The Gospel of Mark: Joy and Happiness (Or Lack Thereof…)

Scripture has a lot to say about joy and happiness. The words that sometimes get translated as “blessed,” for example, are used also to mean “happy,” and some of the gospels talk about the joy of receiving the Kingdom, such as in Matthew, where joy characterizes the reception of the Gospel in several parables. In Mark, however, the author doesn’t emphasize happiness. Mark’s gospel is quite somber.

Joy and Happiness in Mark

Joy and happiness in the gospel of Mark are not at all like they are in the gospel of Matthew. There are no forms of the words glad, rejoice, or happy in either the NIV or NRSV translations, and moments of joy and happiness are rare. Here’s the breakdown…

There’s one mention of joy. In the parable of the sower, the ones represented by the seed being sown on rocky places are described as immediately receiving the word with joy, “but they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” (Mark 4:16-17, NRSV) The only ones who are described as joyful abandon the word when persecution comes.

There’s one mention of the word praise. The people are amazed and praise God when they see the paralytic get up and walk, for they had never seen anything like it (Mark 2:12). They praise God because they’ve seen a miraculous healing, but they still don’t understand who Jesus is, and their praise isn’t the focus of the story. The fact that it’s located in this first story of controversy between Jesus and the scribes accentuates how unwilling the scribes are to recognize what God is doing through Jesus.

There’s one mention of the word worship. “They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” (Mark 7:7, NRSV) Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah as he rebukes the Pharisees and scribes calling them hypocrites for honoring God with their lips but being far from God in their hearts.

The word pleased is used four times, but only one seems to be positive.

  1. Positive: God is pleased with Jesus (Mark 1:11) whom God identifies as God’s son.
  2. Sort of neutral: Herod’s daughter danced, which pleased Herod and his guests, although this leads to the death of John.
  3. Negative:
    • “But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.” (Mark 9:13, NRSV) This refers to the suffering of the returned “Elijah” who preceded Jesus. It seems likely to me that Jesus is talking about John the Baptist who was beheaded.
    • The chief priests are pleased to hear that Judas is willing to betray Jesus. (Mark 14:11)

The word laugh shows up once. When Jesus goes to heal the little girl who had died, the people in the house laugh at him (Mark 5:40). A child has just been proclaimed dead, but still the people who are present find Jesus’s claim that she’s sleeping so ridiculous that they laugh.

Do Joy and Happiness Show Up Anywhere in Mark?

There are some occasions when joy and happiness seem implied. The people who proclaim what Jesus has done for them, for example, such as the leper in Mark 1 or the people who were present at the healing of the deaf man in Mark 7. Surely their proclamations had some sort of joy and happiness. Even so, the author doesn’t emphasize this. In fact, those proclamations are always in opposition to Jesus’s request that they be silent. In Mark 7:36, Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone, “but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it” (NRSV).

Beside God’s declaration of pleasure concerning Jesus in Mark 1, there’s only one other explicit passage of happiness. It’s when Jesus enters Jerusalem and the people ahead of him and behind him begin shouting blessings on him and the coming of the kingdom. Yet, all of Mark points to the irony of this moment.

Just like at the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2, the people recognize the power of God in Jesus. They’re even willing, by this point, to accept the proclamation of the Kingdom. Yet several days later, who comes to the defense of Jesus? “The one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mark 11:9, NRSV) is abandoned by a city of people who only a few days earlier were willing to rejoice in the streets and lay their coats on the road before him.

Mark’s Audience

So why does the author present the gospel with so much trouble and so little joy? Why are almost all the mentions of happiness or pleasure associated with negative events, used to emphasize controversy, or used ironically?

Remember who the letter is written to. Christian Jews have been displaced from their center of worship: Jerusalem. They’re fleeing the coming Roman army, and if it hasn’t been already, the temple will soon be occupied (we know it will be destroyed). They don’t need to hear about how wonderful the Gospel is. They don’t need to be told that their sorrows and concerns are fleeting or that they simply have a “wrong” perspective. It’s not unusual to hear that sort of dismisal of suffering in American Christianity.

Instead, the author reminds them of the identity, power, authority, and suffering of the Messiah in whom they have believed. The author reminds them of the continual opposition Jesus faced and the struggle of the disciples as Jesus worked to heal them of their blindness. The author gives them a story in which they can find themselves – walking with Jesus, in the crowds, struggling alongside the disciples. He sets up that moment of dismay when the apostles and the people of Israel abandon the one whom the Lord has sent. His audience is reminded of their deep love for the Messiah and the suffering he endured.

And then, at the end of it all, the author pricks their hearts one final time. A messenger gives the women at the tomb a final word of hope: follow me to Galilee, but they run away and say nothing (Mark 16:8).

This is the moment of resolve. Will the readers abandon hope, now, at the moment of truth, or will they follow the risen Lord to wherever he’s going? Are they the ones planted in rocky places, ready to abandon the word when difficulty comes? This is the moment to which the entire letter is building. It’s why the gospel of Mark doesn’t emphasize the happiness and joy of the Kingdom but the suffering of Jesus and the difficulties of the disciples. It shows the readers where they are in the story of God and offers them a chance to ground the ending of their story in the hope of the risen Lord: follow me, meet me, not in Jerusalem but in Galilee.

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