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Note: Mark 8:31-38 was the assigned text for Lent 2 B
The text just before our lesson is the "Healing of the Blind Man" (8:22-26). It is the only miracle story in Mark with no parallels in the other gospels. (It is not an assigned text in the lectionary.) It is also unique in that Jesus' first touch didn't completely heal the man's blindness.
I've written before that I think the father's cry, "I believe. Help my unbelief," (9:24) illustrates the key theme of the gospel of Mark. The same message is illustrated in this healing miracle, where after the first touch, the blind man could have said, "I now see. Help me see clearly!" This miracle story suggests three groups of people: (1) the uncured blind, (2) those who have received a touch from Jesus and see partially, and (3) those who have received the second touch and can see clearly.
It seems to me that most of the characters in Mark are either from category 1 or 2 -- totally or partially blind to Jesus. The person in Mark who sees most clearly is the Centurion who sees Jesus die and says, "Truly this man was God's Son!" (15:39) and Blind Bartimaeus, who have given sight by Jesus, he is able to "to follow Jesus on the way." (Mark 10:52 -- this is part of the lesson assigned for October 29.)
Being "on the way" [en tei hodoi] is a theme throughout Mark, especially in this section. Hodos can simply refer to a road or path, or it can refer to a way of life. Jesus is "on the way" (8:27) when he asks his question. The phrase appears again in 9:33-34. There the disciples indicate that they don't understand the way of Jesus.
Jesus is on his way again in 10:17 when the rich man asks his question; and again when he gives the third passion prediction (10:32).
Perhaps most significant about hodos is the fact that Blind Bartimaeus is on the "side of the way" in 10:46, but after the miracle, he is able to follow Jesus "on the way".
Hodos = "Way" became a title of early Christians (Acts 18:25, 26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).
This healing is followed by Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah (8:27-30), but Peter's rebuke of Jesus in 8:32 indicates that he is "seeing" as a category 2 person -- only partially.
The question Peter answers right is, "Who is Jesus?" (8:27-30)
The question Peter can't quite comprehend is, "What must Jesus do?" (8:31-33), which also leads to an inability to properly answer, "What are we to do?" (8:34-38). Peter's idea of a Messiah who suffers and dies is about the same as seeing trees walking -- it just doesn't any sense to him.
This questioning takes place in the villages of Caesarea Philippi. According to Harper's Bible Dictionary, this city was known in antiquity as a shrine of the Greek and Roman nature god, Pan. The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible adds: "This natural place of worship had probably been dedicated to various Semitic deities and was possibly the location of Baal-gad or Baal-hermon of the OT (Josh 11:17 ff; Judg. 3:3; 1 Chr. 5:23)."
The questioning about Jesus takes place not in the synagogue (or a church), but out in the world, precisely in a place dedicated to a pagan god, with a name honoring the human Caesar (who was often presented as divine).
Where does our real confession take place? Certainly our confessions and statements about our faith in church are real -- but, I think that it goes to a different level when we proclaim our faith in Jesus in the midst of all the other forces seeking our allegiance. Perhaps many of us can easily confess, "I believe," when in church and surrounded by other believers and symbols of our faith. However, many of us also pray, "Help my unbelief" when we are out in the world, surrounded by other beliefs and symbols of other gods -- perhaps under the euphemism, "advertisements".
Lately, I've been quoting from Behind the Stained Glass Windows, by John & Sylvia Ronsvalle. Here comes another one. They quote the authors of a large stewardship study (3450 lay people and pastors) by the National Council of Churches of Christ, who conclude: "As people see it, the main thing blocking church support simply is a surpassing urge for more affluent living.... Rival attractions seem to be gaining more of the religious dollar" [p. 35, quoting Dean R. Hoge and David A. Roozen, "Some Sociological Conclusions about Church Trends," in Understanding Church Growth and Decline, 324-25]
Help us believe in giving and self-sacrifice when surrounded by gods of affluence and temptations to greed.
One may know of Jesus, and yet not know who he is. The answer that the disciples give from the "people" are the same that we've seen earlier. People can simply repeat what others are saying about Jesus.
...for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." (6:14b-16)
One may see Jesus' miracles and hear his teaching and still come to the wrong conclusion about who he is and the source of his power.
Peter states that Jesus is the Christ. This is the second time "Christ" has been used in Mark. The first occurrence was in 1:1 when we, the readers, were told that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Other uses of christos in Mark are:
9:41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
12:35 While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, "How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David?
13:21-22 And if anyone says to you at that time, 'Look! Here is the Messiah!" or 'Look! There he is!' do not believe it. False messiahs [pseudochristos] and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.
14:61-62 But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?" Jesus said, "I am; and 'you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,' and 'coming with the clouds of heaven.'"
15:32 Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe." Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
13:21 has often been used as a text to give the situation of Mark's readers: There were false messiahs and prophets running around in the first century. If so, what distinguished Jesus as being the true Messiah? It wasn't the miracles, because the false messiahs and prophets were producing signs and omens.
James Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) in an excursus on "Christ," states:
The most common conception of the Messiah in pre-Christian texts is as an eschatological king. Otherwise, the messianic hope remained fairly general. Through the Messiah God would establish and protect an everlasting kingdom over all the earth. The Messiah would be the perfect king chosen by God from eternity, through whom God would first deliver Israel from its enemies and then cause Israel to live in peace and tranquility thereafter (Sib. Or. 3:286-94). It may also be noted that neither the Servant of Yahweh nor Son of Man concept in the OT is associated with messianic connotations. (p. 250)
The expectation of the (unbelieving? or all?) people was that the Messiah would save his life and come down from the cross. That is not the way of Jesus the true Messiah.
Marva Dawn in Reaching Out without Dumbing Down suggests the possibility of different christs today when she writes:
...at the 1987 Vancouver World's Fair, the Christian pavilion's presentation utilized glitzy double-reversed photography and flashing lasers. When I tried to explain my qualms about the production to an attendant who had asked me how I liked their "show," she protested that it had saved many people. I asked, "Saved by what kind of Christ?" If people are saved by a spectacular Christ, will they find him in the fumbling of their own devotional life or in the humble services of local parishes where pastors and organists make mistakes? Will a glitzy portrayal of Christ nurture in new believers his character of willing suffering and sacrificial obedience? Will it create an awareness of the idolatries of our age and lead to repentance? And does a flashy, hard-rock sound track bring people to a Christ who calls us away from the world's superficiality to deeper reflection and meditation? [p. 50]
The fact that Peter will later rebuke Jesus for what Jesus says will happen to him indicates that Peter's confession that Jesus is the Christ was flawed. He was "seeing" only partially.
In verse 31, Jesus begins to teach them. Hadn't he been teaching them all along? This verse marks a new beginning. Prior to this the emphasis has been on Jesus' authority and power. He casts out demons, heals diseases, commands the waves, etc. Now the emphasis will be on his suffering and death. Jesus' teaching also functions as a renewed call to follow.
There are four parts to what Jesus must do:
suffer many things
be rejected (after testing) by the religious leaders
after three days rise
An aspect of this which I have preached is that the greatest threat to Christianity is not evil, but the good. The elders, chief priests, and scribes were all very good people -- and very good people often have no need for Jesus.
They were seeking to do something good by removing this trouble-maker from society. He was upsetting the religious establishment. He might upset the civil authorities (the Romans). Wouldn't it be better for all people if Jesus disappeared?
Often when I have talked with strangers and they discover that I'm a minister, a common line I hear is: "I know I should go to church more, but I try to keep the Ten Commandments." Why don't they go to church? They think that they are living pretty good lives all by themselves. They don't feel the need to receive God's grace that's given in the word and sacraments.
It is not humanity at its worst that will crucify the Son of God but humanity at its absolute best. The death of Jesus will not be the result of a momentary lapse or aberration of human nature, but rather the result of careful deliberations from respected religious leaders who will justify their actions by the highest standards of law and morality, even believing them to render serve to God (John 16:2). Jesus will not be lynched by an enraged mob or beaten to death in a criminal act. He will be arrested with official warrants, and tried and executed by the world's envy of jurisprudence -- the Jewish Sanhedrin and the principia iuris Romanorum. (p. 254)
It is those who think that they are good and that they are doing the good and right thing and follow the good procedures who put Jesus to death.
V. 32a is found only in Mark: "and he was speaking the word plainly." When Peter takes Jesus aside and "rebukes" him, it is not because Peter misunderstands Jesus' words -- but because he does understand them, and he doesn't like them. The messiah dying makes as much sense as trees walking. Robert Capon suggests that our kind of Messiah wouldn't do a stupid thing like rising from the dead, but a smart thing like never dying.
To repeat a quote from Mark Twain: "Many people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand."
There's a whole lot of "rebuking" (epitimao) going on. This verb is used most often of Jesus commanding evil forces: evil spirits (1:25, 3:12; 9:25) and the wind (4:39). Jesus "orders" his disciples not to tell anyone about him (8:30) and he "rebukes" Peter (8:33). (The phrase, "seeing his disciples -- note the plural -- he rebuked" is found only in Mark. Neither Matthew nor Luke have Jesus "rebuking" Peter -- and by extension the other disciples?)
Every time someone besides Jesus "rebukes," they are proven to be wrong. Peter rebukes Jesus (8:32). The disciples rebuke those who were bringing little children to Jesus (10:13). The crowd rebukes the noisy blind man (10:48). This verb seems to carry an idea of exerting power over -- something Jesus can do with evil forces and what he tries to do with his disciples. It is not something anyone should do with Jesus or with the beggars or children.
Why does Peter become Satan? He has not "set his mind" (phroneo) on the things of God, but on human things. This verb has an emphasis on the underlying disposition or attitude. Jesus' harsh critique of Peter involves more than just the few words spoken on this occasion. Even after the clear words from Jesus, Peter still hasn't got the proper picture. He needs an "attitude adjustment". He is seeing with "human eyes" rather than through the will and eyes of God. He tells Jesus what is and what is not going to happen -- typical of first born children? He wants to be a leader, not a follower. Are we ever guilty of having such attitudes?
Time could be spent brainstorming about the differences between our culture's (or the human) underlying disposition about life and God's. How much of our natural thinking or attitudes and criteria for success can turn us into tempters to steer the divine mission and ministry of God and the church in the wrong direction? We might consider all the contrasts in the second half of our text to be centered on the distinction between God-thinking and human-thinking -- "success" in God's eyes vs. "success" in our eyes -- the way of Jesus vs. our own way.
Peter, like the blind man story I started with, sees; but he sees only a cloudy picture. He needs a second touch from Jesus. That is promised by the word at the empty tomb, "Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you" [Mark 16:7].
These words are addressed to a crowd along with the disciples. R. T. France (The Gospel of Mark) notes: "It is not only Jesus' destiny that they must begin to see in a new light, but their own" (p. 333).
"If anyone wishes/wants (thelo) . . ." (vv. 34, 35) indicates that it is a matter of the will -- perhaps related to the "inner disposition or attitude" indicated in v. 33 by phreneo.
There are three parts to wishing to follow behind Jesus:
take up one's cross
These are followed by five other sayings:
Saving one's life (8:35)
What's the benefit (8:36)
Life's Price (8:37)
Son of Man ashamed (8:38)
Some standing here (9:1)
"behind me" (opiso mou) -- I would suggest that this phrase, besides its usual reference to a physical position, might also indicate status. Jesus has to come first. Jesus is the leader. Peter when he rebuked Jesus, was putting himself first; so Jesus tells him, "Get behind me!" Perhaps a motto for Christians should be, "We're number two." Someone suggested that if God is your co-pilot, you need to change places.
At a recent clergy meeting, one of them commented that it is not really the American way to be followers. We are taught to be leaders. What parent wants their children to grow up to be good followers? We want strong leaders. We want to be number 1, not number 2, or further down the list.
What does it mean to deny oneself -- to say "No" to oneself? Some of us may be able to deny ourselves certain foods for a time -- so that we might look and feel better; but we aren't really denying ourselves. We are still dieting for the good of self. Can we deny our thoughts of getting good things for ourselves? or of evil for our "enemies? Can we stop our lusting after people and things? or feelings of revenge towards those who have wronged us? I'm afraid that most of us would be like Peter. Rather than denying ourselves; we would deny Jesus (the same word is used in 8:34; 14:30, 31, 72).
Denying one's self is concerned with the will -- that one's own will should not be the controlling factor in one's life.
Perhaps related to this concept is the idea of sacrifice. Although sacrifice usually means denying things rather than denying self, part of my dictionary's definition of this word is: "forgoing something valued for the sake of something having a more pressing claim." Sacrifice implies determining what things are of utmost value -- that take precedence over all the other valuable things in one's life. Should we ask, "What things of value have we given up for the sake of following Christ?" "What important things have we denied ourselves because we are Christians?"
A cross was an instrument of torture that eventually lead to a painful death. It was also a sign of ridicule as the criminal was forced to carry it through the town while people would laugh and hurl insults at the condemned man.
Williamson (Mark, Interpretation Commentary) writes: "The cross Jesus invites his hearers to take up refers not to the burdens life imposes from without but rather to painful, redemptive action voluntarily undertaken for others" [p. 154].
Lowe and Nida in their Semantic Lexicon give this idiomatic meaning for the phrase, "take up one's cross" = "to be prepared to endure severe suffering, even to the point of death." It is likely that in its original context, this saying of Jesus was a call for the disciples to be ready to die for the sake of Jesus and the gospel.
However, since the basic meaning of airo is to "pick up and carry," I am more inclined to see the "taking up of one's cross" to be a picture of the criminal (or an unlucky bystander, see 15:21) carrying the cross through the city, rather than the actual crucifixion. As I understand it, the act of carrying the cross was a public display of guilt which resulted in ridicule and scorn from the people. With this understanding, the phrase might be paraphrased: "be willing to publicly display your faith and suffer the consequences that such a display might evoke."
Often, our reluctance to publicly display our faith is the fear of what others might think or do to me. Rather than denying self, we seek to protect it.
psyche is a word the ancient Greeks created to describe the difference between a dead body and a living body. It is whatever it is that gives life to a body: "breath," "spirit," "self," "personality," "soul," "life-force," etc. We might say that the psyche is what makes me, me.
Today, I would be inclined to use the word "self" for psyche in its four occurrences in vv. 35-37. How often in relationships do people really give their "selves," or do they hold back, protecting or saving their "selves"? A book from ages ago by John Powell, S.J. had the title: Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? The answer given in the book: "I am afraid to tell you who I am, because, if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it's all that I have." So, rather than risk being hurt, we don't tell others who we am. Trying to protect and save self from pain, we lose self. We pretend. We are hypocrites. We become non-selves in our relationship with other people. In contrast to this, a few books I've read recently on family systems theory stress that "a self is more attractive than a non-self." A relationship between two pretend people isn't much of a relationship -- but both selves are somewhat protected from getting deeply hurt.
Note that in v. 35, the issue is not trying to save one's self/life; but wishing to save it. This leads back to phroneo in v. 33 -- one's inner disposition or attitude -- is it centered on self or on God?
What happens when one's wishing to be a Christian is no more than another attempt to save one's self/life? Are there wrong ways to being a Christian? Could one desire the benefits of the Christian faith without hearing Jesus' teaching to deny self and carry one's cross?
Replacing "life" with "self" in v. 36 leads to this translation: "For what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and to loose one's self." What profit is it to stay in a marriage, where one's self is lost? What profit is it to succeed in business if one's one convictions are compromised? What profit is it to build the biggest church or to stay in a congregation, if one's beliefs are set aside?
An argument I've heard recently in favor of tradition in liturgy is that a church that forgets its past is like a person with amnesia or Alzheimer -- they don't know who they are. They've lost their selves. Who am I? Who are we? What about me am I not willing to give up to gain the world? What about us are we unwilling to compromise for success?
This change in 37: "What will a person give in exchange for one's self?" Easily leads to the question, "What is a self worth?" One answer is, "The death of God's son." Each of us is that valuable and important to God.
Verse 38 relates to the believers' relationship to the adulterous and sinful world and to Jesus and his word. Are we ashamed of being Christians in our lives in the world? Are we embarrassed to let others know about our beliefs? Are we again looking out for "self" rather than being disposed towards God and God's will?
At a church I served, there was a picture gallery with photographs of many of our members. I don't know how many times at a wedding or some other function in the building that someone has looked at the pictures and stated, "I didn't know they went to this church." Why didn't they know? Now that they know, is that good or bad?
Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Bible) gives this summary of the parallel passage:
The Christian life called for is not a reflection of, let alone the baptism and blessing of, the egocentric culture, but its polar opposite. Self-denial is not part of our culture's image of the 'good life.' But neither is the Matthean Jesus' call for denying oneself to be understood as asceticism or as self-hate. Just as Jesus' call to discipleship is not a joining in the cultural infatuation with self-esteem, neither is it the opposite. Nor is the self-denial to which Jesus calls the opposite of self-fulfillment. Just giving up things will not make one Christian; it will only make one empty. What is difficult for our culture to understand, indeed what it cannot understand on its own terms, is an orientation to one's life that is not focused on self at all, either as self-esteem or self-abasement, as self-fulfillment or self-emptying." [p. 352]
I think that Mark with the inclusion of v. 38 (not found in Matthew) stresses more than Matthew that the Christian life goes beyond just one's relationship with self and God; but also with the world.
Williamson (Mark) offers these two quotes from Bonhoeffer:
When Jesus calls a man [sic], he bids him come and die.
(The Cost of Discipleship, part one, chap. 2)
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
(Letters and Papers from Prison, chap. 6).
Where is the gospel in this text? One answer is to remember that before the section about "what we are to do" is Jesus' clear announcement about "what he must do." Our actions need to be seen as a response to what Jesus has done.
Another answer may drive us back to the miracle that I suggested begins this section. Perhaps even after hearing and believing what Jesus has done and what we are to do; at best we can only confess, "It's as clear as mud." We have been touched by Jesus so that we have been cured of our blindness, but we are waiting for the final healing touch so that we might see clearly -- the now and not yet aspect of our faith. We see, but we are waiting to see clearly. We believe, but we need help with our unbelief. We follow Jesus, but our attitudes are often still centered on self and human things. On one hand, the hammer of God pounces again to drive us to our knees before the saving grace of Christ. On the other hand, admitting that I believe, but I don't really understand it all, is OK. That was true of the disciples. We have been touched by Jesus and we are waiting for Jesus to finish his work in our lives.
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