In what sense does the hearing of Mark’s narrative convey the divine presence of God? And, if the narrative does convey the divine presence, what might this mean for the audience of Mark’s story? These questions push us to consider the force of Mark’s Gospel, and particularly the presentation of God in the narrative, on the audience of the first century.
Much scholarly ink has been spilt on the discussion concerning the audience of Mark’s narrative. Mostly arguments have revolved around finding either the geographical location and situation of an historical audience or the implied audience a modern interpreter gleans from the story itself. While both are legitimate pursuits, both begin at opposite ends of the question, yet are primarily dependent on the same story. Thus any hope of identifying the Markan audience must be dependent on Mark. We have no one to tell us what it was like to hear Mark’s story.
However, what we can say is that the Gospel of Mark was a story that was to be read aloud in order to cause a response from its audience. The shear fact that the author tells this story in such dramatic fashion, using vivid language and imagery, and quick movement, leads us to consider how the audience is drawn into the narrative. Moreover, the vilification of certain characters, the exaltation of others, and the ambiguous presentation of still others, forces an audience of the narrative to judge these characters, and to emulate those worthy of emulation.
The upshot of enticing an audience into this story is that they see it as not just past recollections, but also as their own story. The stories of the past events in the life of Jesus are told not for nostalgic purposes, but to cause the audience to understand their own lives in relation to the story they are hearing. The very fact that this story is told in their hearing lends credence to the idea that in some way their own story fits into the story Mark narrates, and at the same time, the story of Mark’s narrative fits into their own lives. As they engage with the complexities of the narrative, they engage with their own stories, processing how these stories fit together.
The privileged position of the audience gives them a distinct advantage over the characters in the story for they are able to know and see things that others cannot. They know the scheming trickery of the enemies of Jesus. They are able to comprehend the fullness of Jesus’ divine mission to go to Jerusalem and be handed over for death. They are also able to process this mission as God’s will and even God’s action. But most importantly, they know of the divine presence of God in and beyond the narrative.
The audience also understands this story in the larger framework of Israel’s story. They hear the opening of the narrative as a fulfilment of what was spoken by the prophet. They hear the voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus as the Divine Son in the baptism. While others question, “Who is this?” or “By what authority does he do these things?” the audience of Mark knows. They are present with Jesus in the garden as he, burdened by the coming suffering and death, prays to his God for relief, but receives none. And although the women are present at the tomb to hear the message of Jesus’ resurrection, the audience is the only other character to experience this scene.
Their experience of this narrative is their experience of the God of this narrative. The narrative subtly draws the audience into the story, and into an experience of God through the telling of the story. The audience is forced to decide on whether they will be outsiders or insiders. Outsiders join with the evil of the world, and those who set themselves in opposition to God, while insiders are those who do the will of God, primarily in their following of Jesus.
If Mark was written for a community under persecution, then the strength and hope they must gather to face these persecutions without failing is found in the God of Mark’s narrative. But even if one cannot satisfactorily argue that Mark’s historical community was under persecution, the narrative certainly does not hide the fact that those who choose to follow Jesus are faced with the great potential of being persecuted.
In all times and places, then, the Markan narrative serves the community who needs corrective teachings and further encouragement to remain faithful to the gospel of God lived and proclaimed in the coming of Jesus.
As the disciples were confounded by their own incomprehension of who Jesus was, and confounded by their own human failures, so the Markan audience lives in the reality of human things and not divine things. But through hearing the narrative of Mark, the audience in all times and places experiences the continual divine presence communicated through the story and are able to fit this story into their own human existence, and equally their own human existence into this story.
The theology of Mark’s Gospel is that the God who is the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus, is the God the Markan audience has experienced in the hearing of Mark’s story. This is the God who is present with them as they seek to do the will of God. And, despite their failures and the persecutions that persist in deterring the movement of God’s rule and the proclamation of God’s gospel, God will remain forever faithful.