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We at Shmoop know all about failure. Rejection, wrong answers, failed plans, misunderstandings, misguided steps, being lost, getting caught, breaking down in tears, not knowing what to do or to say—oh, sorry, we'll end the pity party. The point is, we can all relate to Mark's portrayal of the disciples. These guys sure know how to mess up.
The disciples follow Jesus throughout the story, listen to all of his oddball teachings, and witness his miraculous acts. Plus, they vow never to leave his side (14:27-29). But in the end they screw up royally. There's just no nicer way to put it.
Every single one of these guys ends up fleeing at Jesus's arrest, and one of them even escapes in the nude when he slips from the grips of a guard by stripping off his cloak (14:50-52). How's that for TMI? Even Peter, the most impressive of the pupils, denies three times that he knows Jesus (14:62-72). And to top it all off, the last appearance of the disciples in the Gospel of Mark is an image of Peter weeping uncontrollably (14:72).
Overall, not so great.
Upon closer inspection, all of these epic fails are only the grand finale to the disciples' wayward behavior throughout the story. In the so-called "parable theory" of 4:10-12, the disciples are supposed to be insiders who are privy to the mystery of God's kingdom as well as privileged recipients of Jesus's private instructions (4:33-34).
But as the story unfolds, it seems like that couldn't be further from the truth. They understand very little of what Jesus is teaching and doing (4:13; 7:17; 8:14-16), and Jesus reprimands them in the very language he uses to describe "outsiders" in 4:12 (6:52; 8:17-21).
Want an example? That's easy.
Think about their response to Jesus when—for the second time—he feeds a large crowd with very little food. (8:1-9). When Jesus announces his intention to provide food, the disciples wonder how on earth he's going to do this. Um…duh. He just did it. How do they not remember that? Well, they didn't understand the first miracle (6:52) and they definitely don't understand the second.
Jesus isn't oblivious to it, either: "'Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?'" (8:17-21). Ouch, Jesus.
Why does Jesus even continue to hang out with these guys?
As much as we love giving them a hard time, the disciples aren't just bumbling idiots. In fact—at least at the beginning—they're pretty sympathetic characters, worthy of imitation.
Here are just a few impressive items on their resume:
• They forsake everything when Jesus summons them to discipleship (1:16-20), which we later find out is a stellar move (10:28-30).
• Jesus selects the twelve for special service (3:13-19) and grants them supernatural powers like his own as they undertake a successful mission (6:7-13, 30).
• Peter at least partially recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah, even if he doesn't fully understand what this means (8:29).
And, of course, we're led to believe that the disciples turn out okay after 16:8. After all, Jesus and the messenger at the empty tomb foresee the disciples' reunion with Jesus in Galilee (14:28; 16:7), and the disciples are recipients of Jesus's apocalyptic prophecies in 13:1-37. Basically, they're going to be kind of a big deal.
The trick to understanding the disciples is coming to terms these conflicting readings. The big question here is: why are ideal readers—and not-so-ideal readers—so quick to both critique and sympathize with the disciples? What effect does this have?
One possible reading: maybe we're supposed to strive to outdo the twelve disciples. That means we want to be like them in some sense, but because we know their faults we can be even better. What do you think? Shmoop among yourselves.