Frail, Failed Disciples

The Bound Will and the Gospel of Mark

Todd Brewer / 8.16.22

A version of this essay appeared in the book Comfortable Words: Essays in Honor of Paul F.M. Zahl, under the title “The Un-Free Will and the Markan Depiction of Jesus’ Disciples.”

Around 1305, the Italian painter Giotto created a fresco of the last supper between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus sits at the head of the table, his head adorned with a glittering, golden halo. Around him sit his twelve disciples. In typical Byzantine style, each also has a halo over their heads. But instead of the yellow gold of holiness, Giotto chose dark blues and black. These disciples, it seems, are no saints. Omitting a halo for Judas was customary; doing so for all twelve disciples would have been shocking. Perhaps saintliness was always a stretch for the twelve, who always appear undignified next to Jesus’ perfection, but do they really deserve the same judgment as Judas?

The Gospel of Mark’s presentation of the disciples is a well-worn path in New Testament studies, with the predominant paradigm measuring the disciples’ capacity to understand Jesus’ teaching and actions. On the basis of the so-called secrecy theme, the Gospel of Mark is construed as a gradual unfolding of the revelation of Jesus and the differentiation between true and false Christologies. The characters of the Gospel, then, are meant to portray this grappling over Jesus’ identity. To the degree that characters rightly understand Jesus’ identity they are held as exemplars for the reader, while misapprehension is admonished.

This general approach sheds a great deal of light on the mysterious meaning of the Gospel of Mark. It may account for Jesus’ puzzling demand for secrecy (Mk 1:44, 5:43, 7:36, 8:30, 9:9, etc.) as well as the strategic placement of Christological confessions (3:11, 5:7, 8:30, 9:7, 15:39). However, a paradigm that privileges understanding as the hermeneutical key to the Gospel has some key limitations when it comes to the disciples. First, it seems odd that Mark would cast peripheral characters as positively demonstrating full understanding while the disciples — those to whom Jesus has given the secret of the kingdom of God (4:11) — would somehow escape full understanding. Moreover, a characterization of the disciples’ understanding as either positive or negative fails to account for the varied depiction of the disciples themselves. A categorical characterization of the disciples on this basis also overlooks both their occasional moments of brilliance and stubborn obliviousness. One can only conclude that the disciples demonstrate various levels of understanding. But most of all, proper understanding of Jesus is not the only prerequisite needed for one to be called a disciple. In addition to proper understanding, Jesus also places concrete conditions upon the disciples if they are to truly become Jesus’ disciples and enter into the kingdom.[1] Obedience or disobedience to the commands results in the gain or loss of status as a disciple of Jesus.

The following will examine Jesus’ most explicit command regarding discipleship and outline the subsequent actions of the disciples as the narrative unfolds. It is from this final vantage point that it may be possible to make a comprehensive assessment of the disciples, toward the proposal of a Markan anthropology. It will be shown that, on the one hand, the disciples are both able to understand Jesus and what he requires of them. Yet for all their willfulness, the failure of the disciples to obey Jesus’ command is part of a larger theme demonstrating the totality of human failure.

What Makes a Disciple, a Disciple of Jesus

Jesus’ call to his first disciples contained the simple exhortation that they follow him (akoloutheō). Jesus is always on the move, preaching wherever he sees fit, and the simple task of the disciple is to follow behind him. Initially, the invitation to discipleship is given indiscriminately to all with no condition beyond spatial proximity. Of course, this demand to follow Jesus implies one’s leaving their existing circumstances of life, though such an implication is not the same as a required precondition. Jesus’ disciples are those unrighteous sinners (2:17) who have done the will of God, namely to follow Jesus (3:35). In this way, Jesus’ initial followers were largely self-selected and the composition of the followers was determined only by their willingness to travel.[2] It is only at Mark 8:34-38 that Jesus begins a series of teachings that specifically outlines the requirements to be his disciple. His new teaching occurs immediately after the first of three passion predictions (8:31) and marks an abrupt turn in Jesus’ self-disclosure. While Jesus has faced opposition from Jewish leaders who wish to kill him (3:6), there has been little indication that this desire would result actually result in Jesus’ death.

The new reality of Jesus’ impending death therefore prompts a similar change for his disciples. Jesus states that those who want to follow behind him must lose their lives. The discipleship imagery is striking, with a clear emphasis on movement. Jesus does not say “be crucified and then follow,” but “take up your cross and follow,” the implication being that crucifixion lies ahead of the disciple at the end of one’s journey with Jesus.[3] Therefore the decision to become a follower demands the acceptance of a premature death on a cross.

For the disciples, the seamless transition from Jesus’ passion prediction to the similar requirement for discipleship enables the disciples to understand themselves and Jesus as traveling parallel paths bound for the same destination. The disciples understand that if Jesus’ way ultimately leads to death, those who claim to be his disciples must likewise follow him to their own crucifixion. Yet in the same way that Jesus’ death will paradoxically lead to a resurrection on the third day, the disciples can believe that their death will also somehow lead to a new resurrected life. Jesus and his disciples are inseparably bound together. By contrast, the crowd has not been made aware of Jesus’ prior passion prediction. It remains unaware that this ultimate requirement for discipleship will also be assumed by Jesus himself. He is not their messianic co-sufferer, but their demanding teacher. While the disciples may have understood that their salvation was somehow related to Jesus’ own resurrection, the crowd hears only a faint suggestion that their death will have a salvific end.

The introduction of the crowd primarily suggests both the limitless nature of Jesus’ call to discipleship and the comprehensive scope of divine retribution. Failure to become a disciple and follow Jesus will have vast consequences. When paired with both verses 8:34-35 and 38, the wisdom sayings of 8:36-37 take on the form of a warning. One who fails to give up their life will forfeit their soul, a thing of infinite value. The value of heavenly life is contrasted with the worthlessness of earthly life. To accept Jesus is to deny oneself through the acceptance of death. But this general statement concerning the state of the world and its relation to the eternal things of God takes on the character of eschatological warning when juxtaposed with 8:38. What appears to be a wisdom saying about life and death is instead shown to be the judgment of God upon those who, out of shame, fail to follow the Son of Man. Jesus himself will be the arbiter of judgment. Positively, this threat of future judgment states as clearly as possible that obediently following Jesus to death is the only way to find salvation beyond death. However paradoxical it may sound, the choice is supposed to be obvious to the disciples.

Jesus demands of his disciples no less than their lives. The command is absolute without any exceptions and applies to all people. The disciple who follows Jesus to their death will be rewarded with a future salvation. More importantly for this study, those who fail to follow Jesus to the end will reap for themselves divine judgment far worse than any earthly death. This conditional either/or between faithfulness and apostasy underlies Jesus’ description of discipleship. As Morna Hooker has said, “the crucial divide is not between those who acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and those who do not, but between those disciples who are prepared to follow him on the way of suffering and those who are not.” Much like Moses on the plains of Moab in Deuteronomy 28, Jesus conditionally offers life or death to those who either follow him into death or reject his call and fall away.

Punching Their Ticket to Glory

Despite the intensifying of Jesus’ impending tragedy with each successive conflict with Jewish leaders and Jesus’ repeated predictions of his death, the attitude of the disciples to this tragedy is not directly reported until it is prompted by Jesus in 14:27-31.[4] This section bears a striking similarity to 8:31-33, both in form and content, suggesting that it is meant to be a commentary and continuation of Jesus’ previous teaching. Peter speaks several times throughout the Gospel, but these are the only two times Jesus directly contradicts Peter’s misunderstanding. Jesus addresses his disciples and declares, “You all will fall away (skandalizō), because it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’” Similar to 8:32, Jesus’ prediction is emphatically disputed by Peter, who claims he will be loyal to Jesus — “Even if everyone else falls away.” And as in 8:33, Peter’s impetuous response is corrected by Jesus. Yet the similarities between these passages are meant to heighten their differences. Whereas in 8:31-33 Peter is disputing the necessity of Jesus’ death, Peter now contests Jesus’ low assessment of his loyalty. In the former instance Peter’s opposition to Jesus is the work of Satan, while the latter is an expression of Peter’s devotion.

If Peter previously failed to understand that the mission of Jesus and his followers necessitates their deaths, Peter now fully understands exactly what is required of him and correctly declares his willingness to follow Jesus to his own death. While Peter’s confession of faith occurs in opposition to Jesus’ own prediction, this must not obscure that Peter here vows to fulfill the requirements of discipleship previously outlined in 8:34. Peter even understands his death to coincide with Jesus’ own death, “If it is necessary that I will die with you” (14:31), indicating a confidence in his own future resurrection as promised by Jesus in 8:35. Moreover, Peter also speaks on behalf of the disciples as a whole: “and they all were saying the same” (14:31). Peter’s confession, and therefore his understanding of Jesus and discipleship, is mirrored by the rest of the disciples.[5] The disciples appear to have obediently learned from Jesus exactly what is demanded of Jesus’ followers and demonstrate an unyielding resolve to act accordingly. Given this profession of faith, it seems questionable whether a negative portrayal of the disciples is warranted on the basis of their ability to understand Jesus.

An Ignominious Betrayal

In the face of Jesus’ prediction that his disciples would all fall away, Peter and the rest of the disciples declare their enduring allegiance to Jesus even in the face of death. Yet Jesus did not command that his disciples must simply be willing to die, but that they would persevere with him to the point of death. As Jesus goes, so too must the disciples who follow him. So when Jesus is arrested at the hands of the chief priests, the disciples must likewise be arrested with him. Instead of accepting this commission as disciples of Jesus, they all abandon Jesus and flee (14:50). At the precise moment when persecution comes and Jesus is in most need of his followers, they all abandon him to face his end alone. As illustrated by the young man who flees naked, the “all” who abandon Jesus implies more than just “the twelve” disciples, and perhaps even includes those, like Bartimaeus, who have begun following Jesus “on the way” (10.52).

But the “all” mentioned here is not meant to include Peter, who “followed Jesus from afar” (14:54). The narrative ensues in the exact order suggested by Peter’s own declaration in 14:29: all have fallen away, but will Peter remain? This ambiguity is reinforced through the spatial description of Peter’s following of Jesus, but at a distance. He has not yet forsaken Jesus, but his standing is far from certain. Jesus is then led to the high priest and interrogated by the chief priests, elders and scribes. This questioning of Jesus sharply contrasts Peter’s own interrogation by a servant of the chief priest. While Jesus willingly accepts, if not orchestrates, his own death sentence, Peter denies his affiliation with Jesus in increasingly unequivocal terms. In his third denial, Peter “began to curse [Jesus? the questioner?] and swear saying, “I do not know this man of whom you speak” (14:71). Were Peter to affirm his affiliation with Jesus, he too would be obediently put to death alongside his Lord. Instead, he takes his place next to Judas Iscariot and among the other disciples as those who have fled and abandoned Jesus.

Within the Markan narrative, these are the last recorded actions of the disciples. No mention is ever made of a reconciliatory return to Jesus’ side to tragically die with their Lord. Instead, the Gospel of Mark ends with the disciples having forsaken Jesus to die alone. In accordance with Jesus’ own words in 8:34-38, this failure stipulates that the disciples will die forsaken by Jesus. Just as he commanded, those who save their lives will lose them “when the Son of Man comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” By their actions, the disciples have forsaken their call as disciples and instead deserve divine judgment. Within the Markan portrait of the disciples, this is the final and decisive word. The dividing line between disciples and apostates is drawn with the disciples on the outside looking in.

Toward a Markan Anthropology

What reasons does the Gospel of Mark give for the disciples’ failure? Why do they flee from Jesus when he is arrested? One may suggest that the disciples abandon Jesus because they do not anticipate the resurrection. If only they had understood that they, too, would be raised, then they might not have fled from death so decisively. Or it could be postulated that the disciples flee because they have stubbornly failed to grasp the sheer necessity of Jesus’ crucifixion. In their eyes, a crucified messiah is a failed messiah. These possibilities may seem plausible as an imaginative reading of the disciples’ motives, but they are not the answer suggested by the narrative itself. As shown above, it would be wrong to construe this failure as a misunderstanding of Jesus and the necessity of his death and resurrection.

Instead, Mark provides his own explanation for the disciples’ failure within their peculiar portrayal during Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. It is often noted that Jesus’ exhortation to the disciples to stay awake takes on metaphorical meaning beyond the physical ability to resist sleep. The scene in Gethsemane occurs immediately after the disciples vow not to fall away on account of Jesus and just before Jesus’ arrest. In reverse order from Jesus’ prediction of the disciples’ abandonment, Jesus first addresses Peter directly before then admonishing the rest of the disciples. In this context, the metaphorical meaning of sleep is correlated to the question of disciples’ fidelity to Jesus. The failure to stay awake and keep watch corresponds to their obligation to take up their crosses and follow Jesus to their death. Therefore Jesus’ statement “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (14:38) refers to the disciples struggle to remain faithful to Jesus in the face of coming persecution. The description of one’s spirit as eager, or willing, strongly resembles Peter and the disciples’ dedication to Jesus. But the willingness of one’s spirit is immediately contrasted with the weakness of the flesh.[7] The emphasis here is not on the intervention or influence of apocalyptic forces acting on humanity; instead, humanity and its own ability or inability is in view.

For all their desire to accomplish what is required of them, the disciples suffer from a frailty which thwarts their intentions. This frailty does not simply result in a proclivity to sin; instead this weakness results in the failure of the disciples. Jesus addresses disciples who have already fallen asleep, hypothetically asking, “Are you not able to keep watch one hour?” This question of capability has already been anticipated by Jesus’ prayer, where Jesus asks his father what is possible (dunatos 14:35, 36) according to his will. Though the disciples fully intend to follow Jesus to their deaths, knowing that this is what is required of them, they are fundamentally unable to do so.

For Mark, the gap between the disciples’ willing and doing is both particular to the disciples and universal of all people. It is particular in that their failure is specifically occasioned by Jesus’ command and the circumstances of the disciples’ lives. The command to “take up your cross” is addressed to a particular audience at a specific point in time within his narrative. It would render Mark a disservice to dislocate this command from its narrative context and apply it universally as a mandate to martyrdom for all people at all times. Yet Mark himself intends for his portrait of the disciples to demonstrate the universal problem of human ability. As the narrative continues beyond the abandonment of the disciples it becomes clear that this abandonment has expanded beyond the disciples to also include all the other main characters in the story. Having previously rejected Jesus’ call to discipleship, the Jewish leaders sentence Jesus to death and the once loyal crowd now ridicules him. The women followers of Jesus are recorded as having witnessed the crucifixion. Yet just like Peter in courtyard, they do not take up their crosses, but look on “from afar” (15:40). They do not approach Jesus’ tomb with anticipation of his predicted resurrection, but with burial spices. They fearfully leave the tomb and in defiance of the angels’ command “said nothing to anyone” (16:8).[8]

One could possibly find positive demonstrations of faith from characters such as Bartimaeus’ following of Jesus “on the way” (10:52), Simon of Cyrene’s taking up of Jesus’ cross (15:21), or the confession of the centurion (15:39). However, these judgments are premature. At noted above, Bartimaeus deserts Jesus with the rest of the disciples. And while Simon of Cyrene “takes up” a cross, this cross is not his own, but Jesus’. Rather than a compassionate act of loyalty to Jesus, Simon aids the Romans in Jesus’ execution. Finally, while the centurion at the cross may properly confess Jesus’ identity, an overall positive evaluation overlooks the concrete demands of 8:34-38. These examples enlarge the bleak portrayal of the disciples to include all humanity.

It may seem rash or unjust to make such an absolute categorization concerning all the characters of the Gospel of Mark. How could it be that the disciples who have traveled with Jesus for so long are as guilty as Jesus’ enemies? It is true that the disciples never demonstrate a hostile desire to kill Jesus; this designation is reserved exclusively for the Jewish leaders. But the command of Jesus does not allow for any gradations of guilt or innocence that would exonerate the disciples from their ultimate failure. Instead, the conditional demand applies to all without any exceptions. Whether it is Peter or Judas, all are under the same judgment. Jesus does not die surrounded by his devoted followers, but without any comrade. His cry of dereliction at the cross expresses both his divine and human forsakenness as he faces his enemies alone. The Gospel concludes on a bleak, open-ended note with no positive depiction of human faithfulness.

The resultant portrait of human ability is both varied and starkly pessimistic. On the one hand, the disciples demonstrate a remarkable capacity to understand Jesus and his teachings. Fallen human nature is not without rational capabilities, oblivious to perceiving the requirements of discipleship and the truth of Jesus’ identity. Peter and the rest of the disciples genuinely understand the necessity of Jesus’ death/resurrection and the requirement of a disciple to accept a similar fate. One the other hand, the Gospel also expresses the limitations of rationality and human action. The “should” of life always lies beyond the feeble limits of human capability.[9] Accordingly, knowledge of what is required itself is not enough to actually produce what one willfully desires to accomplish. Despite our rational faculties, the problem of disobedience cannot be overcome by a rationalistic appeal to didacticism and an enlightened maturity, as envisioned by thinkers such as René Descartes or Immanuel Kant.

Moreover, the gap between the disciples’ proper knowledge and their failed actions also implies the further fracture between willing and doing. They failed even though they vowed to do otherwise. There lies an inescapable gap between the desire to obey and the ability to actually obey.

The human condition is marked by an inevitable failure on account of its own inherent limitations. The will is not free to obey of its own accord, but it is bound and unable to accomplish its desires. The disciples as models of humanity demonstrate that human existence is split by an unaccountable frustration of its desires. As Paul Zahl has repeatedly insisted throughout his ministry, “Human beings are not as free to act as they like to think they are. They are more hemmed in, more constrained by outward circumstanced and forces within, than they wish to concede … we often do what we do not want to do, and do not do what we want to do.” While it was Sigmund Freud who popularized this idea in the twentieth century,[10] Christian theology has traditionally named this rupture within the self “original sin” or the “un-free will.”

The Markan portrait of the disciples perfectly demonstrates this unbridgeable gap between the “ought” of divine demands and human inability to obey. The human condition is marked by an inevitable failure on account of its own inherent limitations. It is a picture of a flawed and sinful humanity standing before God in dire need of mercy from the One who gave his life as a ransom for many.

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One response to “Frail, Failed Disciples”

  1. David S Babikow says:

    “the unbridgeable gap”. This is so excellent.

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