Commentary on Mark 8:31-38
Contradictions and perplexities dominate the gospel for the day.
Peter correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah (8:29). We know he is right because the beginning of Mark informs us this is the good news of Jesus Messiah. But Peter receives no confirmation, only the command to silence. Jesus then teaches the disciples that the Son of Man will suffer, be rejected, killed, and three days later rise again. Peter understands the contradiction inherent between Messiah and Jesus’ words. Jesus rebukes Peter for focusing on human things as opposed to divine things. Then follows the paradox: One must lose one’s life in order to save it. To profit the whole world is to forfeit one’s life.
This is the first of three predictions of Jesus’ suffering, rejection, death and resurrection in the gospel of Mark. Each is followed by the disciples’ failure to relate Jesus’ self-understanding with their own perception of him and Jesus’ teaching on true discipleship (see 9:31-37; 10:32-45). In each of these passages, incongruities between common human expectations and Jesus’ teaching of true discipleship dominate the narrative. I wonder if most Christian readers or listeners are able to hear them.
If we miss them, it is because we read backwards, so to speak. From our perspective, the cross is the symbol of Christianity prominently displayed from churches to personal jewelry. Its meaning is far removed from its meaning for the earliest generations of Jesus’ followers. If we could imagine ourselves into the time of Jesus, or even the time of the followers three or four decades later, we could not miss the atrocity of a crucifixion. We would know the utter absurdity of a Messiah executed on a cross or of Jesus’ preposterous expectation that would-be followers must pick of their own cross.
Did Jesus know that he would suffer the shame of death by crucifixion, as he foretells here? Did he foretell his resurrection? We cannot know for certain what Jesus knew or understood about himself or his future. Bur as hearers of the gospel, we grasp clearly that Jesus’ discourses on discipleship are for us as much as for every generation of his followers. Jesus calls the crowd along with the twelve disciples and teaches them and us that his followers must “deny themselves and take up their cross” (verse 34). What follows is the most puzzling paradox of all: if you want to save your life you must lose it; those who lose it for the sake of the gospel will save it (verse 35). The literal meaning does not make sense, of course, but then what does it mean?
A Clash of Values1
According to Mark, Jesus defines discipleship as a contrast between human values and God’s values. Jesus’ teaching on true discipleship following the second and third predictions of the passion shows this most clearly. When the disciples argue who is greatest among them, Jesus instructs them to be like a servant and like a child, the least by the world’s standards, not the greatest (see 9:35-36). When James and John request places of honor and glory, Jesus invites them to drink his cup and share in his baptism, his suffering and death implied, and to embrace the role of servant. Jesus contrasts the life of discipleship with the ways of the gentiles, or the ways of the world. Jesus’ followers will emulate the Son of Man who gives his life for others (see 10:35-45). Likewise, in today’s gospel reading, Jesus contrasts the life of discipleship with the ways of the world. Jesus rebukes Peter for focusing on human values rather than God’s values (8:33).
According to human values, one’s own life comes first. We might be kind and generous and thoughtful toward others, yet cultural norms dictate the priority of our own safety or privilege or physical comfort. Jesus advocates risking your life for the sake of another. In other words be willing to lose your life for the sake of the gospel in order to save it.
According to Mark’s gospel, the disciples represent human values.2 They aspire to power and greatness and assume that Jesus shares these values. Jesus represents God’s values, best summed up by the willingness to risk one’s own life for the sake of others. Jesus does not encourage suffering for its own sake, nor does he recommend acceptance of forced servitude. 3 The key to meaning here is “for the sake of the gospel” and Jesus is the exemplary model. Jesus invites his disciples to follow his example, to be willing to risk our lives for the sake of others.
I can think of many heroes of the faith who lived and died for the sake of others; their names are well-known. My most memorable example of risking life for another, however, is of a man who was the lead news story for a couple days, including a guest appearance on late night television a few years ago. This courageous person whose name is long forgotten saw a man who had fallen on the subway tracks in the path of an oncoming train.
Realizing there was no time to get the doomed man to safety, the news-making hero threw himself on top of the stranger between the tracks while the train traveled over them and came to a stop. Both men survived. I do not know if the courageous man was a Christian or belonged to any faith community. But his risk for the sake of another represents God’s values. His action is so memorable because it contradicts a common human value of calculated risk.
Most of us will not face giving our own precious life for the sake of another, but we do have have opportunities daily to consider how we define failure or success, or to choose between self-preservation or life-giving for others. In the clash between human values and God’s values, what does it look like to lose our life for the sake of the gospel in order to save it?
1David Rhoads, “Losing Life for Others in the Face of Death,” Interpretation, October 1993, p.359