This is based on an article I read recently called The Naked Runaway and the Enrobed Reporter of Mark 14 and 16, in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (vol 54 no 3 pp 527-545) by Abraham Kuruvilla, an Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary. What I like about it is Mark 14:51-52 is an obscure passage which I have often scratched my head over, but this article takes the text for what it says, steps back from the speculation and finds meaning and purpose for the story based on literary and exegetical considerations in the text. I find his answer to be a reasonable and satisfactory explanation of the text as it stands. Even though he finds a theological purpose for Mark’s inclusion of this event in his account, this in no way implies that the events described did not happen. The theological explanation, if accurate, leads to a couple of applications which I believe have bearing on our lives today.
And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked. (Mark 14:51-52) This passage in Mark has caused a lot of speculation. On the one hand, some scholars point to its abruptness and how it seems to not fit into the flow of the passage and say that the “compiler” of what we now know as the Gospel of Mark slapped this story into a place where it didn’t fit, indicating not only a compiler but that the event did not happen but was a later myth about the events in the garden. Of course, this speculation depends on a “given” that the writer of the Gospel had no idea what it means to write something or that he was so committed to his agenda he did not care. He had no plan, no purpose and just haphazardly (and uncritically) threw stuff together. This given is patently false. Even in the first century AD (likewise if one accepts a 2nd or 3rd century date for the writing of Mark), authors wrote for a reason. The Gospel of Mark shows both a pattern and a purpose for writing and the quick dismissal of this event as purposeless is an injustice which one would not perpetrate on other writers or writings.
On the other hand, many speculate on who this young man is. Most commonly, people say this must be Mark himself making a cameo appearance. Having previously only heard people suggesting Mark, I was surprised to learn that others have suggested Jesus (the stripping prefiguring his trial and execution); John (because of John 18:15,16 and some early (4th and 5th century) writers); James, the brother of Jesus (because Eusebius writes that James wore a linen garment all his life, purportedly the one he abandoned in Mark 14); “Joseph” (Either an unnamed “Joseph-like” character or Joseph of Arimathea, because of this story’s similarity to historical Joseph’s losing his garment to Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39); Lazarus (because the High Priests wished to kill him as well as Jesus John 12:10,11); or some unnamed Baptismal Initiate (based on an 18th century document which some claim to have been a copy of a letter written by Clement of Alexandria (cc. 150-217)).
In Mark’s Gospel, the only Gospel which has this story, the man is identified as “a young man” (νεανι?σκος) (That’s Greek. You’re welcome). Though it’s tempting to try to figure out who this is, young man is what Mark calls him and it seems to me if who he is were important to the story then Mark would have named him.
This young man is also said to be a follower of Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark, “follow” was what it was the disciples were called to do (2:14; 8:34; 10:21) and follow was what the disciples had been doing (1:18; 2:14,15; 6:1; 10:28,52). So, by saying the young man followed Jesus, Mark was saying this young man was a disciple of Jesus.
Yet, Mark had already said that the disciples had fled, And they all left him and fled (Mark 14:50). What does this section add to the picture? It seems in one sense, it is a reverse discipleship. Those who had abandoned all to follow Jesus (1:16-20; 2:14; 10:28-31) are now abandoning all – including their clothing – to flee from Jesus. Interestingly, there is an earlier incident in Mark (10:50,52) in which a man name Bartimaeus abandons his cloak to follow Jesus, whereas here, the follower abandons his garment to flee. So the incident accentuates the failure of the disciples. Also, the incident mentions twice that the young man was naked indicating the shamefulness of their abandonment of Jesus.
There seems to be another reason in the broad story of the Gospel of Mark for the inclusion of the story, indicated by how Mark uses his words. As I said, in this story it is twice mentioned that the man was naked. As the story of Jesus’ passion continues, Jesus is stripped twice by his captors (at his mocking 15:16,17 and on the cross, 15:24). Our incident also mentions twice that the young man wore a “linen cloth” (σινδο?να) the only other time this word is used by Mark is at the burial of Jesus who was wrapped in linen (15:46 also twice). So, this would indicate a ‘clothing exchange” in the theology of Mark; that the cloth abandoned in shame was taken up by Jesus at his death. And there is more.
In the Gospel of Mark, there is one other time that the word translated “young man” is used, And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe (Mark 16:5, italics added). This repetition (the word is used 2x in Matthew; 1x in Luke; never in John; and 5x in Acts) in the Gospel should cause us to consider if the author is trying to connect the events. This is not to say that the two young men are the same person. We know that the one was a human follower of Jesus, while the other is called an Angel in the other Gospel accounts. But the fact that Mark chooses the same word indicates that he is broadening the picture, given that he was an author who was trying to say something.
This man is also wearing (also the only two times Mark uses this word “wear”) a garment, a white robe. Remarkably, the only other time in Mark where “white” garment is mentioned is at the Transfiguration of Jesus, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. (Mark 9:3). So, it appears that another “clothing exchange” has occurred. At Jesus’ resurrection, the white robes of glory now clothe the young man.
To put it another way: in Mark, two literary exchanges of clothing take place:
1A: A young man wore linen which he shed in shame
1B: Jesus is wrapped in linen at his shameful death
2A: Jesus wore white robes of glory at the transfiguration
2B: A young man wears white clothing at the resurrection.
This literary device of the author presents a picture of the exchange which occurred at the cross. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) It is also a picture of restoration of the abandoning disciples. Notice that of the Gospel accounts, Mark alone places the young man specifically “at the right” (16:5), a clear reference to the placing of the Messiah David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ (Mark 12:36 quoting Psalm 110:1) and so the identification of Christ and his followers. Also remember that Mark alone has the pointed, But go, tell his disciples and Peter (Mark 16:7 italics added) As Kuruvilla says, “There is hope for all who will follow Jesus … albeit stumbling and failing, clumsy and hesitant. Because of what Christ did, the shame is exchanged for glory.” (p 544)
This story, then, teaches something about Mark’s theology of the Passion of Jesus. As I said there seems to be a couple of important applications for today. The first is more theological in that there are those who would deny one or both of the imputations which occurred at the Cross. Historically, Christianity has taught that our sin was imputed to Christ and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to those who will believe. Some have denied that this was the case, and it seems these days their voices are getting louder. This story within the broader picture of Mark’s Gospel teaches both imputations. Our shame to Jesus, his glory to us.
The second application affirms the life of pure, unearned grace which is being a follower of Jesus. There is a reason this young man is unnamed and it’s not so that we can speculate about who he might be. As Kuruvilla says, “Who is the naked runaway? He is Every Disciple, shamefully feeble and fallible. And the enrobed reporter? That one, too, is Every Disciple, gloriously restored by the grace of God, through Jesus Christ!”