How do we make sense of a stray detail in Mark’s story of Jesus’ betrayal?
In Mark’s account (Mark 14:32-52) of the betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, he includes a detail that has puzzled both scholars and general readers ever since. He says that after Jesus’ arrest, his disciples all fled and deserted him.
Then follows these two odd sentences:
A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked. (Mark 14:51-52)
Mark does not explain it. He does not tell us who the young man was nor why he was wearing only a linen cloth. Nor are we given any clue why the memory of this young man was preserved. What relevance does it have the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death?
Wild speculation has raged as a result. Some scholars suggest the young man was John Mark, the alleged author of Mark’s gospel. Others have let their imaginations run wilder with even more bizarre fictions.
I myself have long wondered why Mark includes this odd detail in his narrative. And it is only recently that I have come to some inkling of why. Let me offer my speculation.
Mark as a Literary Artist
When we read the gospel of Mark, we find the author has a practice of using the literary device we call an inclusio. In this device the author brackets a part of his narrative between two short stories or comments that serve as bookends for the passage in between.
We see that in Mark with the great block of teaching in the center of Mark’s gospel. There Jesus teaches his disciples about his mission as Messiah and their discipleship (Mark 8:27-10:45). Mark introduces this block of teaching with a story of Jesus healing a blind man (Mark 8:22-26). This healing is a difficult one. It requires two stages.
At the end of the block of teaching, Mark also recounts the story of the healing of another blind man, Bartimaeus of Jericho (Mark 10:46-52). These stories are not accidentally placed. Mark seems to suggest that when Jesus teaches his disciples, he is trying to heal them of their spiritual blindness. This healing is slow and arduous, progressing in stages.
Again, we find Mark uses the device of inclusio when he recounts the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14, 20-24. This story comes in two parts. The first part recounts Jesus cursing the tree. The second recounts how the disciples the next day find the tree withered and dead.
It’s a troubling story as it does not fit our preconceptions of Jesus. He seems peevish. But we need to notice that these two parts of the story sandwich a story in between. It is the story of Jesus cleansing the temple of its noisy commercial activities in order to restore it to being a house of prayer.
I want to suggest that Mark is once again using inclusio to comment theologically on the story of the temple cleansing. Jesus comes to the temple expecting to find it a place that nurtures spiritual fruit. Instead he finds it a place of noisy commerce. It has betrayed its spiritual purpose. And therefore it is going to swept away in the future.
It may seem odd to us that Mark makes his theological comments in this subtle way instead of making them more directly. But nonetheless he chooses to so do.
Inclusio at Work Again
Now we come to the story in the Garden of Gethsemane. It tells this odd story of the lad who runs away naked at Jesus’ arrest. I want to suggest that this story is again a part of an inclusio that Mark employs to make a theological comment on the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, death, and resurrection.
When Jesus is arrested, all his disciples flee. A bit later, Peter will deny Jesus. None of the disciples, in Mark’s account, attend Jesus in his crucifixion. Jesus dies alone, as I note in my previous blog posting Divine Desolation.
What the passion story reveals for Mark is the true character of the disciples. They are a fearful lot. They have no psychological or spiritual backbone. And when they desert Jesus, they shed any pretense that they may have had of faithfulness and piety.
In including the detail about the young man running away naked, Mark is commenting theologically on the disciples. In a sense, they are stripped naked spiritually, and they run away in shame.
The Second Bracket
Now if this detail forms the first part of an inclusio, we ask: Where is the second bracket? I want to suggest we find it in Mark’s account of the resurrection in Mark 16:1-8.
When the women arrive at Jesus’ tomb and enter it, Mark says they encounter a young man sitting there. He is dressed in a white robe. Mark does not call him an angel as Matthew does. Mark explicitly calls him a young man.
This young man, I want to contend, is the second bracket. And he too is a theological comment on the story.
With Jesus’ resurrection, the disgraced disciples will be restored to grace. They will be renewed. Jesus will forgive them, explicitly at told in the case of Peter in John 21. In the new era of the kingdom which has dawned with Jesus’ resurrection, they will receive a new status of honor and dignity. They will be called to the noble mission of apostleship. In symbolic terms, they will be spiritually re-clothed as the young man in the tomb has been.
Significantly Mark tells us the young man is dressed in white. Here may be an allusion to the rite of baptism in the early church. When new converts was baptized, they stripped off their secular clothes and were immersed in the baptismal pool as if they were new babies. When they emerged from the waters, they were dressed in white robes and then led into the church congregation for their first participation in the Lord’s Supper. The white robe signified their adoption into the family of God with all it conferred in honor and dignity.
What narrative do we find sandwiched within these two brackets of the inclusio? It is the story of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. In this story, the disciples will be stripped of their pretensions and then restored to honored status in Jesus’ family. The two stories of the young man are alerting the reader or listener as to what is spiritually going on in this tragic yet grand story.
Yet One More Possible Meaning
There is yet another possible meaning in these subtle comments. Jesus himself will be stripped of his honor and dignity in the story that follows the detail of the naked lad running away. He will be heaped with shame, for crucified men were usually stripped naked before being nailed to the cross. Yet in the resurrection Jesus will be re-clothed not only in his resurrected body, but with a spiritual dignity and honor that surpasses all measure.
Once again the two brackets are alerting us how to read the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
I concede that if this is what Mark is doing with this strange inclusio, it is very subtle theology. But if we have been paying close attention as we read all the way through Mark’s gospel, we come to realize that though he is abrupt at times and sparing in words, Mark is an extremely subtle theologian. And if we are to catch his depths, we cannot skim through his gospel.