Crossroads: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Seventeenth Week after Pentecost

 
Progressive Lectionary Commentary

Seventeenth Week after Pentecost (Year B): Mark 8:27-38

Big Picture:

1) This is the third of twelve weeks walking chronologically through the Gospel of Mark.  Mark 8, 9, and 10 each feature a distinct pattern: a) Jesus predicts his suffering and resurrection; b) the disciples misinterpret and clumsily respond; and then c) Jesus offers a teaching on what it really means to be his disciple.  This week’s reading is the first time through this cycle, and next week’s reading (from Mark 9) is the second. Mark’s larger point is that what Jesus has to say here - both about messiahship and about discipleship - is simultaneously crucial and difficult.  It’s at the very heart of following Jesus, and at the same time it’s challenging, elusive, hard to accept, and easy to misunderstand.

2) Both narratively and geographically, this passage stands at a crossroads.  It’s right in the middle of Mark, almost exactly halfway through the story.  Up until now, most of the action has been Jesus’ work of creative resistance against death-dealing forces: he heals, he feeds, he casts out demons, and so on.  But now everything pivots. For the first time, Jesus predicts his passion - and from here on out, the primary story Mark is telling is the story of the road to the cross.  This week’s passage takes place on the way to “the villages of Caesarea Philippi,” and the action next moves to Capernaum, to Judea, to Jericho, and finally to Jerusalem - a more or less direct route from Galilee to Golgotha.

3) The Buddha is said to have remarked to his disciples that understanding his instruction is a dangerous business.  Picking up one of his teachings, he said, is like picking up a poisonous snake in the wild; it’s all too easy to get bitten.  Even well-meaning disciples can take hold of his words unwisely, drawing conclusions that aren’t just a few degrees off to the left, or a few degrees off to the right, but 180 degrees off the mark, the opposite of what the teacher has in mind.  Imagine an archer aiming an arrow at a bullseye (the right bow, the right arrow, the right target) - but he’s holding the bow exactly backwards, aimed at himself!  Much of the world’s wisdom is dangerous in just this way, and Jesus’ teachings about the cross are no exception. Like a surgeon’s scalpel, they can be used to heal, or to wound.  Here in the middle of Mark, as we turn toward the cross, we are stepping onto a sacred, treacherous path - and so we’re wise to stay alert to the dangers ahead.

Scripture:

1) The action in Mark thus far has focused primarily on Jesus’ dynamic confrontation with death-dealing forces. He heals, feeds, and casts out “unclean spirits” - all to the amazement of the crowds, who clamor for his restorative, liberating touch, even as they speculate about who he may or may not be.  “Who then is this?” his own disciples ask each other, a fitting icon for the reaction of just about everyone who meets him (Mark 4:41).  But the readers of (or listeners to) Mark have an advantage the disciples and crowds do not, for right from the outset, Mark announces exactly who Jesus is: “the Son of God,” God’s “Beloved” (Mark 1:1; 1:11).  The fact that Mark’s audience knows more about Jesus’ identity than the disciples and crowds do creates an ironic, dramatic tension in the story: Will they realize who he is?  In this passage from Mark 8, Jesus calls the question.  Who do they - and who do you - say that I am?

2) Precisely where Jesus does this makes a difference.  First, narratively, we’re at the midway point of Mark’s Gospel, pivoting toward the cross.  And second, geographically, we’re walking with Jesus on the way to “the villages of Caesarea Philippi” (Mark 8:27).  Note the name: Caesar-ea. These Roman settlements were near a temple built by Herod the Great, dedicated to Rome and the Emperor Augustus, the first Emperor of the Roman Empire - and a man, please note, who added to his title the phrase Divi Filius, “Son of the Divine.”

3) Against this imperial and theological backdrop, Jesus asks: Who do people - and who do you, disciples - say that I am?  The speculation among the crowds echoes King Herod’s: perhaps Jesus is John the Baptizer returned from the dead; or Elijah, heralding the end of the age; or one of the other venerable prophets of old (Mark 6:14-16).  But what do you say?  Peter’s answer seems to get it right: “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). “Messiah” literally means “the anointed one,” the promised deliverer, ordained and commissioned by God to save God’s people.  Remember, they’re walking toward Caesarea Philippi as they talk, toward the temple dedicated to Augustus, Divi Filius, and the imperial oppressors under whom the Jewish people have suffered for so long.  The contrast is vivid: Against Caesar, you are our promised Messiah!  As we walk now toward that profane, repugnant temple - we march as conquerors!

4) And sure enough, Peter is partly right - and mostly wrong.  Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Deliverer, but he comes not on a warhorse but rather (as we’ll see in Jerusalem) on a donkey.  He comes not to dominate but to liberate; not to destroy but to heal and restore. “The Anointed” was an ancient title often given to a monarch - and Jesus is indeed a king, but not in the style of Caesar.  On the contrary, he opposes the self-centered, grasping forms of power epitomized by Augustus. But his opposition isn’t armed with a sword; he has in mind a deeper, more subversive form of resistance. After all, the opposite of a grasping, domineering fist isn’t a bigger fist, but rather an open, loving hand.  Jesus will lead a revolution - but a revolution of love, service, and justice. On the surface, he will suffer and be rejected, and at last submit to the ultimate imperial instrument of cruelty and intimidation, the Roman cross - but he will thereby overturn all cruelty and intimidation, all violence and hate, all desecration and lack of compassion once and for all.  For after three days, he will rise again (Mark 8:31) - and a community of love, service, and justice will be born.

5) The disciples are stunned; this isn’t what they signed up for.  True to form, Peter impulsively takes Jesus aside and rebukes him (Teacher, we’ve seen what you can do - you are here to conquer, not to be dishonored and killed!), and Jesus exclaims, “Get behind me, Satan!” It’s a candid admission that Peter’s argument is a powerful temptation, reminiscent of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness.  If you are the Son of God, if you are the Messiah, take these dazzling powers of yours and raise up an army, legions of angels to deliver the faithful!  Invade and destroy the Temple to Augustus - and build an even greater Temple to Jesus of Nazareth!  These ideas are not just off the mark; they’re 180 degrees off the mark, an outright reversal of what Jesus has in mind.  The snake has bitten. Peter speaks boldly of Jesus as “Messiah” - but he’s drastically misunderstood true messiahship.

6) In the background here is Isaiah 53, the ancient, enigmatic vision of the “suffering servant,” a figure who is rejected and despised by all - but through whom God’s deliverance is nevertheless surprisingly carried out.  When Jesus says that the Son of Humanity “must undergo” suffering and rejection, he draws on this ancient and mysterious tradition.

7) And then finally, as if propelled by his dispute with Peter, Jesus calls together not only the disciples but also the larger crowd.  This is something he wants everyone to hear (including us!), as if to say, Listen, all of you! We’ve reached a crossroads.  Anyone who thinks of this journey as a violent campaign, a movement of domination and triumph - might as well turn back right now.  That’s not what I’m about; that’s not what true deliverance is about; and so that’s not what following me is about. We’re not headed to conquer the temple at Caesarea Philippi - we’re headed to Jerusalem, to Golgotha, to the cross.  In a deep sense, to follow me is to take up a cross of your own, to let go of all self-centered grasping, all will to power and domination, and to suffer for the sake of Gospel. Let me tell you a great mystery: deep down in creation, there is a physics more profound than the surface of things, that shallow layer in which all appears to be driven by might and violence and grasping.  Underneath all of that is a deeper physics, according to which what’s truly important is actually driven by love and humility and generosity. To live according to this deeper physics means you will suffer - and it also means you will rise! The logic of self-centered grasping, of trying to save your own life, in the end only results in losing it.  And the logic of neighborly generosity, of “losing” your life for the sake of Love and Justice, in the end results in saving it!

8)
Jesus has no illusions, and he wants us to see clearly, too.  Following him means suffering, not because suffering is a good in itself to be sought or prolonged, but rather because confronting the powers that be - not with a sword, but with love - includes carrying a cross.  We saw as much in the case of John the Baptizer, arrested and killed because he spoke truth to power (Mark 6:18).  And likewise, following Jesus on the road he is actually walking means following him into the shadows, out toward the margins, and down into places some call “unclean” (Mark 7:24-30; 5:1-20; 5:21-43).  That road will include suffering, if only because the way to the empty tomb goes through the citadels of worldly power: Jerusalem, to be sure, but also Caesarea Philippi, where the mighty Augustus stands in his temple, eyes cold as stone.

Takeaways:

1) This is the perfect week to reflect on what we mean when we call Jesus “the Messiah,” and most of all, what it means to follow him.  Jesus is a king who subverts conventional kingship, a deliverer who means to save us from our self-centered obsession with our own deliverance, and a teacher who introduces us to the “deeper physics” of love and generosity that really makes the world go ’round.  Want to save your life?  Lose it!  That is, turn away from focusing on “saving your life” and turn toward your neighbors in love and generosity, knowing both that some suffering will come along the way (take courage!) and that ongoing resurrection and renewal will, too (hallelujah!).

2) St. Augustine (and many theologians after him) often spoke of sin as a form of being curvatus in se, “curved inward on oneself” - the implication being that God’s redemption helps us unfurl and open up.  It’s a helpful image for conceiving what Jesus is getting at when he speaks of “losing” and “saving” our lives.  What’s the “for-the-sake-of-which” that animates our days? Are we living for ourselves, trying to save ourselves?  Then we’re curved inward, like an empty fist. Are we living for each other, for the neighborhood, for the good news of God’s love and mercy? Then we’re curved outward, like an open, loving hand. But please note: the idea here is not to demean ourselves, or damage ourselves, or masochistically seek suffering for its own sake.  Those are parodies of Jesus’ teaching, 180 degrees off the mark. Truly living for the sake of the Gospel means recognizing God’s love for each one of us, including ourselves. And think of how much stronger, how much more flexible, capable, and beautiful is an open hand, rather than a closed fist, tightly grasping at nothing!

3) The good news is that God promises to deliver us in just this holistic, beautiful way.  Who is Jesus? The one who leads us into neighborhood and servanthood, and so into life. The journey will not be a triumphant march, and it will undoubtedly include suffering, as all movements of love, kindness, and justice do.  It will include its share of crosses - and more than its share of resurrection. And in the end, little by little, it will uncurl our fingers; it will open our hands; it will soften our hard hearts; it will make us the children of God we were created to be.  It won’t be easy. We stand at the crossroads - but Jesus is with us, too, whispering, “Come, follow me…”