Commentary on Mark 8:31-38
With the power of brevity, Mark puts before us Jesus’ correction of Peter’s clear identification of Jesus as God’s anointed one.
This passage is located in a longer, dynamite unit. Beginning in 8:17, Jesus asks the twelve a series of questions revealing their incomprehension of who he is. In 8:21, Jesus’ final question is, “Do you not yet understand?” It is made even more poignant by the use of an imperfect verb describing his speech, a verb which might well be translated, “He kept on saying to them, “Do you not yet understand?” What a question for Christians in the 21st century, let alone for Christians in the second week of Lent!
It is that question, “Do you not yet understand?” that gives rise to 8:22-10:52. The central portion of Mark’s gospel, these chapters begin and end with stories of healing blind men. In 8:22-26 Jesus privately heals a man’s blindness, though it requires two steps to complete the process. In 10:46-52, Jesus publicly heals the blindness of Bartimaeus, the beggar, in one step. In between the stories of healing the blind come Jesus’ three predictions of his passion, of which Mark 8:31-38 is the first.
It is remarkable (pun intended!) with no apology, that after each of three passion predictions, there is a story making it clear the disciples still “do not understand.” In 9:33-41 there are two stories where the disciples radically misread their own context and Jesus’ ministry. In 10:35-45, the same holds true. In our passage, 8:31-38, we have the first example of Jesus’ prediction, followed by a story of misperception so strongly worded; it could not have been forgotten by anyone who had heard it.
In conversation with the twelve, Jesus inquires about the local buzz (8:27-28). What are they saying about me? Who do they say that I am? The answers are not inappropriate: Jesus has behaved very much as one of the ancient prophets, both in his deeds and in his words announcing the imminence of God’s kingdom. He also sounds like John the Baptist, as Mark characterized him earlier. Elijah is a hopeful guess; here is one whose presence was believed by some to herald the coming of God’s kingdom among humankind (see Malachi 4:5-6). If it were Elijah, the “great and terrible day of the Lord” would be right on the horizon.
Yet Peter knows a truth even more awesome than that. He knows that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s own anointed one.
Peter does not tell us what he means by “Christos.” After his “confession” of who Jesus is, Jesus “rebukes” him (it is the same word in 8:30, 32, 33, and is used for interactions with daemonic spirits in 1:25; 3:12; 9:25). In 8:30, the “rebuke” is not hostile, yet commanding nevertheless. Jesus’ insistence on silence is followed by his teaching of the twelve that he must suffer, die and rise again. In other words, Jesus defines “Christos” for them.
It is this definition that Peter wants to correct. Think of him as saying with great love, “Lord, don’t even go there.” But Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is a truly harsh correction. Peter has thought the matters of humankind, not of God. Better put, he has conceived Jesus’ identity and God’s realm in human terms, not in godly ones. Such misconception is the very stuff of Satan. It is dangerous business to limit God’s way of being in the world to what we desire.
In the stories following the passion predictions in Mark 9 and 10, we see that the twelve are unable to imagine one who comes to serve all rather than take a leading place. They cannot escape their own understanding of what is valuable and worthwhile, and are trapped into the blindness we all share of operating by invisible contemporary paradigms.
The terrible naming of Peter as Satan should have been a warning to the disciples, after the other two passion predictions, to think before speaking. That they went ahead, asked for bad things, and continued to think in the ways of man suggests not that they are evil or even obtuse. Rather, Mark forces us to see that even when we think we have grasped something of Jesus in one circumstance, we fail to see in another. Our blindness is not healed in one step, or even in two or three. Like the disciples, we learn from being corrected, even rebuked. And like them, we fail to apply the lesson we learned, for the fullness of its meaning is beyond us.
It is no surprise that struggles to see continue throughout Mark’s gospel. Jesus is not seen at the end of the story, and the call to follow him does not include an experience of his presence. The Resurrected One is even more outside our experience than God, the Serving One. How is it that new life in God’s realm calls us to attention to things that were beneath our notice or unable to be grasped when we imagined all of life in human categories? These will be the questions of the strange Easter stories of Mark’s gospel. But here we are still in Lent. The struggle of the disciples to make a good confession of who Jesus will be is the thread that makes Mark the edgy narrative it is. It is also a thread in our own lives.
Let it be said, however, that Jesus continues to teach not simply for the sound of his own voice. And Mark has written this gospel not merely to get it in print. In 8:31, Jesus began to teach. He will and does continue. In 8:34 he teaches everyone. It is a tough message. To lose one’s life is to lose one’s whole way of thinking about the world, to revalue the whole experience we know as life−trusting that our valuing of life may be the blindness from which we need to be healed so that we can fully see and know the life that God gives us in God’s realm.