Cross Purposes: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Lent 2
1) In one of his classic teachings, the Buddha tells his disciples that understanding his instruction is like picking up a poisonous snake in the wild; it’s all too easy to get bitten. In fact, he says, it’s entirely possible to misinterpret his teaching to mean the opposite of what he actually intends - not 10 degrees to the left, or 20 degrees to the right, but 180 degrees off-target, the reverse of what he means. If you pick up a snake in the middle of its body, the Buddha continues, it can easily turn and bite - but if you get a forked stick and pin the snake behind its head, and then pick up the snake just behind its jaws, you’ll be safe and sound. So it is with understanding my teaching, says the Buddha. It’s not simply a matter of hearing the teaching, or being able to recite it - it’s about holding it in the right way. To shift the metaphor: a scalpel can be used to save life or to end it. Ideas - and important ideas most of all - are dangerous, and can do significant damage if they aren’t handled with skill and care.
2) This week in Mark, we come face to face with arguably the most difficult, challenging, and dangerous of Jesus’ teachings: the idea that Jesus must suffer, die, and rise again, and that anyone who seeks to be his disciple must “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). The disciples are perplexed, Peter is offended, and Jesus takes them to task for misunderstanding him - and so we should be cautious about whether or not we understand him, either. There are snakes slithering in the grass here, and if the disciples are any indication, mistaken conclusions abound. In Mark, this is the first of three cycles in which (a) Jesus predicts his passion, (b) the disciples misunderstand, and (c) Jesus responds with a discourse on the true nature of discipleship (see Mark 9:31-50 and 10:33-45 for the other two cycles).
3) This difficult teaching is immediately followed by the Transfiguration, which can be read as a kind of radiant reassurance for the bewildered disciples. And it’s immediately preceded by the story of Jesus and Peter discussing who Jesus really is - and as we’ll see below, that exchange is so connected with today’s passage that we recommend including it in the reading this week (that is, beginning at 8:27 instead of 8:31).
4) Since the Season of Lent leads to the cross and the empty tomb, this passage orients us to the road ahead. As we follow the lectionary, we’ll read selections from John’s Gospel over the next three weeks, returning to Mark on Palm Sunday.
5) This week's passage from Genesis narrates God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah. Last week we heard the story of God’s covenant with all living creatures in the story of Noah; here God covenants with those who will become the people of Israel, the particular group through whom “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). A universal covenant is followed by a particular one, though still for the sake of the whole. Both covenants are called “everlasting” and in that sense are not subject to human failing or forfeiture: God establishes these covenants and promises they will never end. A powerful way of thinking about all this is that it’s not so much that God makes separate covenants here and there, but rather that God’s covenantal relationship with creation unfolds in salvation history, like a single flower blooming over time, with later covenants (in Moses’ day, in Jesus’ day, as prophesied by Jeremiah, and so on) helping to reveal the depth and beauty of what was there all along.
1) Beginning with verse 27: Answering Jesus’ famous question, “Who do you say that I am?”, Peter declares, “You are the Messiah” (literally “the Anointed” or “Christ”) - which is the very word Mark uses to open his Gospel (Mark 1:1). And so it would appear that Peter - for once - gets it right! But alas, not so fast. As if sensing that Peter might have something quite different in mind, Jesus describes the true nature of messiahship - and Peter, confounded and anxious, takes him aside and rebukes him. In first-century Palestine, a prevailing view was that the Messiah would come and lead a military triumph, routing the Roman occupiers and restoring the Davidic monarchy, and Peter may well have been thinking along similar lines. At any rate, he has no stomach for the notion that the Messiah would be disgraced by suffering and death. But Jesus understands messiahship in terms similar to those outlined in Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant,” a mysterious figure who will deliver God’s people not with swords and chariots, but rather through his own affliction and suffering on behalf of others, through “pouring himself out unto death” (Isaiah 53:12) - and ultimately through his eventual exaltation (compare the resonant themes in Philippians 2:6-11). Evocative and enigmatic, these ideas have been debated for centuries, by Jews and Christians alike.
2) Jesus draws the strongest possible contrast between Peter’s ideas of messiahship and his own, identifying the former with Satan’s temptation and a stark opposition to “divine things.” As if his frustration with his disciples drives him to issue a public announcement of his mission, he calls “the crowd with his disciples” to gather around and listen: anyone who wants to follow him, he declares, will have to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” A deep physics is at work here, with the very act of seeking to save one’s life causing the seeker to lose it, while the one who seeks to give up one’s life “for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it.” In the overall flow of the narrative, the implication here is that for Jesus, Peter’s view of messiahship amounts to a form of self-centered grasping, whereas Jesus has come for the 180-degree-opposite reason: to live for God and neighbor in love, and in that sense to be other-centered, not self-centered; to give, not grasp.
3) Perhaps the most accessible and familiar expression of this "deep physics" is the end of the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis (he didn’t write it, but much of it is in keeping with his spirit): “let me not seek so much / to be consoled as to console, / to be understood as to understand, / to be loved as to love, / for it is in giving that we receive, / it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, / and it is in dying that we are raised to eternal life.”
4) It’s worth noting that Jesus does not say, “Seek out a cross and then follow me,” but rather “take up your cross and follow me.” This is no invitation to court, intensify, or prolong suffering (after all, to do so would violate what Mark calls the “first commandment,” to love God and love your neighbor as yourself - which obviously involves loving and respecting yourself!). Rather, the assumptions here are (a) that you already have suffering in your life, and (b) that following Jesus will entail some suffering. The invitation, then, is not to seek out but rather to “take up” that suffering, to seize the role of active protagonist in the drama, not the role of a vanquished victim; and then to follow Jesus along the way that leads to health, liberation, restoration, and new life.
5) The story of God’s covenant with Abraham is both miraculous (given Abram and Sarai’s old age) and delightful (Abram cannot help but laugh at the news of a new baby, as does Sarah in the next chapter; “Isaac” means “he laughed”). But perhaps what’s most distinctive about this passage is the way the covenant is marked by substantive, tangible signs, both physically and socially. Circumcision is one such sign, of course (circumcision was not uncommon in the ancient world, though typically administered at the onset of puberty; the shift to infancy indicates that in the ancient Hebrew imagination, God’s covenant covered the whole span of life). But another covenantal sign here is receiving a new name: God renames Abram as “Abraham,” evoking the Hebrew words for “father” (‘ab) and “multitude” (hamon), thus signalling his new identity as “father of a multitude.” And likewise, Sarah’s new name calls attention to its meaning as well (“princess”), anticipating the royalty who will number among her descendents (Genesis 17:6). The deep poetry here is that participation in God’s covenant involves substantive, tangible signs of commitment and community.
1) These are challenging, enigmatic, generative ideas. They’re meant to be wrestled with for a lifetime; they don’t reduce to a single formula or slogan. For millennia, Christians have been debating how best to understand the cross and the empty tomb, and no ecumenical church council has ever been called to settle the question. This openness itself is instructive! We are dealing here with great mysteries, and multiple ways of understanding them are both possible and welcome. Why are the cross and the empty tomb - Good Friday and Easter Sunday - at the heart of Christian faith? Is it because Jesus thereby shows us love and mercy even unto death? Is it because Jesus, by rising from the dead, defeats death-dealing forces once and for all? Is it because Jesus, by “becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13), cancels all debts and so sets us free? Is it because Jesus subversively transforms some of the worst things in the world (the Roman cross and betrayal among friends) into some of the best things in the world (the Tree of Life and forgiveness among enemies) - thus effectively proclaiming that God will redeem everything in the end? Is it because the cross declares God’s compassionate solidarity with all those who suffer? Is it because, to borrow a phrase from Mary Oliver, this story will break our hearts open, never to close again to the rest of the world? Is it all of these things and more?
2) That said, there are plenty of snakes in the grass here, plenty of ways to get bitten. One is to understand messiahship in terms of military conquest and self-centered gain. Another is the myth of redemptive violence, the idea that suffering itself can save. Yet another is the notion that we are called to pursue suffering, the better to participate in Jesus’ passion. All three of these ideas are diametrically opposed to the Gospel, and should be called out as such. True messiahship is about compassion, not conquest. Suffering doesn’t save; rather, God saves, and one of the things God saves us from is our violent ways, including our destructive ideas about the redemptive powers of violence itself. Likewise, Jesus doesn’t call us to pursue or prolong suffering; rather, he calls us to end or alleviate suffering whenever possible, and when suffering can’t be avoided, to “take it up” and follow Jesus, healer and liberator, into God’s dawning new world where "mourning and crying and pain will be no more" (Revelation 21:4; Isaiah 25:8).
3) Remember, Jesus puts forward this difficult teaching in direct counterpoint to the conventional view of the Messiah as a military conqueror. In effect, “take up your cross” is meant as a contrast to “vanquish your enemies,” whether those enemies are military, personal, or otherwise; “deny yourself” is meant as a contrast to “seize power for yourself - reclaim the throne!” In other words, Jesus discerns at the heart of the conventional view of messiahship a self-centered attempt to seize advantage over others - and he will have none of it. In Mark, Jesus’ path is a way of humility, healing, and liberation, not grasping, dominance, and destruction. Following Jesus is nonetheless challenging, of course; in some ways it is only more so. Letting go of illusions and opening up to new life is always challenging. Unfurling our self-centered lives into lives of love, and thereby recovering our true selves as the loving creatures we are made to be, is always challenging. Giving instead of grasping, generosity instead of vengeance, is always challenging. In short, living in covenant with God pushes us to grow. And so accordingly, as we follow Jesus this Lent and always, we may well feel growing pains in our bodies and relationships - and in the end, we may be changed by the covenantal struggle. We may receive a new identity, or even a new name. With Abraham and Sarah, we may catch ourselves laughing in disbelief and delight at the wonders God has done.