This is the twenty-second installment, comprising Act 4. Scene 1, chapter 8: 27-38, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the twenty first installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" 28 And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." 29 He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." (NRSV)
Act 4, Scene 1 is the beginning of the turn of the Gospel from Jesus’ ministry in Galilee to the journey to Jerusalem. Act 4, Scene 1 is also the first of three Scenes known as “Passion Predictions” in which Jesus begins to reveal what seems to be his Identity - "Who do people say that I am?" (8:27) In reality, though, Jesus reveals something far more secretive: his Destiny. It is my contention, and I think quite clear, that Jesus’ identity has been revealed in a variety of ways from the beginning of the Gospel, though whether his identity has been properly grasped is another matter. Jesus has revealed his identity by teaching, healing, and performing exorcisms and miracles. His disciples ought to have accepted and realized by now that he is proclaiming himself the Messiah, through word and deed; the crowds that have gathered around him everywhere he goes are not just hoping for a crust of bread, but for spiritual purpose and physical cures. They obviously have considered what the identity of this man might be. This is not an ordinary man. Yet, Mark has maintained a kind of secrecy motif at various points in the Gospel, except in certain cases with Gentiles when they are told to tell people what this man Jesus has done for them. I think this Passion Prediction Scene, and those similar to it in chapters 9 and 10, begin to unravel the mystery of the secrecy: it is not exactly Jesus’ Identity which has been kept secret; it is his Destiny.
How could Jesus have kept his identity secret? People have been guessing at who Jesus might be - John the Baptist; Elijah; or some other prophet (8:28) – and it is Peter who identifies him correctly as the Messiah (8:29), but the bottom line is that these sorts of guesses, hypotheses, suggestions and discussions amongst the disciples and crowds must have been going on since Jesus called disciples and they actually followed. Messiah must have been broached as an answer amongst the apostles more than once before Peter threw it out there as an answer to Jesus’ question.Why would you follow someone not worthy of following? Why would crowds gather?
Mark has done it again with us, too, his audience, for if we have been following these Acts and Scenes and participating in Jesus’ activities, with even more insight into his words and deeds from the narrator than his apostles have, we too must have considered many of these same possibilities: Prophet; Teacher; Messiah; who or what else could he be? Yet 8:30 seems to continue the pretense: “and he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” We as readers cannot help but wonder, “Isn’t that cat out of the bag, the one about telling people who you are? Have not the feeding miracles to thousands of people, Jews and Gentiles, blown your cover?” This is where the issue of destiny comes into view as the answer to the issue of secrecy.
It is 8:31-32 that starts to put it all together. Jesus reveals that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.” It is not a secret that Jesus is the Messiah, it is the type of destiny which the Messiah must undergo and which Mark only begins to reveal now (though clues have been given to us in 3:1-6 and in 6:29) which is the secret: the Messiah must suffer and die. But why?
This must be the question that ran through Peter's head as he took Jesus aside: Why? What are you talking about? Behave like a Messiah, conquer your enemies, feed the poor, heal the sick, let the oppressed go free! But suffer and die? We need as an audience to regain the stunning sense of reversal experienced in this scene by the first audience. It is in response to Jesus’ claim that he must suffer and die that Peter “took him aside and began to rebuke him” (8:32). While one can only speculate on the nature of Peter’s rebuke, surely it was not a rejection of his own identification of Jesus as the Messiah, but Jesus’ claim that he, the Son of Man, must suffer and die. Peter who has been witness to Jesus’ power and mighty deeds must have berated him: why would you suffer and die when you have glory, power and might? Why would you allow yourself to be rejected when you draw all these people to your side for healing and teaching? Peter must have rejected the destiny which Jesus has laid out for himself.
And why would Peter not reject this destiny for the Messiah? The Messiah conquers the enemies of Israel on God’s behalf; the Messiah is not rejected and killed. The Messiah establishes the kingdom of God; the Messiah is not brought low by earthly kingdoms and the powers that be. What is Jesus talking about? Sympathy must be offered for Peter, for in the Gospel this is the first time such a destiny has been raised by Jesus. How else should Peter respond to his beloved teacher and Messiah? Yet Jesus turns on him and says,
"Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
It is possible to see Peter as the embodiment of Satan for his rejection of Jesus’ Passion Prediction, but I think it is much more likely that Jesus is identifying Satan with his own human temptation to reject the divine path and to come with power, glory and might and not suffering and death to establish God’s kingdom. This is a destiny which Jesus must accept and which he must fulfill. Suffering and death is the divine path, a shocking divine path, and the path of conquering through power, human though it might be, must be awfully tempting.
When Jesus rejects the human path, though, he calls in the rest of the crowd and his disciples to explain the way of the Messiah.
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." (8:34-38)
The way of Jesus is a way of “denial,” a path in which Jesus’ disciples are told to “take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). Many have seen in this line and the verses which follow (8:35-37) a retrojection by Mark of the suffering which Jesus experienced and which then later engulfed the early Church at various points and times in its history after Jesus’ crucifixion – perhaps especially in the persecution of the Roman Christians by Nero – and Mark's knowledge of previous events must be an influence upon these verses. Jesus himself did die on the cross and if this influences Mark’s later description of the “way of suffering” for Jesus’ followers, this, too, would make sense. Still, one must also acknowledge that even prior to Jesus’ own crucifixion, Jews would have known of the reality of crucifixion because these were public spectacles and often involved numerous people hanging in public squares or along a roadside. One of the purposes of crucifixion was its public nature for warning people of the might and power of Rome. For Jesus to use the image of the “carrying the cross” as a way of suffering even prior to his own crucifixion would not be odd. Nor can we rule out his own anticipation of his own death, in light of his knowledge of the prophets in general and John the Baptist in particular; and this is all without considering his own prophetic knowledge.
As an audience, it is clear, a distinct turn has come in this drama. If we place ourselves as first time auditors or viewers of this narrative, as we should, Peter’s response makes the most sense. Whether Jesus’ reference to the cross is comprehensible, it is not necessarily sensible yet. And it is shocking to hear that one should lose their life for Jesus and the gospel in order to gain their life. What does this mean? It is not clear, nor, do I think Mark expects that it should be clear at this point. He is simply introducing the drama to come and asking that we continue to follow as disciples.
In that vein, Mark also uses for the second time in Act 4, Scene 1, the phrase “Son of Man" (8:38), a title associated with the eschaton ("the end") and the coming of the kingdom of God in some Jewish texts (Daniel; 1 Enoch) and in this context the customary messianic character of Jesus’ mission, even in light of his suffering, is brought out with this passage. Jesus might be a Messiah who suffers, but he adheres to some elements of “traditional” Jewish speculation of the Messiah: the Son of Man will come in “the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (8:38). Another hint from Mark: it is not just that the Messiah’s destiny is suffering; glory is coming, but it is glory delayed. Can you pass through suffering and death to come to glory?
John W. Martens
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