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THE NAKED YOUNG MAN
Homily for the Feast of St. Mark, the Evangelist, Mk 16:15-20
In Colossians 4:10 , that part where St. Paul is about to close his letter, the apostle is mentioning names of fellow disciples who are sending their regards to the community. Among them he mentions Mark this way, “Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, sends you his greetings.“ He adds a little parenthetical remark that I find very intriguing. He says: “concerning him—meaning, Mark— you have received instructions; if he comes to you, receive him.” My suspicious mind tells me that Paul must have been worried that Mark might be rejected by the Colossian community if he came for a visit. Why?
We need a little background for this. Mark was that young cousin of the apostle Barnabas who, along with Paul, became part of the first mission team that was dispatched by the Christian community at Antioch in Syria. You read the story in Acts 12:25.
It was not Paul but Barnabas who was acting as team leader for that first mission. For the planned second mission, we read in Acts 15:37 that Barnabas wanted to keep the same team—meaning, that he wanted his cousin Mark to accompany them again, but Paul vehemently refused. Why? We find out why in Acts 15:38. I read between the lines and imagine Paul saying, “With all due respect, Barnabas, I know he’s your cousin, but why will we still take him along, knowing that he had deserted us in Pamphylia, half way through our first mission journey?”
Luke does not explain much. But I have a strong feeling that Mark, at some point during that first mission, became uncomfortable with Paul’s eagerness to baptize Gentile converts. I imagine him asking his cousin, “Wait, who is the team leader here anyway?” But it looks like Barnabas agreed with Paul. So I suspect that he left them in order to report to the apostles in Jerusalem about his disagreements with Paul.
Luke also says in v. 39 that the disagreement between Barnabas and Paul over Mark had become so tense that it led to a parting of ways between them. Luke tells us Barnabas took Mark along anyway, and sailed to Cyprus with him, while Paul led another mission team with Silas as member of the team. In short, they went their separate ways.
We often think of divisions as a negative thing. But it looks like this one eventually turned out to be a positive thing. It led to a growth in the mission. But then you might ask, “How are we supposed to know if a division is positive or negative?” Well, we would not know immediately. As another biblical saying goes, “By their fruits you will know them.” Don’t we hear about healthy and unhealthy cells in the human body? When healthy cells split up, the result is a growth. But when unhealthy cells divide, they metastasize, like cancer cells. They spread the disease.
My feeling is that it was Peter who helped in patching up the conflict. No wonder the Catholic Church calls him “Pontifex Maximus”, the supreme bridge—builder. In 1 Peter 5:13, Peter closes his letter with some names of people who want to send their regards; among them is Mark whom he calls “my son.”
And so, when I go back to Colossians 4:10 where Paul is giving an explicit instruction that they welcome Mark, I think, Paul was worried that because the Colossians were his supporters and they may have heard about his earlier conflict with Mark, they might reject Mark. What I read between the lines is an assurance that Paul got from Peter. I imagine Peter saying to Paul, “Paul, Mark is a good man. He had a heavy conscience at the start about your mission to the Gentiles, but he knows better now. I have done some mediating.”
And so it does not come as a surprise that in 2 Timothy 4:11 Paul is telling Timothy that he needs some back-up in the mission. He says he “has only Luke as companion.” Now he’s asking Timothy to “bring along Mark.” And take note of his additional remark, “for he is helpful to me in the ministry.”
This means that in spite of the disagreements that Paul had with Mark in the past, Paul never closed his doors to Mark. When we cannot agree to unite over some issues, what matters is that we keep our minds open and not just part ways or go our separate ways. That’s a failure in synodality. Pope Francis, in one of his audiences, spoke about a phenomenon in the social media which is called the CANCEL CULTURE. That when people are deemed to be “politically incorrect”, when they represent an opinion that is not consistent with ours, they are simply deleted or excluded from the discourse. In FB language, they can be unfriended with one click of a finger. That’s where the idea of a “cancel culture” comes from. It is a move to simply stop the conversation when it gets unpleasant.
I am therefore not surprised that Mark eventually becomes the very first Gospel writer. Mark is second in the series of four Gospels, but is generally regarded as the oldest of the four. His Gospel is also the shortest (16 chapters in all) and a big bulk of his composition was later copied by both Matthew and Luke. People say he may have derived most of his stories from the personal testimonies of Peter whom he had worked with.
In the Gospel, instead of putting his signature, Mark seems to have inserted that strange detail in his passion story about a “naked young man.” In Mark 14:51-52 , we read, “Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth (meaning, an underwear) about his body. They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.” Why would he even insert such an embarrassing detail? Could it have been Mark’s way of saying he became a true disciple only after accepting his total humiliation, stripped of all arrogance and pretensions?