Palm Sunday – Mark’s Picture of the Savior

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “Synoptic” Gospels–it means something like “look-alike”–because they are so similar, mostly word-for-word, that it is obvious they are copying from one another.  

Luke says in his introduction that he is working from previous versions, but we don’t know the relationship between Matthew and Mark.  I like to think of Mark as Peter’s revision of Matthew, though most modern scholars think Mark came first.

Acknowledging that we don’t know the exact relationships between them, it can still be fruitful to approach these three similar documents by digging into what is distinctive in each.  This year, the year of Mark in the Lectionary, I took this approach to my meditation on Palm Sunday, digging into the differences between Mark and Matthew.

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There are some details of personal recollection.  If the ancient legends are true, Matthew was written by one of the Twelve, and Mark by the disciple of one of the Twelve, so both have inside information.  But it is touching to see the details Peter passes on.

Mark’s gospel tells us that Matthew’s “very expensive ointment” was spikenard–maybe Peter can remember the smell.  When the two disciples go to find the upper room for the Passover, Mark tells us the man they spoke to was carrying a pitcher of water. Matthew tells us only that the room is in a “house,” Mark adds that it is a “guest room,” a “large upper room, furnished and ready.”  

Matthew has the rooster crow once, all that is necessary for the story.  Peter remembers the detail that it was twice.

In the garden in Matthew, Jesus cries out to his Father–but Peter remembers that he used the Aramaic term, “Abba.”  (There’s a legend, started around the year 1900, that Abba means daddy, and we’re supposed to see something sentimental in it.  But it seems just to have been the word for father in Jesus’s language. So too Mark remembers Judas using the Hebrew title “Rabbi,” the places were called Gethsemane and Golgotha, and on the cross Jesus quotes Psalm 22 in Hebrew: Eloi, eloi, lama sabachani.)  Peter remembers the exact words.

Matthew tells us Peter was standing in the courtyard when he denied Jesus.  Mark knows that he was warming his hands by the fire. And he tells us that Peter was recognized by his accent as a Galillean.  

Mark has the weird detail of the young man running away naked.  Many scholars think that’s Mark’s own cameo appearance.

And Mark tells us that Joseph of Armimathea was the father of Alexander and Rufus–people he knows.  

Maybe there is symbolism here, I don’t know.  I just like the picturesque details, the personal touch.

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And then there are the things Mark leaves out.  Mark’s gospel always cuts to the chase.

The central point in Mark’s gospel is that no one knows who Jesus is until he dies on the Cross.  Peter doesn’t deny that he had said, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” and that Jesus had named him Peter, the rock on whom he would build his Church.  But Peter leaves it out of his version of the story, because Peter knows that whatever he said way back then, he didn’t really understand, didn’t know Jesus’s identity well enough to stay with him at the Cross.  

Only at the Cross is Jesus truly revealed.

So in the Garden, Mark has the poignant line, “He said to Peter, ‘Simon’.”  Not such a rock that night. How that old name rings in Peter’s ears.

The characteristic word in Mark is “immediately”: always racing toward the Cross.  And Mark’s account of the Passion skips several details from Matthew’s.

When the soldiers come, Matthew tells us Jesus said he could call on angels, and tells his disciples to put their sword back.  Mark leaves out these details, so that Jesus’ words, “Have you come out as against a robber?” stand in all their starkness.

Mark leaves out the story of Judas hanging himself, Pilate’s wife’s dream, and Pilate washing his hands.  Nice details–but Mark is focused on Jesus headed to the Cross, and he does not want to distract us.

They both say the veil was torn when Jesus died–but Mark leaves out the distracting detail of people rising from the dead, and Matthew’s detail about Pilate guarding against a resurrection hoax.  

Christ is on the Cross, that is all that matters.

It’s not that Matthew’s details didn’t happen.  It’s that Mark wants us to focus, and adds only the details that make the scene real.

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Finally, a series of details focus on Christ the King.  When the soldiers beat him, Matthew has them asking him to prophesy who did it.  By taking out that detail, Mark lets us focus us how they mock him as messiah-king.  He adds the detail that the mockers “knelt down in homage.”

Matthew says Barabbas was a “notorious prisoner.”  Mark focuses on kingship: “among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection.”  In Matthew, Pilate offers to release “the Christ.” In Mark it is “the King of the Jews.”

In Matthew, they offer Christ on the Cross gall, just something nasty.  But in Mark it is myrrh, a royal embalming spice.

In Matthew, they say to him, “He trusts in God; let him deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”  But Mark stays away from calling him Son of God until he is dead, and changes it to, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross.”  It makes less sense–Matthew’s God can get you down from the Cross better than Mark’s kingship–but Mark keeps us focused on this royal title.

And finally, the great hero of Mark’s gospel, the one who finally recognizes Christ, is no one but the centurion, the captain over a hundred soldiers, who then appears again, only in Mark, as the one who delivers the news to Pilate.  

Mark keeps directing our attention back to Christ as king.

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And so he directs us back, too, to the triumphal entry with palms.  Matthew is focused on the fulfillment of prophecy, even to adding the weird detail that there were two animals, a colt and an ass.  Mark focuses us on the image of Christ riding in as a humble king, a different kind of king.

Matthew’s crowd acknowledges him as Son of David–fulfiller of the prophecy–but Mark again adds the detail of him being king, so that they say, “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!”

He leads us to our own profession at every Mass: “Hosanna in the highest!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Hosanna appears in the Bible only in this scene; it means something like, “come save us!”)  

Mark makes it a little ironic.  Like the crowds, we may call this king-who-comes blessed because we seek an earthly kingdom.  Or we may have found the true kingship of Christ, a totally different kind of kingship, crowned with thorns and hanging on the Cross.

At every Mass, as we say those words, may Mark’s challenge ring in our ears: do we seek the king apart from the Cross, or the king who hangs on the Cross?  What salvation, and savior, do we profess?

eric.m.johnston

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