The Naked ManSeptember 11th, 2013 by Oleg Kostyuk
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
Recently, we received a question from a viewer regarding the passage above. Baffled as to its meaning, she asked why it was included in Mark’s Gospel, saying “I do not understand it’s purpose.” If you have a similar reaction to this passage, I don’t blame you; it is truly one of the most mysterious passages in all the Gospels. It seems so random and out of place. To add to the confusion, Mark provides no clue as to the identity of the young man. Tradition has assigned him all kinds of different identities: as John son of Zebedee, as John Mark (who in turn has been identified as the author of the Gospel of Mark), as James the brother of Jesus, and so on. However, these are only speculations on the identity of this “certain young man” who followed Jesus. This passage in Mark is the only reference to this incident in the entire Bible.
So why on Earth would Mark include this detail in his Gospel? Thankfully, the answer to this question is easier to determine than the identity of the young man. One thing we must understand first is that the Gospels are a very special and unique genre of literature. In the Gospels, history meets with theology; just as Earth meets with heaven in Jesus. The Gospel writers were presenting a history, but they were doing so to make a theological point. That means that they would not include a historical detail if it did not advance the theology that they were presenting.
So, what theological point is Mark presenting when he writes about a young fellow who ran away naked? There’s a key detail we need to notice in order to find the answer: Mark 14:51 says that this young man wore “a linen cloth thrown around his naked body.” This is significant because linen was an expensive material that only the wealthy could afford. In addition to that, the detail that the “young man” lacked an undergarment – that he was essentially naked underneath his linen garment – suggests that he dressed hastily to follow Jesus. In this young man, we see someone who had material wealth and was eager to follow Jesus when things were going well; he was so eager, in fact, that he did not have enough time to put his undergarment on when Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem. But the moment trouble arrived – when the arresting party approached – the followers of Jesus fell into panic and disorder. One swiped at the high priest’s servant with his sword, all of them fled, and this young man narrowly escaped, fleeing naked in utter disgrace. All of this underscores the stunning accuracy of Jesus’ prediction that they would all fall away (Mark 14:27). In stark contrast to his disciples’ failure of nerve, Jesus stands his ground, ready to drink the cup.
So what we see in the strange story of this naked young man is actually something quite remarkable. Just as Adam and Eve fled from God after they sinned in the Garden of Eden, this young man runs away from the Son of God in the Garden of Gethsemane.
How often do we find ourselves in this situation? It’s easy to follow Jesus when things are going well for us and when it’s popular to do so. But if we run away from Jesus when trouble comes, we find that we are naked, in disgrace.
The Gospels are the central part of Scripture and belong to a genre all their own. As we see in the example of Mark 14, they present historical details, but always with the intention of presenting a theological point. By including this peculiar incident, Mark is encouraging all of us to be bold to the end, even when we see “the arresting party approaching.” Because, in the end, it’s always so much better to stand with Jesus than to run away naked and alone.