Lent 2: 1 March Mark 8:31-38
This passage follows the celebrated confession of Peter, that Jesus is ‘the Christ’ (8:29). It reveals just how easy it is to confuse adulation and truth. When Jesus proceeds to speak of his suffering (8:31), Peter will have none of it (8:32). Jesus must then rebuke Peter and call him, ‘Satan’, for espousing typically human values and not God’s (8:33). This does not do a lot for Peter. We might expect him to be sacked permanently, but that, too, would be to espouse typically human values! This Peter remains in leadership and will see the risen Christ (16:7).
Mark could hardly make the point more strongly that it is possible to have the words and the devotion and yet to miss what Jesus is about. Mark is doing theology, making us think about our faith. Peter had assumed the normal expectations associated with messiahship. He probably had in mind something like the messianic images which appear elsewhere in the gospel tradition. A messiah (which means ‘anointed’) is someone who will establish God’s reign, a royal figure, a ‘king of the Jews’ like David. As a figure of hope he is not a figure of failure but of success and power. When Jesus refers to himself as ‘Son of Man’ here, it is almost as though it is building a contrast between himself and the exalted royal figure. Instead of identifying himself with royalty Jesus identifies himself with the people; he is a human person. Yet this ‘Human one’, ‘Son of Man’, is someone special. He is the human one before whom all human beings must stand and give account, as 8:38 reminds us.
The passage is concerned to portray Jesus as a model for disciples. Each time Jesus speaks of himself as the suffering Son of Man in Mark, we find the disciples preoccupied with the opposite. See 9:31-34 and 10:33-35. in 8:34-37 Mark tells us that disciples are to follow the way of the Son of Man and also be prepared to deny themselves and take up a cross.
These verses have caused considerable confusion in Christian spirituality. Who is doing what? Which self am I denying? With which self am I doing the denying? Is it a matter of not doing what I want to do – for a while, perhaps during Lent – only then to return to myself? Is it saying I need to hate myself or, at least, constantly put myself down – or, if I want to make a good impression, keep doing so when others are listening. It is little wonder that many people have been confused by the rules of the game.
Clearly we are being offered an alternative model of being. It is for our gain, in our interests, to consider it. That is the appeal. So there is no thought of our abdicating responsibility nor of our being asked to do what we do not want to do. We are being challenged to want something different. Instead of thinking only of ourselves and believing that it is to our good to gain wealth and avoid any path which leads to suffering, we are being challenged to be generous, giving of ourselves, even when it may mean suffering. The first image of ourselves and our good is to be set aside; instead we are to embrace the way of Jesus, of self giving love. Then we will find ourselves, our true selves. The merging of our will and being with God’s will and being, and therefore with love which cares for others as well as for ourselves, is the way of discipleship. It is also the way to real humanness - and the way of Jesus, and ultimately also of God!
In Mark’s context this is especially about choosing to be faithful followers of Jesus and not to renege on all that he stands for when faced with pressure (and persecution) to deny him. Being true to him, to God and to ourselves (and to others! – because it all coincides) will sometimes mean hardship, unpopularity, even death and still does. There is no great value in being killed because of one’s obsession with religion or with an image of Jesus, like Peter’s. Such martyrs are sad cases, but not really witnesses (the meaning of martyr) at all. But there are times when love, if it is to mean anything, will expose us to grave danger. When we fail, in the interests of our survival, we fail everybody: Jesus, God, ourselves, and others. To live in a compromised state where our will and focus is divided is the more common malady for us and we all too often have found ways in which we can make ourselves comfortable with it.
8:38 warns that we shall have to face up to what we have denied (and confessed). For Mark that will mean denial of faith in Christ in the context of persecution. For us it may just as easily mean: denying the life of the Spirit within us which seeks to manifest itself in compassion and generosity of being. Mark, like others of his time, pictures this as happening at the last judgement. For some that will continue to be helpful. It is also a challenge to face up to it now. That, too, is an agenda for Lent.
Epistle: Lent 2: 1 March Romans 4:13-25
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