Mark’s Unique Emphasis on Human Helplessness
Mark often presents more colorful and, surprisingly (given his brevity), more complete accounts of certain events than the other Gospel writers. There seems to be more behind this, however, than mere vividness for his Roman readers or the benefit of having Peter as an eyewitness source. The details peculiar to Mark’s record of certain events also recorded by Matthew and Luke suggest an emphasis unique to Mark. It is not a dominating theme, but it surfaces enough to underscore a point to which only Mark calls our attention in such detail.
Mark’s account of four Synoptic miracles (the demoniac of Gadara, the woman with the hemorrhage, the feeding of the five thousand, and a demoniac boy) reflects a repeated emphasis that is absent from the parallel Synoptic accounts, and even from other recorded miracles: the utter helplessness of those to whom Jesus ministered. They could neither help themselves nor be helped by others; Christ alone could meet their need.
Obviously, helplessness is a given in practically every miracle. Only Mark, however, keeps directing the reader’s attention to the graphic reality of that helplessness, including reminders of others who failed to help those in need. Mark alone also includes a parable that introduces the idea of helplessness.
For the sake of space, I’ll omit any discussion of the uniquely Markan parable that introduces Mark’s subtheme of helplessness (Mark 4:26-28), except to note G. Campbell Morgan’s remark that the parable suggests “our helplessness in the matter of the germination of the seed.” The parable is an argument from the lesser to the greater. If humans are helpless even in such mundane earthly matters, how much more in the spiritual realm.
The first miracle pericope to underscore this motif is Mark’s account of the demoniac of Gadara. Bold signifies details that only Mark includes.
And no one was able to bind him any more, even with a chain; because he had often been bound with shackles and chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue him. And constantly night and day, among the tombs and in the mountains, he was crying out and gashing himself with stones (5:3-5).
Mark portrays a man who is beyond the help of anyone and everyone. Even the strongest men had tried to restrain and tame him (the only other occurrence of this Greek word in Jas 3:7, 8 where even the fiercest of beasts, it is implied, can be “tamed”). But “his indomitable fierceness made him the despair of human efforts” (Hiebert). Verse 5 goes even further to describe in pathetic terms this suicidal demoniac’s utter misery and hopelessness, enslaved beyond all human intervention. No help could match the demonic forces that ravaged this poor man, until Jesus came.
And a woman who had a hemorrhage for twelve years, and had endured much at the hands of many physicians, and had spent all that she had and was not helped at all, but rather had grown worse, after hearing about Jesus, came …. (5:25-27).
Mark describes a woman who is beyond the help of physicians—the very professionals who should have been able to help her if anyone could. That, of course, is the point. Despite Luke’s single detail that she “could not be healed by any”—a point of interest for a fellow physician—Luke does not dwell on the utter helplessness and despair of this woman like Mark does.She had exhausted all the medical help that her money could buy. In fact, all the remedial efforts of physicians only made her condition worse, as “doctor after doctor proved a disappointment to her expectations of recovery” because “her problem extended beyond the reach of medical skills” (Hiebert)—but not beyond the reach of Christ’s power.
And when He went ashore, He saw a great multitude, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things…. And He commanded them to recline by groups on the green grass. And there were five thousand men who ate the loaves (6:34, 41).
Mark presents people as a whole, like sheep, helpless to meet their own needs. Matthew uses the “sheep without a shepherd” analogy, but in an entirely different context (Mt. 9:36). Mark applies it directly to this miraculous provision for their spiritual and physical needs. Cranfield observes that “the characteristic of the multitude which is stressed here . . . is its helplessness and bewilderment, its likeness to shepherdless sheep.” In Matthew he provides for the shepherdless sheep mediately by sending out the disciples. Here Jesus the Good Shepherd provides help personally and miraculously for these helpless sheep.
… and falling to the ground, he began rolling about and foaming at the mouth. And He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often thrown him into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” And Jesus said, “‘If You can!’ All things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father cried out and began saying, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (9:20-27).
Mark depicts a child who is beyond the help even of distinguished spiritual leaders like the disciples of Jesus. Only Mark records this extended conversation with the father. Christ’s question (v. 21) “led the father to confess the natural hopelessness of the boy’s condition” that “had characterized most of his life” (Hiebert). The father’s desperate request further stresses his own sense of helplessness. Jesus’ reply is well-captured in the NASB where he underscores the absurdity of the suggestion that even he might be helpless in this situation. Mark uniquely presents Christ as both the only help of this otherwise helpless boy and the only hope for this otherwise hopeless father.
Disclosure: This was actually a project I did as a graduate student in Synoptic Gospels some 30 years ago (without any application of Redaction Criticism:), armed only with an attentive, reflective, and comparative reading of a harmony of the Gospels and a conviction—held in the church long before me—that the Gospel writers, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, shaped their presentation of material to convey distinctive theological emphases.
Photo: Looking eastward across the Sea of Galilee toward Gadara.