Look One Way, Speak Another
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 16, 2012
There is probably only one sure way to approach an understanding of this reading from Mark, and that is to take it one step at a time, almost living through it phrase by phrase, as the disciples themselves had to do. To skip too quickly to the end is to miss the startling points that Jesus addressed to those with whom he ultimately entrusted the continuation of his ministry.
To start with, the geography of the passage shouldn’t be overlooked. Jesus and the 12 had marched through his healing ministry and up to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, which were located in the foothills of Mount Hermon (now in the present-day Golan Heights, just a few miles from the Lebanese border). From this elevated perspective, they could look back toward the South, over the region of Galilee and beyond the horizon toward Jerusalem. Here Jesus invited his disciples to take a figurative look back over the Galilean ministry and ahead to Jerusalem.
Jesus’ discussion with his disciples was really a matter of answering three questions, and then determining what the answers implied for living in this life as disciples. Jesus asked all three questions, and the second two build upon the foundation provided by the first. “Who do others say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” and finally – although he didn’t really say it this way – his words answered a third question, “Who do I say that I am?”
First, Who do others say that I am? Jesus was not the first nor the last religious figure to ask questions about public opinion. In fact, it’s fair to say that some modern religious figures are a bit overly-concerned about it. For instance, some of us may remember the emergence of the so-called ‘moral majority’ back in the 1980s – whatever happened to that idea? – a name that implied that numerical superiority in some way blesses this or that religious opinion. In fact, the name never really was even close to being true, only a single digit percentage of the general population ever claimed any affiliation, far from a majority. But somehow just saying it seemed to make it so. A series of exposés about the organization led to its downfall by the middle of the 1980s.
Some might say, “But who would listen to a religious minority?” The historical answer has been, plenty of folks. The church started with 12 people who held a minority opinion in a minority culture in the middle of an ancient Roman civilization that really represented a minority of the world’s population then as now. There is more to be said for holding the minority view than we usually admit. Jesus asked the question, not to go begging after public approval, but to begin to help the disciples learn who he was.
Jesus had raised the question so inescapably that even ... ordinary people, people who made no pretense of being disciples – had found themselves not only asking it, but forced to admit that Jesus must be some great figure indeed, John the Baptist or one of the great prophets risen from the dead.
People all around the disciples were answering the question before it was asked. Jesus was doing things that demanded an answer, and the likely explanation presented itself to a people who had lived in expectation of a Messiah for centuries. They began saying that this must be the forerunner of the one for whom they had waited. Probably they all had varying images of who the Messiah was to be, and since Jesus did not fit those images exactly, they thought he might be the Master of Ceremonies, the one who would make the introductions. A Messiah who has not yet come leaves our preconceptions intact, makes no demands on us. But a present Messiah we could find disturbing, because a Messiah who is already here would call for an altered image, an altered view of who we are and what we should be doing about it. We would have to begin to change our comfortable patterns: much easier to continue the wait than to give in and begin to follow.
Jesus’ first question inevitably led to the next, just as surely as “Don’t you just love the leather seats in this car?” leads to, “and which payment plan do you prefer?” Jesus knew what some of those plain folks were saying about him. He wanted to know if the disciples had heard it. They had. So he put the next question to them. “Who do you say that I am ?”
Now the disciples hadn’t been asleep during the ministry of Jesus, and they knew that there was more to him than the ordinary bumpkin in Galilee would have guessed. Peter spoke for them all when he said that Jesus was the Christ, Christos, the Greek word for Messiah. Then the interesting thing happened. Instead of slapping him on the back and giving him a cigar for arriving at the right answer, Jesus commanded them to silence. And when he next referred to himself, he did not call himself “Christ” or “Messiah,” but went back to that mysterious title he seemed to prefer, “Son of man.” Why? Because of what was yet to come. Jesus cannot be appropriately understood apart from the cross and his suffering on our behalf, and the disciples, as yet, knew nothing of this. When they called him Christ, Jesus knew that they had no idea what they were saying. So he began to tell them. And it was a beginning that took the rest of his ministry for them to understand.
Through almost 8 chapters in Mark, Jesus’ power and authority had been emphasized. In this story, Jesus shifted the emphasis. From here to the cross, his suffering and death would receive all the attention. It was not an emphasis that the disciples enjoyed any more than our culture does, which is demonstrated every Spring when tiny Good Friday services are followed by extra large services on Easter Sunday. But Jesus’ warning is clear to all: the way of the Christ, before it can be the way of resurrection and life, must be the way of suffering, rejection, and death. A handful of people at a Good Friday service are closer to an appreciation of it all than hundreds crowding the pews at Easter.
Jesus had to suffer because his understanding of the will of God ran counter to that of the religious authorities in Jerusalem, the members of the governing councils, the Pharisees, the scribes, the television preachers, the denominational authorities, almost everyone with a stake in seeing the religious life of Israel remain as it had for hundreds of years. What is ironic is that it also ran counter to Peter who, acting on behalf of all the disciples, “took him” – the word implies an assumption of authority – as one would “take” a naughty child from the room for discipline. Then he “rebuked him.” In a word, Peter called him down as Jesus had called down the demons in his healing ministry.
That action forced the asking of the 3rd question. “Who do I say that I am?” The real issue at that moment was, as it is today: Who is in charge? If we call Jesus the Christ, we give up the right to define for him what that name means. We hand him the authority to name himself. Peter tried to behave like the big shot who gives his money away to endow some showy thing or other and then raises a fit if his name isn’t engraved at the top of the program for the annual meeting. Peter acted more like a patron than a disciple. Like us, he wanted to do what God himself would do if only God were in full possession of the facts.
Through Peter, Satan tempted Jesus to think that God’s anointed one could avoid suffering, rejection, and death; that God’s rule can mean power without pain, glory without humiliation, election without service. Satan’s agent in this tempting pattern of thought was Peter, whose thinking was human, perfectly understandable, a devilishly good idea. But wrong.
The task of discipleship is not to guide, protect, or possess Jesus, but to follow him. Answering “Who do you say that I am” we must eventually ask what his being the Christ means for our discipleship.
Peter, for all his brashness and faults, was out ahead of most of us. He could begin to see the writing on the wall. If Jesus was the Christ, and if they were his disciples, and if even the Christ was going to be called on to suffer, to give up his life so that others might have life, well what would that mean for his followers? Could they be called upon to do less? He could see coming what Jesus was about to say, and he tried to block him. But Jesus would not be deterred from his faithfulness to his calling. And so, the inevitable logic of what they had been hearing bore fruit in Jesus’ next statement, which was made not only to the disciples, but to the multitude and, ultimately, across the centuries to us: “If any would come after me, let them take up their cross and follow me.”
This statement might strike us as familiar, but it ought never to lose its impact for a people accustomed to humming along when Frank Sinatra sang, “I did it myyyyy waaaaay.” What statement of autonomy is more familiar to a parent experiencing the fresh grief of an empty nest than a child’s declaration: “It’s my life!” Jesus’ words fly in the face of all these assumptions about whose life we are living. He says that no one has the capacity to raise the price that would buy his or her life as a secure possession.
“Whoever is ashamed of Jesus now in the common pressures of life will feel the shame of Jesus in the end, when those who wanted to save themselves stand before the One who did not.”
Finding comes through losing, living comes from dying, I find out who I really am by discovering who Jesus is, the way to fulfill myself is to set self aside. The call of Christ then, as now, was filled with such paradoxes.
Jesus’ words are a challenge to any group or person, no matter whether conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, believer or doubter. To churches that doze along in a comfortable pew piety, Jesus’ call is clear to get up, take up a cross and follow on the hard way; to those who occupy themselves telling people to “get saved,” Jesus offers a rather stern warning about a preoccupation with saving one’s self; to radical movements for liberation, Jesus warns against identifying the assertion of any group’s economic and political agenda with the self-emptying work of the kingdom; to those who because of self-interest are opposed to movements to free people, Jesus issues afresh the challenge of self-denial.
Not everyone who responds is a plastic saint, either, but often is simply the woman whose self-interest is set aside in order to rear a houseful of homeless children, or the man whose devotion to his mentally ill wife is the one constant in her life, or the neighbor who sets aside her own plans to lend a hand in the church school, or the one who offers the cup of cold water to the thirsty stranger.
I Gotta Be Me may well be the anthem of the self in every age. Jesus is also concerned for self-fulfillment. But his way is more challenging, and, ultimately, more fulfilling: “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Shall we wear the cross or the crown? In the end, it must be both.
Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved