Second Sunday in Lent (Year B)

We know that the ways of God are different from the ways of the world.

Icon of Abraham, Sarah, and Moses
Shkolnik, Dmitry. Icon of Abraham, Sarah, and Moses, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn.

March 1, 2015

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Commentary on Mark 8:31-38

We know that the ways of God are different from the ways of the world.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8,9).

The disciples learned this in what must have been for them the most shocking thing Jesus had ever told them up until now.

We are so accustomed to the message of Jesus’ crucifixion that it is easy to overlook how jarring that prospect would have been for the disciples. The great hope of the Israelite people at that time was freedom from the Roman overlords. Having seen Jesus’ miracles, experienced his magnetic personality as they followed him, and watched him draw enthusiastic crowds, it would have been totally natural for them to assume that Jesus would somehow challenge the servility they lived under with the Romans.

Everything they had seen Jesus do and heard him say until this time had been impressive and had no doubt spurred within them big hopes for the future.

But now this. Jesus astonished and dismayed them with the news that — contrary to all their hopes and expectations — he would undergo suffering, be rejected by the religious leaders and killed.

It was the worst possible thing Jesus could have said.

Peter — always the impetuous one — “rebuked” him. Mark doesn’t tell what Peter said, but we can surmise that it was something like, “We have seen what power you have and thought you would free us from the Romans and restore the kingdom of Israel to its previous glory.” Jesus responded that such an opinion is a “human” way of thinking. It’s what we all would have thought had we been among those first disciples.

Jesus not only rebukes Peter, but then shocks them even more deeply by telling them that his way of the cross may well be their future too. Those who would follow him will “deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” As if that’s not enough, Jesus continues with even more unexpected and totally unforeseen news: To save your life you must lose it. You may lose your lives for Jesus sake.

This news was so contrary to the disciple’s expectations and so difficult to comprehend that Jesus would have to repeat it twice more. The second time he spoke of his they still did not understand him, but “were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:31), probably for fear of being rebuked again.

When they were going to Jerusalem, Jesus told them yet a third time of his impending death, this time with an even more grim and graphic description, namely that he will be condemned, handed to the Gentiles, who will mock him, spit on him, flog him and kill him, but that he will rise again (Mark 10:33-34). Listening to Jesus predict this ending for him must have been the worst three days of the disciples’ time with Jesus.

It was Jesus’ way of helping them begin to understand that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” It was a bitter pill for the disciples to swallow! But it was necessary that they understand, otherwise they would miss the whole point of Jesus’ ministry, i.e., that he came to give his life for the salvation of them and us.

By our human nature we want to be prosperous, strong, successful and influential. Jesus has other priorities. He, on the other hand, came to serve, not to be served. His ways are not our ways, yet he invites us to follow him and his ways.

The Christian church at the time of the Renaissance was riding high. It dominated the personal, social and political lives of Europeans. The landscape was dotted with its magnificent cathedrals. The church could command armies to do its will. Its leaders lived like princes, surrounded by wealth and pomp.

In its return to the Bible, the Reformation rejected this “theology of glory” in favor of a “theology of the cross.” To follow Jesus is to live lives of service to others, to serve rather than to control and dominate. It means the opposite of being proud of station and status for ourselves at the expense of others.

The “theology of the cross” or “to deny oneself” does not mean a contrived kind of humility. We do not follow Jesus by demeaning ourselves. We are called upon to do the very best we can with the talents and abilities God has given us. To “deny oneself” means to keep one’s priorities in harmony with what Jesus told us in the two “great commandments” — love God and love your neighbor (Mark 12:28-31).

There was, to be sure, a ray of hope in what Jesus said that day, although the disciples may not have heard it. Jesus will be killed, but he will also rise again (Mark 8:31). Furthermore, those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel will save it (Mark 8:35). But at this time the disciples would not have known how those promises would come true.

Jesus gives us this hope for the future, but in this text we are called upon to follow him not just for this future, but in this life. Furthermore, to follow him now means a life “more abundant,” as he said (John 10:10). As one pastor said, “we follow Jesus not just to be saved or to go to heaven; we follow Jesus because it’s worth it.”

The psalm for today, Psalm 22 reflects the message of this gospel text. The first verse is quoted by Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Verse 24 speaks of suffering, but in the end, as in today’s gospel, there is restoration and deliverance (Verses 29-31).