Ok, this ones for the literature nerds, but this insight really helped me read the gospel of Mark.

Because we were trained in Sunday school and short sermons, we often read Marks’ stories (and all Bible stories) one at a time. Each story stands alone – or so we think. But Mark is working at a deeper level. Despite his simple vocabulary and blunt sentences, despite being a ‘religious’ work, Mark is a writer. And we need to read the gospel and the Bible with an eye to deeper meaning and complexity. Like all good books, when we pay attention, we find the riches beneath the surface.

So, how do we get started in reading the gospel carefully? One tool is to look for connections between the stories, not just the stories themselves. In other words, look at the structure.

In the sermon on chapter 2:1-3:7 something really interesting is going. Mark tells five stories that don’t seem to connect. But careful readers notice some similarities.

The first and last stories begin with healings and end in conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. They both start with the phrase ‘And again he entered”. They are about Jesus provoking ill will by doing good.

In the second and second-to-last stories, Jesus’s disciples are criticized and Jesus responds by challenging the Pharisees thinking. These stories both begin with the phrase, “and it came to pass”. They show Jesus’ priorities in calling disciples is radically new.  

These parallels link the two stories, but they also direct our attention to what lies at the center – Jesus teaching on the wine and the wedding feast.

Chiastic Structure

This is called a chiastic structure – Like an X that moves from the outside in and then back out again. It’s sometimes called an ABCDCBA structure. In this section it goes like this:

  1. Jesus Heals a Person in an Unorthodox Way and Challenges the Authorities
  2. Jesus defends his disciples from the judgment of others
  3. Jesus defines the kingdom as a wedding
  4. The bridegroom is taken.
  5. Jesus defines the kingdom as wine.
  6. Jesus defends his disciples from the judgment of others
  7. Jesus Heals a Person in an Unorthodox Way and Challenges the Authorities

The very middle sentence in all these stories is when Jesus says; “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” It may feel like a throwaway line, a little out of place – but when we see it right at the center, it takes on a new meaning. Mark is lampshading a growing but difficult them. Jesus, the bridegroom who brings joy will soon be taken away. Grief and loss will be a part of this story – maybe the central part. So, get ready and start paying attention to signals Jesus is sending. The disciples miss them, and often, so do we.

Mark is simple. But he uses his simple language powerfully and cleverly. He reminds me a little bit of Ernest Hemingway’s style – short and direct language that lands certain sentences with devastating clarity. Hemingway once wrote a six-word short story…

“Baby shoes for sale. Never Worn.”

Simple language, simple words, devastating meaning, when you pay attention. Think about it. That’s simple and incredible.

In the same way, let me encourage you to read Mark carefully, and see the power of his words – and meet Jesus with great clarity.