Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Do we pretend that Jesus didn’t mean this?

Cross alongside road on mountain pass
Photo by Aurélien Faux on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

September 12, 2021

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Commentary on Mark 8:27-38

Brother, afar from your Savior today,
Risking your soul for the things that decay,
Oh, if today God should call you away,
What would you give in exchange for your soul?
– J. Berry / J. H. Carr (1936)

Mark 8:27–38 is this Gospel’s most verbally abusive passage. Three times Jesus or Peter tells the other to “shut up” (epitimaō): the same verb that stifles demons and a gale (1:25; 3:12; 4:39; 9:25). Its first occurrence is smothering the disciples’ correct ascription of messiahship to Jesus (see 1:1; 14:61-62). For the first and only time in Mark, Peter and peers recognize their teacher, but Jesus commands them to say nothing to anyone (8:30; see also 1:34; 3:12). After Jesus plainly explains to them all that the Son of Man must suffer, Peter shuts him up (8:3-32). “Turning and seeing his disciples, he shut up Peter: Get behind me, Satan. You’re setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33, my translation). Only here in Mark does Jesus address an adversary as Satan—and it’s the first of the Twelve whom he summoned (1:16).

The language grates, not just because the stakes are life and death, but because Jesus upends everything we expect a messiah to be and to do for us. First-century Jewish messianic hopes varied, but none of them expected a messiah crucified by elders (lay leaders), chief priests (tall-steeple preachers), and scribes (biblical scholars). Writings like 4 Ezra (11-12), 2 Baruch (40, 72), and Qumran’s Damascus Document (6.7-11) dreamt of idealized rulers who would judge the wicked and restore Israel’s righteous. None of these messiahs handed their followers a cross to be shouldered en route to their own Golgothas. In no Gospel does Jesus say, “It is my responsibility to die for you, while you applaud my heroism.” Instead: “The Son of Man is ordained by God to suffer, die, and be raised. And so are his followers. Are you coming?”

One of the ways modern Christians sashay around this question is to trivialize the cross. Crucifixion was an instrument designed for its victims’ utter degradation and excruciating torture: capital punishment so vile that it appalled even tough-minded politicos. “To bind a Roman citizen is a crime; to flog him, an abomination. To slay him is virtually an act of murder. To crucify him is—what? No fitting word can possibly describe a deed so horrible” (Cicero, Against Verres 2.66.170).

Fast-forward to Manhattan in 1993, when The New Yorker reported on Macy’s Cross Culture: a boutique, purveying “trend-type crosses.” Here you could shop for a fist-size cross covered with gold hobnails or “one with a cameo in the center surrounded by purple, green, blue, and pink semi precious stones … with an extra-long antiqued-silver chain, so it can be slung, shoulder to hip, bandolier style, which, by the way, happens to look great with a crushed-velvet catsuit and little biker boots.” A sales associate said, “Occasionally, people stop and say, ‘Where are the Stars of David? What about equal time?’ and I say I understand but also, hey, that’s not the fashion … We have one of the best selections in New York City, but, honestly, I’m a little low on crosses right now. They’re flying out the door.”

“For whoever would save her life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a person, to gain the whole world and forfeit one’s life? For what can a person give in return for one’s life?” (Mark 8:35-37 my translation). “Life” is an imperfect translation of the Greek term hē psychē: “the creature’s center; one’s inmost self.”

A thought experiment for this Sunday: in what ways do we pretend that Jesus didn’t mean this, or try to be our own messiahs and save ourselves? On what do we stake our lives? In what do we ultimately place our trust? Our bank accounts? (Luke 12:16–20.) Achievements? (See Matthew 7:21–23.) Prestige? (Mark 12:38–40.) Politicians? (Mark 12:13–17) Guns? (Matthew 26:51–52.) Run down the entire list of familiar evasions and remember how Jesus locks every escape hatch. Doctrinal confusion is not the Christian’s fundamental problem. Instead, it is disobedience: our refusal to accept Christ’s authority over our lives.

Lay your ear upon Mark’s page and listen for the wail of lament: the steep price paid for following Jesus. What you won’t hear is the yammering of prosperity televangelists who prostitute the Bible with bogus assurances of health and wealth if you’ll mail them a check every week.

Psychotherapists help clients sort out the many hues of shame. In Mark 8:38 the only guilt suffered by a true disciple is being ashamed of Christ: abandoning his way for the values of “this adulterous and sinful generation,” “setting one’s mind on this world’s things.” In the gospel’s light honor and shame are altogether redefined (Romans 1:16-17; Philippians 3:3-11).

We are privileged to know everyday folks who have so internalized this quality of discipleship that, in the critical moment, they know what to do. There’s Arland D. Williams, Jr., the passenger aboard Air Florida Flight 90 on January 13, 1982, which after take-off crashed into Washington’s 14th Street Bridge, then into the icy Potomac River. Fighting a lifelong fear of water, clinging to twisted wreckage, he handed over to the five other survivors one life-vest after another. When all but Williams had been pulled ashore, the helicopter returned to the site to save him. He was gone.

Most of us may never master such integral calculus of charity, but failure needn’t be the enemy of aspiration. We know the way. Other disciples walk it with us. Jesus remains in the lead.

More than the silver and gold of this earth,
More than all jewels the spirit is worth.
God the creator has given His word.
What would you give in exchange for your soul?
– F. J. Berry / J. H. Carr (1936)