Note: An ongoing series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B, 2015.
The midpoint of Mark’s narrative poses two questions, aimed both at the disciples in, and the readers of, the story:
“Do you not yet understand?” (Mk 8:21).
“Who do you say that I am?” (8:29a).
The latter provokes what I call the “confessional crisis” (8:30-33), which this Sunday’s reading inexplicably jumps into the middle of (we get the whole text on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Sept 13th). This is followed by Jesus’ second call to discipleship (8:34ff), deepening the journey begun in 1:16-20.
These difficult episodes together represent the fulcrum upon which the whole gospel balances. Mark’s thesis is most clearly revealed here: Discipleship is not about theological orthodoxy but about the Way of the cross. It would seem that our churches do “not yet understand” this!
We pick up the thread in the first of three “portents,” in which Jesus speaks of his impending arrest, trial and execution by the authorities (8:31; see 9:31 and 10:33f). This “reality check” has been provoked by Peter’s identification of Jesus as “Messiah” (8:29). To our chagrin, it is immediately silenced by Jesus (8:30), as if Peter were just another demon trying to “name” Jesus (see 1:25; 3:12)! Then, with the phrase “Jesus began to teach them that it was necessary that the Human One must suffer,” the story departs in a new and troubling direction (8:31).
By “necessity” Mark means that those who pursue Jubilary justice will inevitably clash with the Powers. Jesus is serving notice that he will not enter Jerusalem as a triumphant military leader, but instead be executed by the authorities. This subverts the expected “Messianic script,” replacing it with what we might call a “prophetic script.” At key points in the second half of the gospel Mark will appeal to this script: John followed it, so will Jesus (9:12f), and so must faithful disciples (13:9-13).
This first portent also replaces the term Messiah with the third-person “Human One,” the persona who earlier challenged the Debt system and restored Sabbath Economics (2:10,28). This moniker is taken from the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 7, which will provide the key to understanding Jesus’ second call to discipleship, as we’ll see in a moment.
“And he spoke this word plainly” (8:32). Peter, however, like most of Christendom after him, refuses to accept this clear “Messianic revisionism.” The exchange thus escalates into a series of sharp rebukes, ending in Jesus’ “counter-confession” (8:32f):
Jesus silences Peter
Jesus: Human One must suffer
Peter silences Jesus
Jesus again silences Peter
Jesus: Peter is aligned with Satan
Why does poor Peter—who from our readerly perspective is only intoning the orthodox confession of the church—earn such round denunciation?
The problem is that the traditional Messianic script presumes the “myth of redemptive violence,” in which the divine hero will ultimately prevail over the enemy through superior and “righteous” force (on this see e.g. Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled, Crossroad, 1995 and Robert Beck’s Nonviolent Story, Orbis, 1996). Through this oldest lie, Satan rules history. Nations and peoples still invoke God while destroying their enemies through “just” wars and “holy” crusades. Against this conventional wisdom Mark pits the Human One’s strategy of nonviolence, which understands that the enemy is violence itself.
Jesus’ first call to discipleship invited people to “leave” their places in the prevailing social and economic order, and to “follow” him in reclaiming the Jubilary vision and God’s sovereignty. A second call now articulates the political consequences of that practice (8:34). Jesus’ invitation begins where his argument with Peter left off:
“Get up and get behind me…” 8:33
“If anyone desires to follow behind me…” 8:34
Two conditions for discipleship are now stipulated: “Deny yourself, and take up your cross.”
The cross was not a religious icon in first century Palestine, nor was “taking up the cross” a metaphor for personal anguish. Crucifixion had only one connotation: the vicious form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome for political dissidents. Crosses were a common sight at the time Mark wrote, amidst the Jewish insurrection of 66-70 C.E. In contrast to Judean nationalists who were recruiting patriots to “take up the sword” against Rome, Mark’s Jesus invited disciples to “take up the cross.”
It’s also important to remind ourselves during Lent that Mark’s rhetoric of “self-denial” should be understood not primarily in terms of private asceticism, but in the context of a political trial. Under interrogation by State security forces, admitting allegiance to “YHWH’s sovereignty” in Mark’s historical moment would inevitably result in charges of subversion, in a world where Caesar alone claimed lordship. Self-denial is about costly choices that are political as well as personal, then and now.
Jesus then restates the matter another way. If one attempts to “save one’s life” by denying Jesus and his Jubilary project (thus “being ashamed of me and of my words,” 8:38a), one will lose true life (8:35). Conversely, to live and die “for my sake and the gospel” is to truly experience “life.” These two choices will be dramatically juxtaposed in Mark’s Passion narrative. Peter will “save himself” in the Palace courtyard, only to break down after disowning Jesus (14:66-72). Right next door in the Palace courtroom Jesus will confess the Human One (14:55-65)—and consequently “take up his cross” (15:25).
Jesus tries to clarify this with an economic metaphor: Self-preservation at the cost of apostasy represents a bad investment: it is not a “profit” but “bankruptcy” (8:36f). Indeed, later Judas “sells out” for a small change (14:11), at the cost of his soul (14:21). Jesus thus thrice reiterates that “gain” and “loss” should not be calculated according to the dominant culture’s ledgers. Unfortunately, most Christians have failed to experiment with the mysterious and demanding calculus of Jesus’ call here to nonviolence and fidelity.
The meaning of this second call to discipleship will be further articulated after each of the next two portents, each of which the disciples also fail to comprehend. The three teaching cycles which follow revolve around a rhetorical antithesis that articulates an aspect of the “Way of the Cross”:
“Whosoever would save her life will lose it…” (8:35)
“If anyone would be first, he must be last…” (9:35)
“Whosoever would be great among you must be your servant…” (10:43)
This use of “whosoever” functions as an appeal to the audience, a blank space we are invited to fill in with our name. This is an “interactive” story!
Jesus closes his homily in 8:38 by invoking a different vision of justice. Traditional exegesis has interpreted the advent of the Human One in terms of the “Second-Coming” of Jesus which will secure the ultimate victory (violently, it is assumed). The key to understanding this eschatological scenario, however, lies in the heavenly courtroom vision of Daniel 7.
The book of Daniel was a manifesto of Jewish resistance written two centuries before Jesus, during persecutions by the Hellenistic tyrant Antiochus Epiphanies IV. The first half of Daniel offers stories of heroic nonviolent resistance (Dan 2-6). The second half switches to a different kind of genre to make the same point: apocalyptic narrative. Apocalyptic was a popular, highly symbolistic literature that typically employed heavenly visions and angelic interpreters to offer veiled commentary on current political events.
Apocalyptic visions, commonly misconstrued by modern readers as predictions of the future, instead mean to open up another dimension to history: “God’s point of view.” Apocalyptic dualism bifurcates reality in order to criticize “this age” from the perspective of “the age to come.” Yet these two realms actually co-exist; we need only “eyes to see” them both. In the case of Daniel 7, the prophet initially “sees” only oppressive rulers (the “beasts” of Dan 7:2-8) who persecute the Jews (7:19-25). But the eyes of faith reveal what is really happening from the divine perspective (“As I looked…” 7:9). At the center of the vision is a courtroom scene in which the “Ancient of Days” judges the beasts (7:9-12,26f) and hands over true authority to the “saints” (7:18). Judgment is rendered on behalf of a “Human One” who makes an entrance “on the clouds of heaven” (7:13). This is the image Mark employs in his gospel here and, crucially, again in Mk 14:62.
Daniel’s apocalyptic visions assured persecuted Jews who were defendants in Hellenistic courts that there was a “higher court of true justice” in which they were being vindicated even as they were being convicted by Antiochus. Mark adopts this “bi-focal” apocalyptic perspective: there is not one courtroom in which the believer stands, but two. To be acquitted before the Powers is to be “ashamed” in the Human One’s court—and vice-versa! This explains how Mark can present the Human One simultaneously as both defendant (8:31) and prosecutor (8:38).
Apocalyptic faith gives not only meaning, but a mysterious efficacy, to nonviolent suffering. To die—rather than to kill—for justice advances the transfiguration of history, symbolized by the vindication glimpsed in Daniel’s heavenly court. This also helps us understand Jesus’ otherwise strange concluding promise (also cut off by the lectionary portion!) that “this generation will see the sovereignty of God come in power” (9:1). I believe it alludes to the narrative’s “third apocalyptic moment”: Jesus’ crucifixion.
But only apocalyptic faith enables us to see that on Golgotha, when the Powers appear to have triumphed, Jesus’ nonviolent power has actually begun to unravel their rule of domination (see e.g. Col 2:15; for more on this see Who Will Roll Away the Stone, chapter 8). Which is why the Cross is followed by an empty tomb, and Mark’s “third call to discipleship” (16:1-8).