Winter 1984, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 322-332.

James V. Zeitz:
      Stages of Faith and the Gospel of Mark

The story of the disciples in Mark's Gospel reminds us to expect our faith to be, not static, but dynamic, ever on the move from its beginnings to the end of our lives.

Father Zeitz, S.J., currently on leave for his tertianship in California, is assistant professor of systematic theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

OUR spiritual journeys are not always easy. We find ourselves sometimes angry at God rather than submissive. Rather than understanding God's ways, we are puzzled by them. We make our way through darkness, rather than bask in radiant light. Far from lacking competent guides, we have too many of them. If only one leader or guru would call out our names and direct us on a clear path!

The Gospel of Mark can help us in our spiritual journey. It tells us two important facts. First, it tells us that our very God teaches us through Jesus, his words, deeds, and what he experienced in suffering, death, and resurrection. God teaches us, moreover, about God's own being by teaching us how to interpret who Jesus is. This teaching calls for our response of faith in Jesus and, through him, to the Father. God's teaching through Jesus, responded to by us in faith, is the fundamental Christian religious experience which Mark endeavors to convey in his narrative, and which theology reflects upon, analyzes, and seeks to express anew for various historical periods. This religious experience is, more importantly, the basis of our spiritual lives.

The second truth which Mark's Gospel tells us is that faith comes in stages. This truth is especially helpful in dealing with the ups and downs of our spiritual lives. Mark's narrative includes not only Jesus'teaching, but his disciples' gradual growth in faith, both in the sense of more firm commitment to Jesus and in the sense of profounder understanding of what faith in Jesus implies. The disciples' development in faith suggests that we, too, grow in faith and hence in the vigor of our spiritual lives. We can expect, therefore, times of confusion, darkness, misunderstanding in our relationship to God. We can expect periods of growing comprehension and moments of startling insight. The pattern of faith-learning narrated by Mark is likely to be repeated in our lives, leading us upward in a spiral from our first religious experience to ever more profound ones.

Let us, then, examine the Gospel of Mark. We will explore the various stages that Mark weaves into his continuous story which he formed from the traditions he inherited.

The basis for our division of the story into stages is a work on Mark's Gospel by John Radermakers (La Bonne Nouvelle selon Saint Marc).(1) He, and many others, have shown that, although Mark uses already existing collections of traditions, he has clearly "structured" these materials. The main evidence for this is the existence of summaries, followed by sections that place the disciples in relation to Jesus. These Markan additions punctuate the narrative and signal the introduction of new themes. They help us understand what Mark means by "faith" and "discipleship" -- how they are constituted and developed. For example, a first section, beginning at 1:14-15 (summary of Jesus' earliest preaching: "After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Good News from God . . .")(2) and continuing with 1:16-20 (Jesus' call of four disciples: Simon, Andrew, James, and John), presents the beginning of faith as a vocation. A second section begins at 3:7-12 with the summary of Jesus' early success ("Great crowds from Galilee followed him . . . from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumaea, Transjordania and the region of Tyre and Sidon"), followed by a new relationship between Jesus and his disciples: the appointment of the Twelve (3:13-19). A third section begins with a short summary of Jesus' activity after his visit to Nazareth (6:6b-7): "He made a tour around the villages, teaching," followed by the sending of the Twelve out on mission. Radermakers characterizes the themes of the six sections as vocation, election of disciples, sending on mission, invitation to serve, to follow, and finally to prepare a new Passover.(3)


The first section (1:14-3:6) presents an overall portrait of Jesus, Son of God, and his "good news." Jesus speaks with authority -- this strikes the crowds -- and he acts with authority over disease and over evil spirits, despite all the objections of the Pharisees, who would confine the possibilities of God's power to the limits of their prescriptions and laws. Clearly Mark's Gospel begins by presenting God's power as it is manifested in Jesus.

But the content of Mark's first section is not only Jesus but also the beginning of his disciples' vocation. The disciples are sincere but perplexed people, like us, who seek to know what the meaning of their life is, and who think they can do this through Jesus whom they come to know and follow. The beginning of Mark's Gospel thus contains not only information about Jesus but also the particular historical circumstances of his relationship to people -- first the whole crowd of Jews who hear his words and see what he is doing, then those who became his disciples (four fishermen and Levi), and finally those who refused to become disciples and were hostile to him. Throughout this period of beginnings, Mark shows that Jesus is at center stage and that the disciples play a minimal role: they are still on a level with the crowds who also see all that he is doing and saying. We can see here the beginning of our spiritual journey of faith learning. Our vocation began by hearing about an ideal, about a person, group, or event. We wanted to learn more about a fascinating and true way of spending our life and so observed and studied how this new ideal was related to who we are. The data found in Mark's Gospel pertain to other people at another time, but they can be translated into this type of experience, the beginning of our faith journey.

The next two sections in Mark's itinerary of faith define two stages between this initial consideration of the good news and the act of faith as decision and commitment. Mark, of course, did not consciously plan how the disciples of Jesus would be led to believe in Jesus, yet Mark knows that Peter's confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi was the culmination of a time period and a learning process. The traditional materials in this part of the Gospel (chaps. 3-8) are parables, the multiplication of bread, the Baptist's death, further controversies with the Pharisees over ritual purity, new instructions for the disciples. But Mark sees them as more than just a collection of traditions or a journal of a time period. They are a careful, studied preparation for the time when Peter will be able to say "You are the Christ" in response to Jesus' question "Who do you say I am?" Mark divides this period into two parts, since it contains two stages in faith learning.

The first part of this new phase in faith -- and the second section of the total Gospel -- shows how the disciples became Jesus "family." In the beginning of this section, "his relatives set out to take charge of him, convinced he was out of his mind" (3:20-21). Later, Jesus clarifies the relationship of these relatives to his discipleshis true family: "Who are my mother and my brother? . . . Looking round at those sitting in a circle about him, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers. Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother " (3:31-35). At the end of this section, structurally related to this beginning, we learn that his acquaintances in Nazareth "would not accept him," and Jesus says: "A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house" (6:1-6). What had happened? How had the invited (including his mother) become disciples rather than simply relatives or acquaintances? There is first a revelation about Jesus himself. His words, spoken in parables, about the kingdom of God "are words of eternal life." Not only do these words tell of the mystery of God, they also plant it in people's hearts, to grow and be fruitful -- on condition that one accepts Jesus as word of God, the vehicle God is using to reveal the divine self. But this revelation of Jesus, which the disciples will only slowly comprehend and accept, involves an initiation. In order to become part of Jesus' family they must realize the meaning of the signs he is giving; they must see the spiritual power of a "stronger household" (cf. 3:27) which he offers. They must become "fertile ground" where the word can produce thirty, sixty, even a hundredfold, because they have listened to Jesus' words, rather than just hearing them, and because they have been personally invited into the "secret" of the kingdom (4:1-12). The disciples remain passive before Jesus' mystery in this stage, as the calming of the storm shows (4:35-41); yet they are already in the "boat" with him and are thus filled with awe when he calms the storm. They realize they have very little faith and ask "Who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him." They carry within them a question which thirsts for an answer.


The second part of this initiation (6:6b-8:30) describes how Jesus' disciples began participating in his mission before they realized what they were doing, especially his mission of giving a bread that truly nourishes. Faced with a hungry crowd they are invited to "Give them something to eat yourselves" (6:37). Yet they cannot understand how this is possible: "Are we to go and spend two hundred denarii on bread for them to eat?" In fact they understand very little of anything during this period, although they set out to preach repentance, to cast out devils, and to anoint sick people and cure them (6:12-13).

The main misunderstanding, however, and the key to Jesus' mission, is bread. Jesus gives them a miraculous bread which feeds thousands. Mark emphasizes their misunderstanding of the meaning of bread in an unexpected way. He tells us that the disciples "were utterly and completely dumbfounded" at seeing Jesus walk on water "because they had not seen what the miracle of the loaves meant; their minds were closed" (6:52). Later (8:17-21), commenting on the "danger of the yeast of the Pharisees" who asked for a sign, Jesus reproached his disciples' lack of perception and understanding by recalling the breaking of five loaves among the five thousand: "Have you eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear? Do you not remember: When I broke the five loaves among the five thousand, how many baskets full of scraps did you collect? . . . Then he said to them,'Are you still without perception?'"

The new revelation about Jesus, which those who "have eyes to see" will see,(4) is that Jesus has the power to give them bread. He has power to satisfy the hungry crowds, eventually by eucharistic bread, a sign both of love shared in a community and of God's transcendent presence through Jesus' gift of himself.

The new, third stage in discipleship begins with their being sent out on mission (6:7-13). Mark, unlike Matthew, makes of this a separate stage in the disciples' development. Jesus is bringing them closer to the secret of his own mission so that they will be able to answer the question of who he is. The traditional materials that follow will show how they are to be his missionaries. Mark surrounds this traditional material (multiplication of loaves, question about ritual purity) with two scenes which take up the question of Jesus' identity, thus forming an inclusion (5) around it. At the beginning of this section is the implied question of Herod. "Now that his [Jesus] name was well known . . . some were saying he is John the Baptist risen from the dead . . . others, that he is Elijah, others again that He is a prophet." Herod, for whom Jesus is a question, replies: "It is John whose head I cut off; he has risen from the dead" (6:14-16). At the end of the section, we hear Jesus' own question to his disciples: "Who do you say I am?" (cf. 8:27-30). By the use of this question at the beginning and end of this whole section, Mark seems to be saying that the themes and stories within this inclusion answer the question of Jesus' identity. Peter and the disciples will eventually be able to say "You are the Christ," once they have participated in the multiplication of bread and once they have assisted at a key controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees, namely, the controversy over ritual purity: "What truly makes a person impure is not what goes into the stomach, but what comes from the heart" (7:21-23).

As we showed above, throughout this section Jesus himself instructs the disciples and makes it clear to them that "bread" is the key. The final story of the section, just before Peter's confession of faith, is the cure of a blind man. This emphasizes, first, the disciple's spiritual blindness -- they cannot see that the miracle of bread enlightens them about Jesus' power to come walking on water (6:52); nor can they see how the bread Jesus gives is the "sign" which the Pharisees ask for (8:11-13); but they cannot see because of their entanglement with the laws of ritual purity (7:1-13). But, secondly, they, along with the blind man, can be cured. Jesus "leads the blind man outside the village, puts spittle on his eyes and lays his hands on him." This is only partially effective, so "Jesus again laid his hands on the man's eyes and he saw clearly." Once the disciples discover that they are blind to all the signs Jesus is giving, they too will begin the slow process of coming to see -- that is, by professing faith in him. This is a new stage of faith. In theological terms, a believer already possesses signs of what God is doing -- sacramentally in worship, for example, or existentially in a community's works of love -- yet he or she asks for signs as the Pharisees did, or does not understand the signs that are given. Once this blindness is acknowledged, the believer begins to see. He or she begins to understand the main sign Jesus gives of himself, that is, bread, and with this knowledge can answer the question of who Jesus is.


After the climax of the Gospel, the "central pivot," 8:27-9:13, when Peter professes faith in Jesus, there are three new moments. The purpose of the second half of Mark's Gospel and the content of the three moments of faith after a faith commitment has been made is, first of all, to demonstrate a balance, or equilibrium, between the triumphant, glorious Jesus of the first half of the Gospel and a suffering, defeated Jesus in the second half. Jesus, historically, dies a tragic death in Jerusalem. Although throughout his mission he conquers disease and demons, he is seemingly overcome by the forces of jealousy and evil. The three prophecies of the passion show clearly, and prepare in advance, an interpretation which understands that Jesus himself is aware of the resistance to God's kingdom, of the resistance to those who commit themselves to preaching it, and of the real evil behind this resistance. He speaks of the eventuality of suffering to his disciples because his mission and vocation are not only to overcome sin and death for himself, but to share his interpretation of suffering with them. Thus in this second half of the Gospel three new stages are needed in which the disciples learn in advance how to face suffering.

The content of this new teaching in the second half of Mark's Gospel is not theoretical but practical. It involves a deep commitment to be with Jesus, to follow him, as he fulfills his Father's will. The vocabulary of chapters 9 and 10 emphasizes this, as we see especially in 10:32: "They were on the road . . . Jesus was walking on ahead; they were in a daze, and those who followed were apprehensive." At the very beginning of this fourth section (that is, 8:31-10:32), Jesus describes the conditions of discipleship (8:31-32) and Peter misunderstands him; Jesus then tells Peter to "get behind him." The lesson on suffering is difficult to accept, and the only way to learn it is to abandon human ways of thinking and accept God's way of thinking, as it is revealed in Jesus.

The heart of the fourth section is a series of practical lessons for the everyday life of the Christian community, no doubt taken from an already existing collection of Jesus"'words": on the power of prayer over demons, on service and childlike simplicity, on openness and ecumenical recognition of all who "use Jesus' name" (9:38-40), on charity, on avoiding scandal, on respecting God's intention regarding marriage, on riches, finally on childlike simplicity once again. This collection of "words of Jesus for practical situations" (as we may term it) takes on a new meaning in the context in which Mark places it: namely, as a fourth moment of faith learning. Mark shows that these words are not merely typical answers to practical problems, but concrete ways of accepting suffering, doubt, and controversy as a normal part of Christian living. For every future generation of Christians they define the difficult conditions of discipleship which must be accepted once a faith commitment is made.

The fifth section (10:33-13:37) clarifies the true role of Jerusalem for Jesus' mission. Jerusalem is the city of David and of Jesus, Son of David. Before Jesus was put to death, during his lifetime, he actually confronted the authorities of Judaism and refuted all the specious and merely human arguments concerning the temple, God's promise to favor Israel, the resurrection of the dead, the law, and David's role in the history of salvation. By his refutation he prepared his disciples to understand correctly the sense of their own religion: that is, as it is explained in the "Old" Testament. This would be an important stage in the disciples' "resurrected" understanding of Jesus, once he was gone. Not only had Jesus prepared them in advance to understand the meaning of his final suffering; he had also given them a key to unlock the Old Testament prophecies concerning God's election of a chosen people, a land, and a city. He had taught them to transfer their allegiance from David's city to David's son. The resurrection focused their attention on Jesus, who had clarified in advance how the Old Testament (the story of Jerusalem) contains the language and symbols needed to understand how he could be the Messiah. This is, therefore, an important new addition to what faith is and what theology reflects on. It gives a basis for understanding how God speaks in symbols and in history. His word Jesus is not just a point on a line, a "that," but the line itself -- the whole salvation history of Israel.

The sixth section (chaps. 14-16) makes it clear, however, that the meaning of Jerusalem and salvation history, as well as the meaning of all Jewish religious customs -- especially the Passoveris Jesus crucified. He is our Passover. We are invited ultimately to live in relationship to, to be and to celebrate, his "body" given for us, and to grow spiritually to the extent that we "fill up what is wanting in the suffering of Christ." In itself Jesus' crucifixion is an historical event which simply happens and cannot be explained: it is once and for all. As a new stage in faith and a new element of theology, it is the affirmation of a mystery: something has happened unexpectedly and cannot ultimately be explained. In a way faith begins here! -- both for Jesus' disciples, who have gone through the entire series of events and faith learning, and for anyone. All the previous stages of preparation would lead merely to a religious gnosis if they were thought of as a rational, human solution, a kind of religious dialectic which a person goes through to find truth. This event, Jesus' death and his resurrection, accepted fully and freely, puts a stop to all such human pretensions. It forces us, for the first time, to accept what seems unacceptable and should not be able to happen: God's Son is helpless in the face of evil, but also God is revealed as resurrected in the suffering Jesus. If this defeat and victory are accepted in faith, and if the source of this faith is not "our ideas" but God, then God's victory, his affirmation of Jesus' life called the resurrection, becomes the ground for witness to the power of goodness, truth, and meaning in God the Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus, with whom the disciples lived, through whose teaching and example they learned about faith -- this same Jesus is a resurrected content of faith, a presence. For this reason Mark can end his Gospel with the empty tomb: Jesus' identity, kept secret until this moment, is now revealed. The disciples of Jesus, after the shock and pain of departure, experience his resurrected life and know it is constituted by all the things he said and did.

Mark and the Christian community, persevering in faith until the end -- until faith's true beginning in the resurrection with its revelation that the tomb cannot contain him who is living -- now retrace the prehistory of their faith, its genesis through the stages of their encounter, acceptance, and learning experiences with Jesus -- and the resurrection. The "necessary" moments of incomprehension, infidelity, hesitation, but also of ecstatic joy and recognition of Jesus' wisdom in interpreting the Scriptures, are now seen as necessary. Jesus' "family" of disciples began their journey of faith as common people -- as fishermen, internal revenue agents, housekeepers, farm laborers, or tradespeople. They listened to this prophet because his words about the kingdom of God touched their heart. They followed him because he was a faith healer and because he had an original message. They found themselves drawn to him and were invited by him to be part of a family of disciples. This, however, was only the beginning. As his disciples and apostles, their religious ideas and their lives were changed. He demanded of them a total commitment to God's kingdom as something already present and ongoing, ultimately as something that was happening then and there.


Mark records all of this as a series of stages which we too can experience. We can find ourselves on the same journey. Our vocation began before we realized it, when we were still part of an anonymous (Christian) crowd which followed Jesus because his teaching was revelation and because he manifested authority. Our personal mission began perhaps when we received first communion or confirmation or the sacrament of marriage, or perhaps when we first asked ourselves what it means to be a Christian. We began consciously to use our talents and gifts to construct a future -- a future which depended on us and on God's help. The power and authority Jesus was giving us was perhaps only dimly perceived because our path and our ideas were too much our own. We were filled with anguish and doubt. But gradually we became aware that another interpretation of our own experiences was possible. God through Jesus had already given us signs and visible proofs, like the bread Jesus miraculously gave the crowds. What we were doing was already our mission, made visible sacramentally through a church, where miraculous power and mystery are present, though not always seen. Frequent explanations heard in Scripture, or in religious education, or in preaching had already been telling us what God's "plan" for us was. But even more frequent discoveries were necessary to learn that there was an inner power and a spirit which gave life to what was only notionally assented to. We had to discover how we fitted into this plan, how our personal decision was a necessary part of it. Our real faith decision, just as Peter's, was made and pronounced with words which were beyond us, words which "flesh and blood" cannot speak, but only the Father in heaven.

Once our words -- of enthusiasm or balanced judgment -- were spoken, we still had to learn that this was only one half of our faith journey. There was still much to learn. We still had to place ourselves behind Jesus and to painfully ascend the road to Jerusalem, confident only that Jesus goes before us to prepare the way. Many everyday problems, disputes, injustices, and doubts form part of this "road to Jerusalem" which cannot yet be seen as a road to victory, but can be accepted as part of our ongoing faith learning. Whatever our state of confidence or doubt, we can be followers of Jesus, of the one who has gone before us to face evil, injustice, doubt, and death. Our participation in his resurrection must begin with participation in his "earthly mission," which ends in Jerusalem, that is, in the City of God, the place where God will reveal his kingship. This revelation of God's rule over the world will no doubt be as paradoxical for us as it was for the Jews and for Jesus, for God's ways are not our ways. But the whole journey of faith that Mark sets down in stages fills us with hope and directs us to be attentive to what we are being taught -- not only the content of the teaching, but also the stage at which we find ourselves: whether as beginners, or as intermediate students who have grasped some things but have much to learn, or finally as those who have advanced far enough not to need any new lessons but only the application of what has already been learned and the assimilation of that into an ever deepening relationship with God.

  1. (Brussels: Institut d'Etudes Théologiques, 1974).
  2. Translations are from the Jerusalem Bible.
  3. Radermakers, La Bonne Nouvelle, p. 42.
  4. Note that the same expression here in chap. 8:17 is also used in 4:12: seeing what "bread" means is similar to seeing the secret of the parables.
  5. An inclusion is the repetition of the same or parallel materials to surround, or give a framework to, what is found between.