One of the most bizarre incidents in the Bible is the sudden introduction of a “young man” in the account of Jesus’ arrest (14:51-52). The young man is “following” Jesus but when he is seized, he escapes their grasp by donating his linen cloth to them and runs off, naked. Who is this man? Many commentators believe it is Mark himself, inserting himself into the narrative.
But what if it’s a narrative device, used by Mark to help us process the death and resurrection of Jesus, highlighting that unless we have faith to see him through those events, we will not truly believe?
Recall: In Mark 8-10, there are three scenes where Jesus announces his upcoming death and subsequent resurrection (8:27-38; 9:30-27; 10:32-45). These stories are bounded by two stories of Jesus healing a blind man (8:22-26; 10:46-52). In the first story, it takes two times to heal the blind man. It’s a spiritual double-take. The man does not yet have the capacity (a true understanding of what Jesus’ role as the Messiah is) to believe.
In the second story, which comes after the three presentations of Jesus’ suffering and glorification, the man is healed the first time. Note the contrasts: there is nothing special about the first man, and there is an odd introduction of Jesus spitting on him as part of the healing. The second man, who is healed after the three-fold proclamation of the gospel, presents himself to Jesus by faith; he uses Messianic terms (“Son of David, have mercy on me”). He is healed, and Jesus attributes it to faith (10:52). Faith in the gospel of Jesus is the template for spiritual understanding and perception.
Note also that Jesus’ disciples misunderstand the gospel proclamation each time.
Finally, note that after this unit (8:22-10:52), the narrative immediately shifts to the passion week.
Thus, one of Mark’s emphasis, in the very center of his book, is that the preaching of the gospel changes people.
Now, back to the “young man.” He escapes right before Jesus’ death (and subsequent resurrection). He leaves his linen cloth behind and is naked. The physical represents the spiritual. He fled because he is spiritually blind; he doesn’t understand because the gospel proclamation hasn’t happened yet.
Now, jump ahead to Mark 16:1-8. When the women arrive at the tomb, there is no Jesus...but there is a “young man,” sitting at the right side (wordplay intended, he is sitting at the hand of power), who is now dressed in a white robe (possibly a baptismal robe?), who preaches the gospel to them (Jesus was crucified...He has risen). Could this be the same young man?
Mark ends with fear, and with silence. The women tell no one. They fled with fear (16:8). Some scholars believe this is Mark’s goal -- to end with silence, with the lack of gospel preaching, because this is the task the church must pick up and do. But we see this template play out in Mark, with the young man.
The young man, like the women, fled in fear. His literal nakedness is a sign of his spiritual blindness; he cannot yet see because Jesus has not died and been resurrected.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, another (the same?) young man arrives, wearing a clean, white robe (possibly a baptismal robe), and proclaims the gospel to the women. They leave in fear.
The young man was silent, then he spoke. What changed? In between his silence and speaking, the only thing that changed was the foretold death and resurrection of Jesus! Jesus himself told us (Mark 8-10) that this was the key to understanding him and that this key would unlock the life of faith!
Rather than being just an interesting sidenote or a possible insertion of Mark into the gospel, the young man is the one who is transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus and becomes a preacher. This preacher preaches the gospel, and is the model for us to follow as followers of Jesus who have been transformed by the gospel.
The gospel ends with silence and with fear, and with this question: Will we flee in fear like the women, or preach the gospel under the authority of God (the right hand) like the young man?