Gospel for the Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (16 September 2018)
Gospel 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 – NRSV)
The profession of faith by Peter is found in Matthew 16:13-20 and Luke 9:18-21. Both Matthew and Luke also follow Mark with the prophecy of the passion and the condition for following Jesus Christ.
“With Peter’s declaration at Caesarea Philippi Mark’s story of Jesus reaches a denouement. Heretofore the disciples, like the crowds and especially the religious leaders of the Pharisees and scribes, have been ranged against Jesus on a scale from misunderstanding to opposition. They have been slow of understanding and hard of heart. Responses of faithfulness to Jesus have been few and sporadic, and when faithfulness has been found, it has surprisingly come from “outsiders”—from an unclean woman (5:25–34), a Syrophoenician woman (7:24–30), and a Gentile deaf-mute (7:31–37). Declarations of Jesus’ true identity as God’s Son have been given by Mark as narrator (1:1), by God (1:9–11), and by demons (1:25; 3:11; 5:7), but not yet by humans. Caesarea Philippi is the first breakthrough in the human plot of the Gospel. Peter’s declaration is the first attempt on the part of the disciples to identify and define the exousia, the divine authority, with which Jesus has taught and acted.” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 245.)
Caesarea Philippi: This place is about 40 kms north of Bethsaida at the north-eastern end of the Lake of Galilee and should not be confused with Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. See http://www.bible.ca/maps/maps-palestine-33AD.htm Its population would have been mostly Gentiles – a strange place for the declaration of the Messiah.
on the way: Edwards notes: “Beginning with this verse, ‘on the way’ occurs nine times in chaps. 8–12 as a designation that the ‘way of the Lord’ proclaimed by John the Baptist at the outset of the Gospel (1:2–3) is fulfilled in Jesus’ going to Jerusalem. Significantly, Jesus raises the question of faith, according to Mark, ‘on the way’ of humiliation, rejection, suffering, and death. Faith and discipleship cannot be rendered from the sidelines, removed from risk. Jesus asks for a judgment about him in the midst of the journey, not at the end of it when all questions are answered and proof is finally in hand. Faith is a judgment about Jesus, and a willingness to act on the judgment in the face of other possible judgments. Indeed, for the disciples at this point in the Gospel faith will necessitate a choice contrary to the prevailing consensus of crowds and religious leaders. Faith means actively following Jesus on the way, not demanding signs (8:11–13) or turning to go one’s own way (10:22). (J R Edwards, op cit, 245-246.)
“Who do people say that I am?”: Normally it would be the disciples who ask the rabbi the questions. This reversal suggests a very important moment.
“John the Baptist etc”: When Mark tells us of the death of John the Baptist, we find a similar list of people – see Mark 6:14-15. However, Mark makes it clear that there is much more to Jesus’ identity than is found in any of these other people.
“But who do you say that I am?”: Jesus comes to the point! His identity and the relationship the disciples have with him is a very particular, enfleshed reality.
Peter answered: Peter is the spokesman – see Mark 8:32, 9:5, 10:28, 11:21. His name appears first in the list of the twelve – see 3:16.
“You are the Messiah”: Donahue and Harrington write: “Both māšîaḥ in Hebrew and christos in Greek mean ‘the anointed one’. In the OT priests, prophets, and kings were anointed in rites that seem also to convey the idea of their divine election. In Jesus’ time Messiah/Christ/Anointed was by no means a univocal term, and so one can correctly speak about Judaisms and their messiahs. However, one prominent form of messianism in the Second Temple period is represented by the hope for a future Davidic king who would restore justice and the good fortunes of God’s people (see Psalms of Solomon 17). Such a messiah would naturally be a threat to the Roman rulers and their Jewish collaborators in the land of Israel. In light of what Jesus did (especially his acts of ‘power’) and said (his claims about sonship, his pivotal role in God’s plan, and his sayings about the Temple), it is likely that some people did identify Jesus as such a messiah—at least this is what Mark suggests (see 1:1). (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 261.)
And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him: The full truth of the kind of Messiah Jesus is, has yet to be revealed. It would be dangerous to start proclaiming Jesus as Messiah without the truth of his identity being clear. An essential part of that identity is about to be revealed however: He is a suffering Messiah.
“If any want to become my followers etc: The revelation of Jesus’ identity is the basis for revealing the identity of the disciple. If the disciple identifies fully with the Master, he/she must expect to share his experience. We cannot understand what it is to be a disciple of Jesus unless we understand – at least partially – who Jesus is. It is not just his teachings we identify with it is him, his very being, his identity actually becomes our identity.
On February 10, 1949, Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, opened on Broadway. It was a runaway success. Since that time it has been performed repeatedly in many different parts of the world. Three million copies of the text have been sold. What is it that makes these “Certain private conversations in two acts and a requiem” – for that is the sub-title of the play – so enduringly popular?
I do not pretend to know the answer to this question. However, I find in Willy Loman – the main character – and his family and particularly his son Biff – so much that resounds with my own experience of life. The Loman family, in some ways, represents the struggles of many.
The play presents us with a tragic picture of a man and his family, struggling under the heavy weight of illusions. Willy just has not been able to come to terms with himself and his world, his limits and his very ordinary possibilities. He is defined, and he allows himself to be defined, by society’s understanding of what it means to exist, to be a human being, to be successful. And society’s understanding of these things is too often more about seeming than being, it focuses on and rewards performance, image and externals. The inner world and, more importantly, the truth of who and what I am and who you are, are not things much reflected upon. In today’s Gospel – Mark 8:27–35 – Jesus tells his disciples: Reflect! Ask the question: Who am I? And listen! Be honest! Stare down the pretenses that are masks for your fears, the rationalizations that are really cries of inner pain, the addictive behaviours that are self-defeating attempts at self-medication.
Having just openly faced the question himself – who do you say I am? – Jesus turns to the people and his disciples and invites them to follow him into that same territory, the inner world of one’s self. My identity is inseparable from his identity. My journey home to myself is one with his journey. I find my true self through him, with him and in him. Jesus names the heart of that process: If you want to be you must let go of what is not you! You must let it die on the cross of daily experience. “That which is Christ-like within us shall be crucified. It shall suffer and be broken. And that which is Christ-like within us shall rise up. It shall love and create” (Michael Leunig, When I talk to you: A cartoonist talks to God).
Jesus invites us into the truth of our lives. That is where we become free. He enables us to become who and what we are. That is where true human fulfilment lies. It is actually the only place we will find freedom and fulfilment. If you seek wellbeing, that is where you will find it, though it may not look like what you expected. Jesus says: “Come! I am with you! Don’t be afraid!”