“A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind” (Mark 14:51–52).
We find this story in Mark’s Gospel right after the account of Jesus’s arrest, and it’s one of the least understood narratives in the entire New Testament. Scholars have described the account as strange, bizarre, confusing, enigmatic, and whimsical. But this two-verse story is in the Bible, so we have to assume Mark included it for a reason. Who was the young man, and—more importantly—why did Mark include this information about him?
(Un)Cloaked in Mystery
Most scholars believe that, like an artist painting himself in a corner of his canvas, Mark included a cameo of himself in his Gospel. The history of identifying this character with the author himself began with a thirteenth-century Coptic manuscript in which a footnote identified the young man as Mark the Evangelist (or as James, son of Joseph). But Papias, the early second-century bishop of Hierapolis, declared that “Mark neither heard the Lord nor followed him” (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.15) during Jesus’s lifetime. Others have speculated that the naked runaway was Lazarus, or Joseph of Arimathea, or a number of others. For some scholars, the fact that Matthew and Luke omitted this misadventure provides proof enough that it lacks any obvious theological meaning and that it is irrelevant to the purpose of Mark’s overall story.
What Was Mark Doing?
Such hypotheses and evaluations tacitly assume that Mark was an inept writer. But such a conclusion is unwarranted; of sloppy editing, Mark knows nothing. His work is the product of a sophisticated theological mind, assisted by the Holy Spirit, of course.
In fact, with this vignette, as with all of the scenes in his Gospel, Mark was doing something deliberate and purposeful, as narrators always do. Macbeth, for instance, is not a brochure detailing the history of Scotland, but a work that warns of the dangers of gaining a kingdom by losing one’s soul. Authors do something with what they say. Mark had a goal in telling this particular story. And to determine this “doing,” we must pay close attention to the text itself.
Symbol of Failure
The juxtaposition of the brief episode in question with that of the disciples’ fleeing is telling. Following the betrayal by Judas and the arrest of Jesus (14:43–49), all the disciples left him and fled (v. 50). Immediately thereafter comes this account of a young man who “followed Jesus” and who, when seized, abandoned his garment and fled. It is significant that this youth is described as one who “followed” Jesus. To follow was what Jesus called the disciples to do, and following was what they had been doing. “Following” is therefore a literary clue. Mark is labeling the young man as a “disciple.” The disciples followed; the young man followed. The disciples fled; the young man fled. Here, then, in the picture of the naked runaway, followers have become “flee-ers.” In Mark’s narrative, the ignominious flight of this anonymous sympathizer serves to underline the complete failure of Jesus’s disciples.
At one time these disciples had left all to follow him. But now, in the abandonment of even the shirt off this young man’s back, Mark shows his readers that the disciples have left all to get away from Jesus. The writer displays this naked runaway as symbolic of the total abandonment of Jesus by the band of disciples who fled to escape the consequences of association with him.
Shame of Abandonment
But why include this little scene? The only substantive fact added here is that the young man had an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction. His nakedness, mentioned twice, points to the shamefulness of the disciples’ abandonment. Those who had been called to follow had failed. They chose shame over fidelity to Jesus.
At the Mount of Olives on his way to Gethsemane, Jesus had warned his disciples that they would all fall away (v. 27). Peter protested that even if all fell away, he would not (v. 29); and the rest of the disciples vehemently denied the possibility that they would be faithless (v. 31). Yet, now, they fled.
Failure! And who among us has not failed in our discipleship as we follow Jesus? In one way or another, in some fashion or another, we have all fallen—in sin, in faithfulness, in courage, in commitment. And we continue to stumble in discipleship. Is there hope for us?
Exchange of Clothing
What is interesting in this cryptic story is that there is only one other instance of the Greek word for “linen cloth” in Mark’s Gospel—in reference to the burial shroud of Jesus (15:46). There, as with the story of our naked runaway, the word occurs twice.
What a clever narrative strategy! In utterly discreditable circumstances, the disciple is stripped of the “linen cloth” he wore, and following an equally degrading crucifixion, a “linen cloth” becomes Jesus’s burial shroud. The former garment, which represents shame, buries Jesus in death. In other words, Jesus gets the garment of shame from the young man. That, of course, is not to assert that it was the one and same linen cloth. Rather, Mark uses the cloth as a literary device.
The purpose for this device becomes evident when we read the announcement of Jesus’s resurrection (16:1–8). Another “coincidence”: there we find the only other use in all of Mark of the term “young man”—to describe the angelic reporter clad in white (16:5). The only reason for Mark’s unique appellation, labeling as “young man” the one whom the other Gospel-writers called “angel,” must have been to link the two incidents with “young man” in them, in Mark 14 and 16, respectively.
But this “young man” in Mark 16 wears no “linen cloth”; he is wearing white. Another “coincidence”: the only other instance of the word “white” in Mark’s Gospel is where the garments of Jesus’s Transfiguration are so described (9:3). Aha! So that’s where the “young man” in Mark 16 got his whites: Jesus donated his garment of glory to the “young man.”
It appears, then, that garments have been exchanged (in a literary sense, of course): the “linen cloth” the young man wore, that was stripped from him rendering him naked (14:51–52), covered Jesus’s body in the tomb (15:46). In exchange, the “white” garment Jesus wore at his transfiguration now covers the young man who makes the announcement at the empty tomb (16:5). In other words, the runaway’s garment of shame in Mark 14 becomes Jesus’s in Mark 15, and Jesus’s garment of glory in Mark 9 becomes the reporter’s in Mark 16.
The garment of shame of the “young man” buried Jesus; Jesus’s garment of glory restores the “young man.” All of these not-so-subtle literary sleights of hand point to the rehabilitation of the failed disciple: the naked, shamed one is clothed, and this with the clothing of glory of his master, while Jesus takes on the clothing of shame, the garb of failed followers.
This artistic portrayal of the exchange of garments bears an implicit promise: for those disciples who have failed in discipleship, God offers hope. Yes, there is hope for all of us who follow Jesus, albeit stumbling and failing, clumsy and hesitant. The shame of our failures is exchanged for the brilliance of Jesus’s glory, and we have hope indeed—because of what our Lord did for us. Amazing grace!
Editor’s note: At Dr. Kuruvilla’s website, homiletix.com/preaching-resources/abes-articles, you can find and download the original version of this article that appeared in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.
Illustration credit: Detail of original artwork by Michael Donnelly, titled “Study for Mark 14:52, No 2,” 2010, acrylic and gouache on paper, 24 x 28 cm. Used by permission.