Commentary on Isaiah 50:5-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35
MARK’S GOSPEL throughout is describing a learning experience, first for the disciples of Jesus but also for the reader and hearer. Knowing who Jesus is and what following him means is something that the disciples did not tumble to all at once. It was a painful journey for them.
Last Sunday we saw the story of the healing of a man who was deaf and dumb. It is the beginning of a central learning section in this gospel which finds its partial climax in today’s reading. The story is a kind of parable of how we gradually learn to listen and understand the meaning of Christ’s life and message and how we then learn how to share our experience effectively with others. It is not enough to have heard the message; it has also to be shared and communicated with others.
Today’s passage is immediately preceded by another healing story, this time that of a man who was blind. The interesting thing about this story is that his blindness was healed in stages. That is exactly what was happening to the disciples and we see it clearly illustrated in today’s story.
Who do people say I am?
Today’s encounter of Jesus with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi (a meeting place of Jewish and Greek cultures) represents a high point in Mark’s gospel and in their relationship with Jesus.
It is a question of Jesus’ identity. "Who do people say I am?" he asks them. They give various answers. The general opinion is that Jesus is certainly some kind of prophet sent by God – perhaps John the Baptist resurrected, or Elijah, who was expected to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, or some other prophet.
"But you, who do you say I am?" presses Jesus. "You," says Peter, speaking in the name of them all, "you are the Christ." That is, you are the Messiah, the long-awaited liberator king of Israel. ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’, in Greek Christos (), means the ‘anointed One’. Kings (remember David?) were inaugurated by an anointing. To call Jesus the ‘anointed One’ is to say that he is King.
An exciting moment
It must truly have been an exciting moment for the disciples. Their Master was no mere rabbi; he was the Messiah, the King of Israel! And they were part of his inner circle, his close friends and companions. They were now courtiers. Wow! Would they be moving into a palace? Would they be getting important jobs? Power, influence, lots of money, beautiful clothes? It was mind-boggling! What a future was unfolding for these uneducated men!
And then – totally unexpected – comes the shock, a large bucket of very cold water. Because Jesus begins to tell them what is going to happen to him, the Messiah. He will be rejected by the religious and civic leaders of his own people, he will undergo terrible sufferings, he will suffer a horrible and shameful death by execution on a cross, and at the end will rise on the third day (whatever that meant).
An unacceptable scenario
Peter, again obviously representing all his companions, protests to Jesus in the strongest terms. "Lord, this can never happen to you." It was unthinkable that the Messiah should meet a fate like this. It was totally against all reason that the Messiah should suffer at the hands of his own people. On the contrary, he was to be victorious over all Israel’s outside enemies. What Jesus was saying just did not make any sense. This was not part of the scenario which had been built up over such a long period of expectation. And what was going to happen to them? All this nonsense had to be nipped in the bud.
The reaction of Jesus is almost savage. "Get behind me, Satan! Yours are merely human thoughts; they do not represent God’s way of seeing things." Peter – the Rock – is seen as a stumbling block. Jesus could be tempted to think like Peter. It would make a much more pleasant future than the one he had just described. But he knew this was the way he was being called to follow.
It is clear that the disciples’ (and our) learning experience was not over. They had reached the critical stage of knowing who Jesus was – the Messiah. But now they had to discover – very painfully – just what kind of Messiah he was going to be. They won’t know this and they will not see its terrible and compelling beauty until after the resurrection.
The rest of Mark’s gospel deals with this topic in which we are intended to be the real learners. (After all, most of those disciples were dead and gone by the time Mark’s gospel appeared.)
More to come
But Jesus is still not finished with them! Addressing his words not only to them but to everybody, Jesus continues: "If ANYONE wants to be my disciple, then he has to take his cross and come after me." Jesus’ Way has also be our way.
So much of the time we try to straddle the fences: be "good" Catholics and have the good things that everyone else wants as well. We don’t want crosses. We even think that one of the purposes of prayer is to ask Jesus to take away the nasty things and make life smooth all the way.
But Jesus is urging us to let go. To "save our life" is to cling to things which are not us and to want security in them. Our happiness, we need to learn, is not in having or grabbing, but in sharing what we have. It is in giving, not in getting. It is in letting go and letting God, as they say.
Who are those with real faith?
James today in the Second Reading speaks about those people who have "faith", that is, they claim to be believers in Christ and the Gospel but nothing of that appears in their lives. They pray piously, are seen at Mass every Sunday, they are experts in doctrine and orthodox teaching, but they do very little to help others.