Thought for the day
Each generation is addressed by Jesus’ question in today’s Gospel and each generation must speak for itself. So must we as individuals within the community of faith
Great and loving God, as we stand before the mystery of your disclosure in Jesus of Nazareth, we ask for great faith, deep understanding and, above all, love. Knowing him, we love him, loving him we confess him as the Messiah, the Son of God. Who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
Mark 8:27 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.
Mark 8:31 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.”
Mark 8:34 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.
This Gospel reading is a kind of hinge passage in Mark, forming the closure of the first part and opening the middle section of the Gospel. Naturally, the direct question of Jesus speaks to every generation, but it might be worth bearing in mind that there are three paragraphs in the Gospel: the identity of the Jesus, the passion prediction and the teaching on discipleship. All three are intimately intertwined.
Kind of writing
Here we have three closely connected anecdotes or chreiai. In this part of Mark, the layout of the teaching on the suffering of the messiah is carefully patterned as follows:
A Passion Prediction (v. 31)
A (crass) misunderstanding (vv. 32-33)
A teaching on discipleship (vv. 34-35)
This pattern is repeated in ch. 9 and in ch. 10, as we shall see. It is part of the teaching of Mark that the destiny of the disciple cannot be other than the destiny of the master.
Old Testament background
(i) At the time, there was an expectation that the Messiah would be preceded by a Moses-like figure and an Elijah-type figure.
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. (Deut 18:15)
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Mal 4:5–6)
(ii) There is also a reference to the Suffering Servant songs from Isaiah 40-55. For more, see below the notes on the first reading.
New Testament foreground
1. The Passion Predictions
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. (Mark 8:31)
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mark 9:30–31)
They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10:32–34)
2. Teaching on discipleship
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.” (Mark 8:36–38)
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:33–37)
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognise as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:41–45)
See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body. (Gal 6:11–17)
Verse 27 It is hard to figure why they were going so far north. Caesarea Philippi was a centre of the imperial cult, as the name suggests. The question of Jesus’ identity is only apparently sudden because it has been the real topic of Mark 1-8 all along.
Verse 28 This takes us back to an earlier moment in the Gospel. King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptiser 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.” (Mark 6:14–16) Also, the quotations above from Deuteronomy and Malachi should not be forgotten.
Verse 29 Jesus persists and Peter confesses Jesus as messiah. This can only be a partial grasp, but it is a beginning.
Verse 30 As observed before, this command to silence may go back to Jesus, cautious about the inevitable political associations with Messiah. However, Mark intensifies the command and repeats it for his own theological purposes. It may be that he is offering an understanding not dissimilar to that in Rom 9-11. Paul teaches that God was able to use the rejection of Jesus as Messiah by most of God’s chosen people as a means of extending salvation to all humanity. We would say that it worked out like that. Mark would say it was God’s intention all along and therefore Jesus concealed his identity. It remains an enigma at the same time.
Verse 31 This is the first of the three Passion Predictions. In general, scholars would not have a problem thinking Jesus began to foresee his fate, perhaps in the light of the fate of some prophets such as Jeremiah. However, the detailed predictions are usually held to be a vaticinium ex eventu, that is, a retrospective clarification in light of later historical information.
Verse 32 Peter, the first to confess Jesus as Messiah, is also the first to misunderstand what kind of Messiah Jesus was called to be. “Rebuke” is a very strong word in the context. The range of meanings is to express strong disapproval of someone, rebuke, reprove, censure.
Verse 33 Before the words, the direction of the glance is very important: here is a teaching for all. Jesus then rebukes Peter in no uncertain terms. Robust Jewish debate may explain “Satan”, but it remains harsh. There is a heavy-handed play on words in the Greek. To get “behind me” is the same expression as to follow “behind me”! As for not grasping the ways of God, cf. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Is 55:8–9)
Verse 34 Historically, it cannot be that to take up your cross was already a metaphor—that can be so only after Jesus’ death. However, at the level of Mark, writing for a community under tremendous threat of persecution, the image retains its quite literal force.
Verse 35 Here is a genuine aphorism, in the form of cross-over (chiastic) parallelism. Perhaps originally it did not contain the phrase “for the sake of the Gospel” which disturbs the balance of the phrases. Mark is willing to forego a little literary perfectionism for the sake of the life-giving message!
Pointers for prayer
1. “Who do you say that I am?” Imagine Jesus putting this question to you. How would you answer it? How would you answer it, not in words taken from a catechism or textbook, but from your own experience of the significance of Jesus in your life? What does Jesus mean to you? What does his gospel message mean to you?
2. Jesus went on to teach his disciples that following him would be hard at times. There would be a price to pay. Perhaps you also have found that imitating the love and compassion of Jesus is not an easy road? Nor does it come easy to have the constant trust in God that Jesus had. Yet, Jesus tells us that this is the way to life. Would you agree?
3. There is a natural human tendency to shy away from what is painful or difficult. Yet if that is our standard pattern of behaviour we will not get far in reaching our potential. We will never find who we are capable of being. When have you found it worthwhile to face difficulties, persevere, “carry your cross” for a while in order to achieve some goal that was important to you?
Make us one, O God, in acknowledging Jesus the Christ. As we proclaim him by our words, let us follow him in our works; give us strength to take up the cross and courage to lose our lives for his sake. Amen.