I’ve just finished Donald Juel’s lovely little book, A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted. He argues that Mark’s implied audience(s) are those that have grown complacent and comfortable. This accounts for Mark’s disturbing ending:
The surprise ending of the Gospel is intended for the implied audience. Its impact does not easily fit the image of an implied audience desperate and in need of comfort. The conclusion offers little comfort. The impact of the ending has more to do with expectations of satisfaction and control. Readers have been treated as insiders throughout the story, learning what none of the characters can know. It is not difficult to imagine an ending to the story that would reinforce that experience, providing readers with a sense of closure and satisfaction at the expense of the disciples. Yet the empty tomb and the silent women do not provide such satisfaction for those who have been led to expect such an ending, and the events do not leave resolution of the story in the hands of readers. There is something disquieting about that lack of control—a disquiet that usually drives interpreters to get what they need from the story by means of cunning or violence.
The surprise, the irony, work differently if directed at insiders whose problem is indifference or a tired lack of perception about the way things are. It may serve as a warning, as Paul’s reminders do in the opening chapters of his first letter to the Corinthians. The features of his message that initially moved that Corinthians from darkness to light, identifying the change that came at their conversion, now serve to illumine their Christian piety, which turns out to have much in common with their pagan past.
Viewing the audience as tired or indifferent is appropriate to the present situation of most Christians, weary of waiting, tempted to believe that the master of the house will never return, increasingly comfortable in a world capable of hiding from the truth, unaware of how easily the authority of the gospel is exchanged for ordinary power.
Careful attention to the implied audience in Mark’s story of Jesus may serve to remove barriers to a fruitful hearing of the Gospel for those whose problem is not persecution as much as the inability to be surprised by the God who is both more dangerous and more promising than they can have imagined (pp. 145-46).