Mark the Innocent Bystander by Canon Jim Foley
Mark the Innocent Bystander by Canon Jim Foley
By Canon Jim Foley
Among those who had been following along
there was a young man with nothing on but a linen cloth.
They tried to seize him;
but he slipped out of the linen cloth and ran away naked.
The Gospel of Saint Mark is the shortest of the four gospels. In fact, his gospel is short in more ways than one. It is short on doctrine. He is quite happy to tell us that Jesus went about teaching but rarely gives us the content of that teaching. By contrast Matthew not only tells us that Jesus taught the people, but he gives that teaching at length, especially in the five great sermons that make up the substance of his gospel. In chapter 13 Matthew is able to muster seven parables of Jesus to illustrate the splendour of the Kingdom of God. In his parallel chapter 4, Mark can come up with only four such parables. Indeed, one of Mark’s parables of the kingdom implies that the kingdom of God is so small that it cannot be seen by the naked eye. It is like a seed that grows secretly (4.26-29). At times he draws our attention to what appear to be small insignificant details. At the height of the storm at sea he remarks that Jesus was sound asleep ‘with his head on a cushion’ (4.3).
Mark displays a particular interest in people he refers to as ‘bystanders’. These are nameless individuals who feature in his Gospel and hang about on the fringe of events, who may make occasional futile observations and, if they say or do anything at all, it is generally to make a complete nuisance of themselves and get our hackles up. I suspect Mark had some sympathy for them and may well have been one of their company, at least in his early days. He certainly annoyed Saint Paul so much that he refused to have him with him on his missionary journeys. Mark had taken cold feet at the very thought of going on a mission into Anatolia and chose to go back home to his mum who lived a hundred miles in the opposite direction (Acts 15,37ff).
It is surprising that the recent liturgical reforms have not included a ministry of Bystander which would surely appeal to a wide range of unattached people in society today. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) has a perfect portrait of such a person in his etching of The Good Samaritan. As the Samaritan grapples with the poor victim who has been beaten up by robbers and is straddled across his horse like a sack of potatoes, Rembrandt includes, as part of the scene, an old codger leaning out of the window of a broken-down inn in the background. He has a fancy hat on his head that does nothing to improve his appearance. Not a word is uttered but the vacant expression on his face speaks volumes. He is the apotheosis of the professional bystander.
There are other interesting actors in Rembrandt’s scene. The inn-keeper has an honest face and would appear to accept the Samaritan’s proposal to pay him so much there and then with the promise of the rest on his return. The Samaritan is obviously generous but canny with his money. The woman busy drawing water at the well in the background gets on with life’s daily chores no matter what drama is being enacted on her doorstep. The young urchin holds the nag’s head with a very sure stance. He may be in rags but he has learned early in life how to make an honest copper. Something tells me he will go places! Rembrandt has not bothered to include even a fleeting glance of the two men of religion as they pass by on their way to oblivion..
To cap the scene there is an ugly-looking cur in the foreground with a spiky collar round its neck that does nothing for him either. He is much more focussed on developments than our bystander at the window, on guard and poised and ready to bite anybody who might try to venture into the picture. Rembrandt’s dog is a very different breed from Cranach’s bemused little poodle at the foot of Saint Andrew’s cross. Isn’t it great what an Old Master can do with a dog, never mind a bystander?
To return to Mark’s bystanders. Remember the servant girl that put Simon Peter on the spot. He had come in from the street for a heat at the fire only to be held up to ridicule and subjected to a diatribe from a servant girl. Mark mentions that she started giving out to the bystanders to the effect that Simon must be one of this man’s disciples. Why, he was a Galilean and couldn’t even speak properly (14.70). Then he tells us that one of these same bystanders lifted his sword and struck the ear of the servant of the high priest who happened to be standing nearby, another innocent bystander minding his own business (14.47). It would have suited him better if he had told the young woman to keep her mouth shut. Then there was Simon all the way from Cyrene who happened to be passing by only to be constrained to help Jesus carry his cross and, as a result, to be remembered honourably forever. If ever there was a lucky bystander it was him (15.21).
The most intriguing bystander is surely the young man who literally lost his shirt on Jesus. This is the only episode in Mark’s Passion Narrative proper to himself and two lines are enough to describe it:
‘Among those who had been following along there was a young man with nothing on but a linen cloth. They tried to seize him; but he slipped out of the linen cloth and ran away naked’. (14,51f).
The interpretations of this detail are polarised between those who consider it ‘insignificant and trivial’ and those who describe it as the most mysterious passage in the Gospel of Saint Mark. The truth may lie somewhere in between.
To grasp the implications of this scene we must take careful note of Mark’s choice of words. The young man on the fringe of the crowd is said to be wearing a ‘sindon’, a linen cloth. However, the term chosen by Mark is used more often to describe a shroud than an article of daily clothing. The same term will soon be used again to describe Jesus’ shroud lying on the floor of the empty tomb.
Our text is ambiguous and intentionally so. The flight of the young man brings together two extremes. There is, on the one hand, humiliation and shame, the final triumph of the powers of evil that conquer and vanquish good. Even an innocent bystander is not safe. But surely there is, too, the final victory, escape from the powers of darkness and evil, and even from death itself. What does the young man leave in the hands of the powers of darkness but an empty linen cloth, literally an empty shroud, the futile and impotent symbol of death? We will soon meet this young man again, no longer in disarray and flight, no longer humiliated and ashamed and naked but clothed and seated and at peace with himself and the world with the discarded shroud of the Risen Redeemer lying at his feet.
The young man on the fringe of the treacherous Gethsemane rabble was not the first to cast aside his garment and with it his former self. Think of the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, that most destitute of men. Yet another of Mark’s trivial details tells its own story about him. Mark takes time to tell us that the cured man now rids himself of his past baggage by casting aside his garment as he begins to follow Jesus (10.50). The Evangelist Saint John develops the theme of the discarded garment in his own way. A debate follows the cure of the blind man concerning his identity. He is unrecognisable. In fact he was a new man (John 9.8f). As usual Saint Paul would find the perfect description of what had happened to him: ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come’ (2 Corinthians 5.17).
Many serious commentaries on this passage invite us to recognise it as the fulfilment of a vision of the Prophet Amos. He spoke of a day when there would be a confrontation between the powers of darkness and goodness that would strike terror into the bravest hearts, a day ‘when the bravest warrior would flee naked away’ (Amos 2.16). Mark recognised such an event unfolding before his eyes in Gethsemane and himself an innocent bystander.
In two admittedly strange and elusive lines, Mark has contrived to encapsulate the entire Gospel and much of the Old Testament, the ultimate triumph of light over darkness, of freedom over captivity. We are not far removed from the Evangelist Saint John’s recollection of Jesus’ words addressed to those who gathered at the tomb of Lazarus: Unbind him and let him go free (John 11.44). There, too, the shroud is the symbol of captivity and death. No coalition of evil powers, neither church nor state, neither betrayal by a chosen disciple nor abandon by the rest, neither the fickle accusation of a maid, no evil, no darkness, no human treachery, not even death itself can contain the Christian disciple. He leaves all of that behind in a soaring flight beyond reach to clothe himself in majesty and glory and to deliver to the world a Gospel of freedom:
‘They went into the tomb where they saw a young man sitting at the right hand side, wearing a white robe; and they were dumbfounded. But he said to them, do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised, he is not here. Look there is the place they laid him. Go and say to his disciples and to Peter He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him as he told you’ (Mark 16,5ff).
One of the most captivating commentaries on this scene is to be found in a painting by Caravaggio entitled The Taking of Christ, which has a remarkable story to tell. Like most religious houses the Jesuit community in Dublin had a collection of paintings that hung on the walls often ignored for years on end. Such paintings are invariably black with the accumulated dust of ages. Many came to a sad end when some zealous cleaner would give them a good scrub with soap and water. The painting in the Jesuit House fared better. When it was professionally cleaned it revealed itself to be unmistakably the work of Caravaggio (1571-1610). It is now on indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland.
I confess I am interested in one detail in this work of art. Lost in the background there is the portrait of a young man. In his raised hand he holds a lantern which casts its light across the scene. It also casts its light on the face of the young man himself. He appears at first to be an inquisitive bystander, yet without him and his lantern, we would see little if anything of the dark scene unfolding so late at night. Art critics are satisfied that the young man with the lantern is in fact a portrait of the artist Caravaggio himself. He has painted himself into the scene as artists often do.
I like to think it is also a portrait of Mark, the innocent bystander who throws so much light on the redemption and recognised, in his own flight from the garden as a young man, the paradigm of the escape of every Christian from the powers of darkness to become intrepid witnesses to Christ the light of the world. Saint Mark also painted himself into the scene.