Gospel for Twenty Fourth Sunday (13 September 2015)
Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 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.” 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. 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. (Mark 8:27-35 – NRSVCE)
We find similar texts in Matthew 16.13–28 and Luke 9.18–27. Matthew alone includes a strong affirmation of Peter as the rock on which the church will be built.
Prior to this, all the affirmation of Jesus’ true identity come, not from Jesus’ disciples and certainly not from the religious authorities but from “outside” – the unclean woman (5:23-34); a Syrophoencian woman (7:24–30); a gentile deaf-mute (7:31–37). Other affirmations have come from Mark as narrator (1:1), God (1:9–11), and demons (1:25; 3:11; 5:7). Now Peter, speaking on behalf of the disciples, declares: “You are the Messiah.”
In 1:24 and 1:34 Mark records Jesus telling the demons not to tell anyone what’s happening. Ironically it is the demons who first recognize Jesus as the Messiah. One scholar writes of the “command to silence”: “Demons ... are closely related to the command to silence, which occurs here for the second time (see 1:24–25). ‘[Jesus] would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was’. The command to silence touches one of the most controversial nerves of the Gospel. Why does Jesus seemingly work at cross purposes with himself by forbidding the healed to make him known? The command to silence seems to frustrate the publication of the kingdom of God for which he has come (1:14–15).
“An adequate explanation of the command to silence appears to require three components. First, on a practical and strategic level, it was necessary for Jesus to silence messianic utterances about himself since these carried connotations of military deliverance .... Not only were such connotations inappropriate to his mission, but publication of the title ‘Messiah’ (or an equivalent) would have invited swift intervention from the Roman occupation. Moreover, Jesus rejects any announcement of his person and mission by demons opposed to God’s kingdom.
“But the command to silence is rooted in more than strategic interests. Second and more importantly, it appears to derive from the profile of the Servant of the Lord to which Jesus consciously patterns his ministry. The Servant is defined by restraint and humbleness: ‘a bruised reed he will not break’ (Isa 42:3). That restraint comes to fuller expression in Isa 49:1–6. Although the Servant feels that he ‘has labored to no purpose’ and ‘spent his strength in vain’, God assures him to the contrary that he will be ‘a light to the nations’. The deftness of the Servant’s message (‘He made my mouth like a sharp sword’) and the range of his influence (‘he made me like a polished arrow’) are concealed within hiddenness (‘in the shadow of his hand he hid me ... and concealed me in his quiver’). The Psalms know that the righteous one must be hidden (17:8; 27:5; 64:3), but the idea comes to fullest expression in the Servant hymns of Isaiah, where hiddenness becomes a defining element of the Servant’s mission. The prototype of the Servant of the Lord appears to have exerted the strongest possible influence on Jesus’ ministry (Matt 12:15–21). No other figure, whether Abraham, Moses, Samuel, or one of the kings or prophets, corresponds as closely to Jesus’ ministry nor influenced it more profoundly than that of the Servant of the Lord.
“The Servant motif is assuredly a key to the question why God’s Son channels his authority and power in hiddenness. That which truly changes the human heart and ultimately compels one to recognize and follow Jesus can never come from coercion or a display of miraculous power. Jesus will have no allegiance exacted by amazement and astonishment. The faith of his disciples must be evoked through humility and ultimately through suffering. If one will not receive Jesus in this form, one will not receive Jesus in all his power and majesty.
“The command to silence thus represents both strategic and typological interests in Jesus’ historical ministry. But the silencing theme plays yet a third role in the Gospel of Mark. In addition to its roles in Jesus’ historical ministry, Mark employs the theme for his own christological purpose, namely, that until the consummation of Jesus’ work on the cross all speculations about him are premature. Only on the cross can Jesus rightly be known for who he is. Until the confession of the centurion at the cross (15:39), all utterances about Jesus—and especially those coming from members of the rebellion—are either premature or false. Thus, strategic and typological motives in Jesus’ life and christological motives in Mark’s story cohere in Jesus’ command to silence.” (J R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Eerdmans, 2002, 61-63.)
Jesus rebukes Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It is as if Peter has said something like: “Hey, let’s be optimistic! None of this gloomy stuff about rejection and death!”
Peter – and the disciples – have completely misread Jesus and his mission. Their minds are set “not on divine things but on human things.” Jesus’ identity and mission will only become clear to them when they reflect back from beyond the empty tomb. From there they will see the cross for what it is – our liberation.
In this light, the command for each of us to take up our cross and follow Jesus is an invitation to freedom. The focus on freedom is often lost in the midst of an over-emphasis on personal suffering and ascetical practice. The latter make sense – and only make sense – in the light of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. We share that victory. That is the victory of the cross! This is the boiler room of our life as people baptized into Christ – see Romans 6:3.
“The death of Jesus on the cross is the centre of all Christian theology .... All Christian statements about God, about creation, about sin and death have their focal point in the crucified Christ. All Christian statements about history, about the church, about faith and sanctification, about the future and about hope stem from the crucified Christ. (Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, Harper and Row, 1974, 204)