Commentary on Mark 8:27-38
I am working on this entry for Working Preacher at home today, so instead of using “my” Bible in my office, I pulled off the shelf the Bible my wife used when we were in college (almost) 20 years ago.
She was a good student and she did a lot of highlighting, underlining, and writing of notes in the margins. Every chapter in Mark has several things underlined or annotated in some way, except for chapter 8. Did she daydream during that part of the lecture? Did she skip that chapter? I doubt it. I suspect that she was so drawn into Mark’s narrative that she simply read to find out what was going to happen. My wife asked only one question in the margin: “Which one is it?” I believe she is referring to the myriad of titles and names that are thrown at Jesus in this episode. Jesus is called a prophet, Messiah, and Son of Man, along with John the Baptist and Elijah.
Caesarea Philippi, characters, and narrative rift
Jesus’ identity and characters’ varying abilities to discern it are a basso continuo in the narrative up to this point. The stories leading up to this episode repeatedly emphasize the disciples’ ignorance and hardness of heart. In chapter 4 they ask: “who is this?” In Chapter 6 they mistake Jesus for a ghost. For the reader, however, Jesus’ identity in the Gospel of Mark is never in doubt. The opening line tells us he is the Messiah and Son of God. We are privy to voices from heaven and declarations from demons, both of which declare Jesus’ true identity as Messiah and Son of God. This rift between the reader’s knowledge and that of the characters (particularly the disciples) is a significant narrative technique for Mark. It helps create irony and build tension.
Up until chapter 8, however, that tension remains implicit. In the episode of Caesarea Philippi it becomes explicit in Jesus’ questions directly to the disciples. First, “who do people say that I am?” And then, “who do you say that I am?”
The disciples’ first answer harkens back to the story of the arrest and beheading of John the Baptist in Mark 6:14-29. That story is introduced with confusion over Jesus’ identity. Some were calling him John the Baptist, others Elijah or one of the prophets. This introduces a long flashback about John’s death, a story told with more detail in Mark than in other gospels. It introduces the idea that a prophetic ministry such as John the Baptist’s (or Jesus’) will probably end with suffering and death. As it turns out, this is exactly the direction of the narrative in chapter 8.
When Peter responds to Jesus’ question with the right answer, that Jesus is the Messiah, the reader might breathe a sigh of relief. The rift of knowledge between the reader and the characters is closed. What Peter quickly learns is that grasping Jesus’ identity is not simply about getting the title right. Naming does not define. Mark opens the rift again, this time between expectations of the title Messiah and the reality of what Jesus’ role as Messiah will be like. Mark’s Jesus pivots immediately and discusses how the Son of Man must suffer and die and be raised after three days. Jesus says all this with a boldness that contrasts the secrecy preferred only two verses earlier (Mark 8:30).
A suffering Messiah?
The suffering of Jesus and his followers needs to be understood properly. C-3PO, human cyborg droid from the Star Wars universe says at one point: “We [droids] seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life.” The droids suffer from harsh treatment because they are machines and an afterthought. C-3PO adopts a “woe-is-me” attitude and expects suffering because he is worth nothing more. This is not the kind of suffering Mark profiles in his Gospel. Jesus does not suffer and die because suffering is good. The necessity of the suffering comes from the way Jesus lives — a series of actions that pay no heed to social and religious norms, a life that reaches out to those who are ostracized (Mark 5:1-20), unclean (Mark 5:21-43), or marginalized (Mark 7:24-30). Mark has already profiled this suffering in the story of John the Baptist’s death in chapter 6. John is arrested and dies because he ran afoul of those in power (Mark 6:18). Suffering that results from the ways that God’s kingdom does not comport with human dominion is very different from prescribing suffering for its own sake.
Identity and expectation
What we find then in this pericope in Mark is a series of questions about identity and expectations. For preachers of the word, it is important that we realize that these issues are not locked in the past. This was not only a problem for the disciples or those early Christians to whom Mark is writing. Mark profiles a deeper dynamic that spans the ages: how are human knowledge and expectations in tension with the aims of God? We know the way things are, how they are supposed to go. If we believe God is active and that Jesus is alive in the world, then the question posed to us is not whether we confess Jesus as the Messiah. That is the easy part. We know what the title is. The question becomes how do we misunderstand what the title means? How do our expectations not align with God’s?