I Corinthians 1:26-31
26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
The Gospel of St. Mark is the Gospel of rapid action. It touches upon event after event in the life of Jesus, as though in a hurry to get to the Grand Finale. He does not open his telling of the Gospel story with accounts of the conception & birth of the baby Jesus. We do not meet shepherds and angels or wisemen. Nor do we see him as a 12-year-old boy. In Mark he appears on the scene as a full grown man ready for action.
We first meet Jesus as he came to be Baptized. Immediately after that high event he was driven by the Holy Spirit to be tested by Satan. And after that great victory, he returns to Galilee to begin his work of saving the world. But it is interesting to note that before he is described as teaching anything, or performing any miracles, he begins by selecting people to learn from him and become his coworkers. Jesus will be a team player.
But Mark seems to spend considerable time giving us the impression that the disciples are a rather gormless group.
When I was a child growing up in England, there were two words that were used to describe people. “Brilliant!” was used to describe those who were smart, and then there was the word “Gormless” which inferred that the person referred to was non too sharp. A little bit on the dimwitted side. A bit muddle headed and scatter brained. By the way, it was spoken usually with affection and humour.
As the life of Jesus is told by Saint Mark we get a deepening impression that Mark was not too impressed with the original disciples. Let me take us first to the story about the feeding of the Five Thousand to see the pattern that develops.
- The Feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:35-44)
When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “How can we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.”
The story of the feeding of the 5,000 looks like an innocent story. The disciples appear to be a bit calloused in sending hungry people away, but it is quite understandable. They had never experienced anything like this before. When Jesus says to his followers, “feed them” they get out their calculators and say “can’t be done!” You and I would have come to the same conclusion. The disciples did not yet know the full power of their master. You can hardly blame them for their lack of creativity!
- The Storm at Sea (Mark 6:47-52)
But right after that miracle there is another one. They leave the satisfied crowd, and the 12 get into a fishing boat and head across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus goes off by himself to pray. A storm arises and they row like mad, but are making no progress. Jesus suddenly appears out of nowhere, walking towards them on the water.
Let me read the end of the story. Verses 49-52.
49 But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 51 Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
“They did not understand about the bread.” They did not know him to be the Lord over nature? But perhaps again their dullness is a bit excusable. They had never seen such power demonstrated before! Mark however does say that they did not understand “because their hearts were hardened.” In today’s vernacular we might say, “they did not understand because they were hard headed, bull headed, rather fixed in their ideas.” But let us go to the next story.
- The Feeding of the 4,000. (Mark 8:1-10)
Now the Feeding of the 4,000 is a very similar event. The crowds have been there for three days. Whatever provisions they had brought were exhausted. The crowd is hungry. A long way from home. Jesus said, “I am concerned for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way-and some of them have come from a great distance.”
His disciples respond: “How can anyone feed these people with bread, here in the desert?” That is an incredible response from the disciples. Have they forgotten so soon? Surely they should have answered, “Lord, here is some bread and a few fish. Do you want to do it again?” But these men are a bit slow on the draw. But Mark is not done with his portrait of the 12. There is another story that follows on the heels of this one.
- We have no Bread (Mark 8:14-21)
The disciples leave with Jesus via boat once more, and the disciples as they climb into the boat are aware that they have only brought one loaf with them. There are 13 men in a boat with one loaf for lunch. Anxiety fills their minds. Jesus says, as they ply the oars, “Watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” The disciples’ response is: “Oh, oh. He said that because we have no bread.” Jesus hears the anxious muttering. Let me read the rest of the passage, “And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 Then he said to them, “You don’t understand yet, do you?”
Talk about a rather Gormless group. The disciples are slow learners.
- Other occasions of dullness
But Mark tells us of many other incidents where the disciples appear to be just as incredibly confused.
Mark 8:27-33. At Caesarea Philippi Peter Confesses “You are the Christ!” Marvellous insight! But before that conversation is done, Peter begins to rebuke Jesus, and Jesus says to his number-one follower, “Get behind me Satan. You do not understand.” Now the disciple sees, now he doesn’t.
Mark 9:5, On the Mount of Transfiguration Jesus is seen in his true light. Peter is excited, “Let’s build three tabernacles, one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus.” But Mark writes, “He did not know what to say, for they were all terrified”. Peter fails to understand that that it is not the agenda of God to build three shrines to three great men.
Mark 9:17-19 Peter, James & John descend the Mount of transfiguration to join the other nine disciples. They are in turmoil. An epileptic child has been brought to the disciples for healing, but they were unable. In verse 19 Jesus says, “O Faithless generation, how much longer must I be with you….” Jesus is on his way to die, but cannot before these 12 men understand something about who He is and why he has come.
Mark 9:30-32 the frequent Predictions of Jesus death are not understood.
Mark 9:33-37. The disciples misunderstand the nature of His kingdom and have arguments about greatness and position.
Mark 9:38-39 They forbade anyone casting out demons who were not disciples of Jesus.
Mark 10:13-16, the disciples tried to prevent children coming to Jesus.
The list seems close to endless. The disciples are painted in Mark’s version as a rather gormless group.
What is Mark doing?
Is he trying to make the disciples look dimwitted? Is he trying to embarrass them before his readership? Perhaps so. There is no disputing the evidence that he makes them look quite foolish. The question is, “why would he do this?”
There are several alternatives.
It was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The disciples were a rather confused bunch. But surely there is no need to be a tattle tale & wash other persons’ dirty laundry before the whole world! Mark must surely have a better motive than gossip or malice.
There is a second reason given. There were serious conflicts in the early church between various branches of the Church. Jewish Christians were not sure about Gentile Christians. They had a hard time understanding one another. We know in Corinth there was conflict between the followers of Peter, and Paul, and James and Apollos, and those who called themselves “the Jesus party”. Then there was misunderstanding between Paul & Barnabas, and the list goes on.
Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians talks about some who followed the so-called “Super Apostles.” Mark may have felt in his day that too high an importance was being given to the apostles. The authority of the apostles may have become more important than the authority of Jesus Christ. The different branches of the expanding church had been saying, “I was baptized by Peter” “Well, I follow Paul”, “I think Apollos is the best thinker in the church” and so went some of the dialogue in those early days.
Mark, however, wants no idolatry. No hero worship. No saints to be revered. Jesus did not want three shrines for Moses, Elijah and Jesus, and even less does Mark want shrines for Peter, Paul & John. He wants our focus to be on Christ alone as head of the church. He lets us know that Jesus alone is qualified to be the saviour. We may be asked to be helpers, but we are no Messiahs!
There may, however, be another reason. Mark may well be telling us that Jesus called people, and still calls people, who like these first 12 are rather gormless, to be his followers, and to learn from him, and become his coworkers in the great adventure of changing the world one person at a time.
These 12 were not flawless men. They are far from being perfect. In fact, they were like all the servants of God that had gone before them. The O.T. saints were people of faith, who had clay feet. Abraham lied about his wife, Sarah mistreated her maid, Jacob cheated his brother and parents, Moses blasphemed in the striking of the Rock, David murdered Uriah and took his wife, Solomon the wise got very stupid, Elijah has suicidal thoughts as he ran from Jezebel, and Jeremiah lived most of his life with depression. The saints of scripture, Old Testament & New, usually look more like Archie Bunker than Edith the Good.
And these 12 men are a photograph of all disciples. For I too am rather thick headed. I am gormless at times to a fault. I too fail to understand God’s will and God’s way. Too many times I have to pray with feeling, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” The great Reformers taught us with the Latin phrase: “Justus et Peccator” – we are Justified, while remaining sinners.
After saying all that, let the whole truth be known. These men were faulty men, enmeshed in the beliefs and values of their culture, prone to all the failings of our common humanity, but, they were followers of Jesus. At times they followed afar off, sometimes they followed with fear, often they blundered, but praise be to God, they were disciples, learners, followers of Jesus Christ.
And learn they did. They became mature, though never flawless. They were never sinless, but they learned to sin less! They grew in the grace and knowledge of God and proved useful to both Church & world.
And it is a great comfort to me. God can use people like us, who follow Jesus the best ways we can. And as we follow, the God of all grace will make us wiser, and good-er and more useful to Him in the work he has called us to. Thanks be to God! Amen!