"The fundamental polarity of human life between what is and what ought to be, between lack and fulfillment, between determination and freedom, is not abnormal; it is the norm. Every person is exposed to it because of the inescapable structure of human formation." (Adrian van Kaam, The Transcendent Self, Dimension Books, 1979, 172.)

Gospel for the Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (12 September 2021)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
JYou are the Christ

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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)

Introductory notes

General

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.)

Specific

Caesarea Philippi: This place is about 40 kms north of Bethsaida at the northern 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 – an interesting 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.

Reflection – “Slow awakenings”

Waking up is the work of a lifetime. Most of us will have particular moments of insight and new awareness from time to time. These are a normal part of an inner journey by which we become who and what we are – God’s creation. Today’s Gospel – Mark 8:25-37 – describes a moment of awakening for the disciples. It comes after many missed opportunities, it must be said. It is rare for human beings to grasp the first opportunity that life offers to wake up.

Recall the delightful story immediately prior to this: “They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking’. Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly” (8:22-25).

In Mark’s Gospel it is notable that outsiders – including demons (1:25; 3:11; 5:7) – wake up and see who Jesus is long before those who are his disciples. Thus, we have “the unclean woman” of 5:25-34, “the Syrophoenician woman” (7:24-30) and the Gentile deaf-mute in the Decapolis region (7:31-37). Mark himself, as narrator, declares Jesus’ true identity at the very beginning of his Gospel – see 1:1 – and he reports the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism: “‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (1:11).

The disciples are on a journey – an inner journey. Recall the earlier conversation: “‘The twelve asked him about the parables.  And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God . . .’” (4:10-11). The “secret” may have been “given”, but the disciples are clearly not awake to what the secret actually is. When Jesus and the disciples are on their way to “the villages of Caesarea Philippi” we glimpse a further moment of awakening. Jesus asks the question: “‘Who do people say that I am?’” The disciples have obviously been thinking and talking about this: “They answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets’”. Jesus becomes more direct: “‘But who do you say that I am?’” Peter answers: “‘You are the Messiah’”.

Like the blind man at Bethsaida, Jesus “takes (them) by the hand and leads (them) out of the village”. The “village” may be understood as the taken for granted world. Under the influences of habit and ignorance, selfishness and fear, human beings can sleep-walk through life embedded in little “villages”. The questions of Jesus – sometimes it is life that asks the questions – are his gentle hand leading the disciples – and each of us – out of those little “villages”. All awakenings are moments of leaving the “village”. Slowly and incrementally we awaken to God’s reality. This is what it means to live!