On Your Mark: Reading Scripture without a Teacher By William J. O’Malley (Liturgical, 2011).

Fr. O’Malley is a Bible teacher at Fordham Preparatory School. Having taught high-schoolers for four decades, this gospel “commentary” that promises the ability to read Mark “without a teacher” intrigued me. “It is devised for beginners at reading the scriptures without a teacher, whether the beginner is fifteen or fifty” (ix).

The first 31 pages provides succinct background material for the gospel of Mark, including a chapter on reading texts in general—paying attention to figures of speech; the importance of attending to “story truth” (the insight they provide into reality, as opposed to pure historical information); etc. I especially liked O’Malley’s assertion that “[t]he gospel writers were not just reporters; they were also commentators. They were not merely setting down facts but, by their treatment, trying to bring out their significance”(15).

Each chapter of the gospel gets its own chapter in the book, which concludes with “review questions” and a “for reflection” section. I did not find the questions particularly helpful; the reflections comments were hit-or-miss, mostly miss. They did not struggle with the “whys” of the text: Why is this text here and what is the author doing with what he is saying? Rather, in a shotgun approach, verses are randomly turned into quasi application points. For instance, dealing with Mark 1:9 and Jesus’ baptism, O’Malley asks: “Have you personally ever suspected, perhaps skeptically, that you might be called to a bigger life, a larger contribution than what you might have safely contented yourself with before?” (46). Or, with regard to Jesus forgiving the paralytic: “[I]t is inescapable that we have to forgive sins readily too” (55). Unfortunately, despite his earlier assertion that the gospel writers were bringing out the significance of the facts, no real significance is brought out in the reflections. For a preacher, this is key. I found myself regularly scribbling “So?” on the margins of the author’s commentary. What was the significance of Mark’s juxtaposition of several controversy dialogues in Mark 2, for example? In fact, not many connections are made at all, between pericopes or between chapters and sections.

Yet, O’Malley does make some astute observations: Mark 3:13 uses the word “made”—Jesus “made” disciples, alluding to the appointment of Moses, Aaron, and the priesthood; he probingly asks, with regard to 3:34–35, what is more important than the will of God in our lives; the piling up of details regarding the Gerasene demoniac’s oppression (4:3–4) and the fact that his desire to “be with” Jesus was the same verb the Lord used to describe the task of his disciples (4:18); the blindness of traditionalists to the will of God (on 7:13); etc. The relative infrequency of these gems make the $20 hard to justify.

Overall, the tenor is somewhat liberal. For instance, “the historical Jesus himself discovered who he really was only gradually, just as we must discover our real selves.” That’s a bit hard to establish, when in the second chapter of the gospel, Jesus proceeds to forgive a paralyzed man, while agreeing with the scribes that only God could forgive. Indeed, Mark even has an evil spirit recognize Jesus as “the Holy One of God” in Mark 1. And so on. In another place, 10:19, O’Malley is too quick to attribute error to Mark’s pen when he put “do not defraud” in Jesus’ list of the Ten Commandments, instead of “do not covet” (10:19). Could there not be a reason for this pointed alteration?

The entire book is written in an easily readable, homey style (even including a four-letter expletive, “h*?!”); one gets the impression, despite the subtitle, that an avuncular teacher is right there peering at the pages of Mark with you, over your shoulder. All in all, an interesting approach, though it probably does not belong to the preacher’s top-10 “go-to” tools for the Gospel of Mark.

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 11.2 (2011): 114–15

Copyright © 2012 Homiletix  |  Blog theme by ThemeShift customized by Gurry Design  |  Full sitemap