else who quickly becomes a nuisance. Does this sound like anything you’ve gone through recently?

Welcome to Jesus’ world.

The thing is, Jesus doesn’t look at other people as nuisances. When his disciples return from their “missionary trip,” it’s important to him that they get some R&R.  He tells them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” They get in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and try to escape the crowds that seem to surround Jesus perpetually. However, the crowd figures out what’s going on, and by the time Jesus and his disciples get to the other side of the lake, they find their vacation plans will have to be scrapped for now. There’s no escaping the crowds. How frustrating!

Well, that’s what I’d think, anyway. But not Jesus. Mark tells us his first gut feeling: compassion. He felt so sorry for them, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” These people are confused and helpless; they need someone to lead them and take care of them. Even though he’s worn out, Jesus simply can’t help himself—he can’t ignore their neediness. As he so often does in Mark, he begins “to teach them many things.” More than anything, they need to hear the good news about God’s coming kingdom.

Evening draws near, and Jesus’ disciples start getting antsy. They realize that hardly anyone has brought along food. Maybe it’s because it’s an all-male gathering (depending on how you translate Matthew 14:21), and we men aren’t real smart about packing our own lunches. So here they are, out in the middle of nowhere, and everyone is already tired and now they’re getting weak from hunger. It’s time to send people away so they can feed themselves—if there is any food to be had in the area.

When they offer their reasonable plan to Jesus, he responds with an irrational demand: You give them something to eat.” Wow, great idea! Why didn’t we think of that before, Jesus? Oh yeah—because it would be ridiculously expensive, that’s why. Two hundred denarii—more than six months’ wages for a laborer! Who knows whether the disciples even have that kind of money. And Jesus wants them to feed this crowd they never asked to entertain. You’ll have to forgive them for being incredulous.

Still, Jesus hits on a pretty simple solution they seemed to have overlooked. “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” It’s like he’s saying, “Guys, you’re making this way too complicated. There’s a simpler solution to this problem. Let’s just take the food we already have and distribute it.” Apparently, the disciples haven’t bothered to collect all the food they had available; they already know it won’t do any good. But Jesus is their rabbi, and he told them to do it, so they’ll jump through this silly hoop for his sake. All they find is five loaves of bread and two fish.

What happens next is pretty hilarious, the way Mark describes it, though it doesn’t come out too well in English translations. Jesus has the disciples organize the crowd into little banqueting parties on the grass. They are sorted into neat rows, as though this were Jesus’ garden plot, sprouting colorful people plants. Jesus has them sit down on the “green grass” as the Good Shepherd would do to feed his sheep (Psalm 23:2). Then he says grace, divides the loaves and fish among the disciples, and has them distribute the meager rations to the entire crowd. Mysteriously, everyone has something to eat and is satisfied. And when each of the twelve disciples picks up the leftovers, he fills his basket!

Then Mark hits us with the punchline: this was a crowd of 5,000 men. No way could this have been anything but a miracle. Most guys could down a whole pizza after running around a lake and going most of the day without food. But their hunger can’t match Jesus’ generosity, and his little picnic leaves everyone stuffed.

Now, at certain points in this story, there are little hints that this is not your typical Jesus flash mob. The many people “coming and going,” the fact that Mark emphasizes the number of males in the crowd, and the reference to “sheep without a shepherd”—often referring to a leaderless military in the Old Testament—indicates that there is a revolutionary undertone to this gathering. The people wanted Jesus to lead a revolt against the Roman oppressors. But while this is prominent in John’s account (John 6:15), Mark downplays it. He isn’t really interested in the politics of the situation. He wants us to see Jesus having compassion on his disciples and then on the crowd. He wants us to see Jesus solving a complex problem with a simple but impossible solution. He wants us to see Jesus taking care of the people God has entrusted to him.

Mark wants us to understand that Jesus is a leader, that he has authority. But he also wants us to understand what kind of leader he is and how he uses his authority. He is a shepherd who cares for his sheep. He doesn’t get annoyed at us but feels compassion for us. So we can say with confidence, “Only goodness and loyal love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will stay in the house of the LORD for the rest of my days” (Ps 23:6).

Jesus is a threat to those in power (Mark 6:7–30)

We’re now going to travel from the small, backwater village where Jesus was born to the heart of political power in his homeland—the palace of Herod Antipas, governor of Galilee. This has been a tough journey for me, though. The passage we’re looking at today is difficult: the storyline is easy to understand, but the way Mark structures it makes it a real challenge to figure out the meaning of these events. I’ll share what I believe is happening, and if you have any other ideas or questions or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment!

What makes this a challenge is that it’s yet another “sandwich story.” Mark records that Jesus has begun commissioning the Twelve, his “inner circle” among his disciples, to act as his emissaries throughout the region. They set out on their various journeys, but before they return, Mark decides to relate the story of how Herod had put John the Baptist to death. This is very odd! Mark is not the kind of guy who likes to waste words. Why does he go into such great detail about an event that doesn’t seem to be relevant? (This is one of the most detailed stories in Mark’s gospel so far!) How does this inner story in the “sandwich” help us interpret what’s going on in the outer story?

The first key is to understand what Jesus is sending his disciples to do. He calls them to himself and sends them out in pairs, giving them “authority over the unclean spirits.” We find out a few verses down that they’re also healing the sick and preaching that people should repent of their sins. But the focus is on exorcism. Since Mark likes to focus on the fact that preaching was Jesus’ top priority, it should surprise us that he is commissioning the disciples for war against the unclean spirits. Even more surprising, he’s not equipping them very well! They are to travel light, depending on the generosity of people who are receptive to what they have to say. They are utterly dependent on the Lord to take care of them. At the same time, Jesus gives them authority to condemn anyone who rejects them, telling them, “Shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” This is what Jews did when leaving unclean Gentile territory. In effect, the disciples would be saying, “God does not have any people here for his kingdom.”

The disciples’ dependence accentuates their authority. They are weak, but they are accomplishing great things as emissaries of Jesus. So word quickly spreads, and rumors begin to fly about who this Jesus fellow is. He could be a prophet, or even Elijah come back. But Herod, the governor, is fixated on another explanation. He thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist, and he speaks as a guilty man when he says, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

Of all the possible ideas of who Jesus could be, why does Herod obsess over this unlikely one? Well, Mark goes into a lot of detail to explain why. John had criticized Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias (who had divorced her husband to marry Herod). This was illegal according to the law of Moses (Leviticus 18:16), and John called them out on it. So Herod imprisoned him, though he didn’t want to kill him. Herodias and her daughter, however, trapped Herod and forced his hand. So John was put to death. Now, notice how many times Mark talks about Herod’s psychological state! He tells us, “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.” When Herodias’ daughter did a little dirty dancing for his birthday party, she “pleased Herod.” In a rash and presumably drunken euphoria, Herod swore to her that he would give her whatever she asked. When she demanded the head of John the Baptist as a gift, Herod “was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her.” So he had John executed. Happy freaking birthday, Herod.

Now, Mark’s a guy, so he doesn’t like talking about people’s feelings. Yet here, he practically has Herod lying on a couch to be psychoanalyzed! Why? Because he wants you and me to understand what Herod is feeling. Herod knows he is guilty of John’s death; he knows that he had killed a “righteous and holy man” because of his own foolishness and pride, and ultimately because of his own sexual sin. He is ashamed because of his guilt. So when he hears about a man traveling throughout Galilee with disciples in tow, performing great miracles and preaching about a new “kingdom,” his thoughts immediately go to John the Baptist. He becomes irrationally fixated on this idea that John has come back from the dead. (And, in a sense, he’s right—a lot of what happened to John in this story is a close parallel to what’s going to happen to Jesus.)

The thought of John’s resurrection must fill him with fear. Herod knows that he is guilty of adultery and murder. God’s kingdom and its emissaries are a threat, because he will come under the judgment of the Lord’s anointed king. To people who are in power, Jesus is a threat. He insists on his own authority over men and demons, wind and waves, disease and death. A petty tyrant like Herod doesn’t stand a chance.

So which side will you be on? Will you join Herod in trying to cling to your own authority, your own way of doing life? Will you keep running your business your way, or leading your family your way, or handling your money your way? Or will you become dependent on Jesus, trusting him, obeying him, and clothing yourself in his authority? I’d suggest that you pick the side whose King came back from the dead.

Jesus rejects his hometown (Mark 6:1–6)

Over the last few years, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to spend time with college students, challenging them and encouraging them to follow Jesus Christ with their whole heart and become an active part of a local church. It’s exciting to see students with a teachable spirit begin to grow and bear fruit for the Lord, often for the first time in their lives. One of the challenges, though, is when a growing freshman returns home for the first summer. There, she finds out that “you can’t go home again,” as the proverb says. The student discovers that she has been transformed over the last eight months, while her family and friends back home have stayed the same. Her hometown church, if she has one, is the same as it always was. Before leaving, she fit in well; this was her home. Now, she doesn’t fit in anymore, and she knows that this place can never again be her home.

When Jesus returns to his hometown after a spectacular ministry of preaching and performing miracles, he encounters a similar problem. His homecoming is a letdown for anyone who expects the townspeople to welcome him as their favorite son.

With his disciples in tow, Jesus arrives at his hometown (Nazareth, though Mark tellingly refuses to name it). On the Sabbath, he preaches at the local synagogue, a place that must have seemed familiar to him; this synagogue was basically the small-town church he grew up in. When he preaches, the people of his hometown gather to listen to the boy from their town who has “made it big.” Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus says to them (for that story, read Luke’s account). Whatever it is, the people are “astonished.” They mutter to one another, “Where did this man get these things?” It certainly wasn’t from them! His “wisdom” and “mighty works” are unfamiliar to them. He was one of them when he was growing up as a little boy, but now he has outgrown their traditional, legalistic Judaism.

This doesn’t sit well with the people of Jesus’ hometown. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” The rest of Jesus’ family is still stuck in the old mindset, the old legalism of the Pharisees. Like the rest of the town, they think Jesus is out of his mind (Mark 3:21)! They still fit in, but Jesus doesn’t anymore. The truth is, he never did; it’s only now that the townspeople are realizing it. As far as they’re concerned, Jesus has betrayed the small-town values which make them who they are. In their minds, he has turned his back on them. They are deeply offended.

Jesus responds to their attitude with a proverb of sorts: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” The irony is obvious. Like the proverbial prophet, Jesus is popular wherever he goes, but when he returns to the people who should honor him the most, he is rejected. You’d think his hometown and his family would be proud of him. They should be shoe-ins for “insider” status. Instead, they are upset at him because, instead of preserving their tradition, he has been announcing that it will be swept away with the coming of God’s kingdom.

Over the last two chapters, Jesus has shut down a raging storm, driven an army of demons out of a man, healed a diseased and hopeless woman, and raised a little girl from the dead. He certainly isn’t lacking for power. Yet Mark writes that he can’t do any mighty work in his hometown, other than healing a handful of sick people. Instead, he marvels “because of their unbelief.” Mark has been recording how people have “marveled” or been “amazed” because of his miracles. Even the people of his hometown were “astonished” at his teaching. Now it is Jesus who marvels, because their unbelief is so irrational. It is a supernatural unbelief. Jesus knows that it would be pointless to perform a great miracle here; the people’s hearts are too hard. They will only harden their hearts further, in denial of the fact that he is greater than they think he is. They are too intent on clinging to their old way of life, the old kingdom that will soon pass away.

What’s really sad is that people haven’t changed too much in the last 2,000 years. Jesus still confronts us today, offering a new way of life, a new kingdom. But most people reject him because they don’t want to change. They’re comfortable with the way they’ve been living. And you know what the scary part is? The people who are the most resistant to Jesus, who have built up a supernatural resistance, are the ones sitting in church pews on Sunday morning. It’s people who think they have known Jesus their whole lives and are familiar with all the stories. But they’re stuck in a legalistic way of thinking, clinging to human tradition rather than the Word of God. It is no surprise that Jesus is doing no mighty work there. Please, if you’ve never considered this before, do it now. Are you and your church clinging to human tradition? Are you clinging to the mindset of the culture around you—whether the culture as it is now or the culture as it was fifty years ago? That kingdom will not last for long; it cannot be your home.

Jesus departs from his hometown, teaching among other villages in Galilee, where people will listen to him. His mission must go on; the good news of God’s kingdom must be preached. Nazareth is left behind.

Jesus has power over disease and death (Mark 5:21–43)

When I began working through the gospel of Mark, my main goal was to know Jesus better. Today’s passage has become precious to me because it’s one of those places in scripture where I’ve encountered Jesus in a unique way. Meeting Jesus here led me to the point of tears as I see the love that he has for his people. I wish I could communicate it in the space of about four minutes, but it’s simply not possible. It takes deep contemplation and imagination and questioning of the text to mine this rich vein of gold.

If you grew up attending Sunday School, the details of this story are familiar. The ruler of a local Jewish synagogue, a man by the name of Jairus, asks Jesus to heal his sick daughter. On the way, a woman sneaks up on Jesus from behind, touches his clothes, and is healed of a menstrual discharge that has plagued her for twelve years. Jairus finds out that his daughter has died, but Jesus goes to his house and raises her from the dead.

Here’s something that should give us pause, though: this is another one of Mark’s “sandwich stories.” Mark begins the story of Jairus’ daughter, interrupts it to tell about the woman, then finishes the story of Jairus’ daughter. The sandwiched, inner story of the woman should help us understand something important about the outer story that we wouldn’t have known otherwise. So how does the story of this suffering woman unlock the story of Jairus and his daughter?

There’s something odd about this inner story: it’s so mundane at first. Jesus has healed many diseased people before, and many of them have “pressed around to touch him” (Mark 3:10). What’s so special about this woman? Well, first of all, she is unusually desperate. She has been suffering menstrual bleeding for twelve years straight and has spent all her money on doctors who have only made the problem worse. Her bleeding makes her unclean according to the law of Moses, so for the last twelve years she has been somewhat isolated from her friends and family. Jesus is her last hope, her only hope. She dares to believe that he can save her from her suffering with a single touch: “If I touch even his garments I will be saved.” And sure enough, she feels his power course through her body and heal her at once.

At the same time, Jesus feels power flow out from him, and at once he demands to know who touched him. The disciples are incredulous—“You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” As though no one had ever done this before! Yet Jesus persists, and the woman comes forward, falls down before him, and tells him everything. She has felt his immense power surging through the depths of her being; she knows what he is capable of doing; and she is terrified. Will Jesus be furious at her for interrupting his urgent mission to Jairus’ house? Will he be horrified that an unclean woman has contaminated him?

“Daughter,” he says to her, “your faith has saved you.” He isn’t upset at her. He loves her—loves her as though she were his own daughter. He is thrilled to see how bold her faith is, bold enough to inconvenience him. She believed he could save her, and he is glad to give her what she spent twelve years longing for. “Go in peace, and be healed of your disease,” he says.

Now, here’s where we get back to Jairus’ story, because at that very moment, messengers come from his house with terrible news: “Your daughter is dead.” Jairus must have been devastated. He was so close to finding help for her; the famous rabbi was on his way to heal her, and now—all is lost. He will never get her back. It’s too late. The messengers ask him, “Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But Jesus is listening in, and he says to Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.” And all at once, we understand why he insisted on speaking to the woman. It was for Jairus’ sake. Jesus wanted Jairus to see that he could believe in him. Jesus has power over disease and death; his authority is beyond that of any man. And he is eager to use that authority to help Jairus. There is no need to be afraid.

Jairus must have held on to a kernel of faith, because Jesus insists on showing up at his house, kicking out the hired mourners, and walking upstairs to where the girl lies dead. I love this scene! Jesus basically reaches out to her, takes her hand, and says to her, “Wake up, it’s time for lunch!” (If you don’t believe me, read verse 43!) As far as he’s concerned, “the child is not dead but sleeping”—no need to panic or anything. The people in the room are “overcome with amazement,” but Jesus is nonchalant about the whole thing. How can you not love him for that?

This story has a familiar ending: Jesus insists that the small circle of people in that room keep quiet about this. (I have no idea how they could!) This astounding experience is something special that he has given to those people who have faith. To the woman who got close to him and touched him, he gave her his power to save her from disease. To the parents of this girl, who believed in him even when all hope was lost, he gave them their daughter back. Those who mocked Jesus are left on the outside, wondering what just took place. They don’t get to see that Jesus has power over disease and death.

I urge you—come close to Jesus. He wants you to be with him. You feel unclean, unloved, but Jesus wants you to come to him to be washed in his blood, healed from your sin, clothed in his righteousness, raised to life again. Don’t be afraid. Only believe.