Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
Translation: And he began to teach them that it is necessary (for) the son of man to suffer much and to be rejected by the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes, and to be killed, and after three days, to rise. And he was speaking the word plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning around and he seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and he said, "Go behind me, Satan, for you are not thinking the things of God, but that of human beings."
And summoning the crowd together with his disciples, he said to them, "If anyone wishes to follow after me, that person must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me, for whoever might desire to save their life will lose it, but whoever will lose their life on account of me and the good news will save it, for how does it help a person to gain the whole universe and to lose their life? For what might a person give in exchange for their life? For whoever might be ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the son of man will be ashamed of that one whenever he might come in the glory of his father with the holy angels."
Background and situation: Just previous to this week's reading, Jesus had asked the disciples who people say that he is. Peter answers nobly, he thinks: "You are the Messiah."
Somewhat surprisingly, however, Jesus does not choose the word "Messiah" to describe himself. Instead, he refers to himself as "son of man." In doing so, he is identifying with the apocalyptic "son of man" figure in Daniel (7:13ff).
In Daniel 7, Daniel has a dream about the four "beasts." These "beasts" represent the worldly political powers. The "Ancient One" assumes his throne and judges them. One beast is killed, the "dominion" of the others is "taken away." Then, says Daniel:
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
14To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
It is this "human being" or, as previously translated, "son of man," that Jesus identifies with in Mark's gospel.
To this point in Mark, Jesus has spoken of himself as "son of man" twice previously, once in his challenge to the scribes (2:10) and later the pharisees (2:28). In other words, the "son of man" has been spoken of in previous contexts as being in conflict with the legal and moral leadership of Galilee. Now, here in chapter 8, this "son of man" will suffer and be killed by that leadership, but will be vindicated and "rise."
First passion statement: Jesus says "it is necessary"--dei--for the son of man to "suffer much." This is the first of three (what are called) "passion predictions" in Mark's gospel. They are not predictions, however, but rather a Markan literary device to accent the centrality of the cross and the disciples' on-going failure to apprehend its meaning.
In this first statement of the passion, Jesus speaks first to the disciples and then makes a discourse to both crowd and disciples on self-denial and taking up "their cross." Underlining the importance of the text, Jesus also, for the first time in Mark, includes the full list of his religious opponents: "the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes."
In the second "passion prediction" (9:30ff), Jesus speaks only to the disciples, but "they did not understand him." Then follows a story in which while "on the way," a crucial concept in Mark's gospel, the disciples were arguing amongst themselves as to which of them was the greatest. Jesus then teaches the disciples that the greatest is "the one who is last of all and servant of all."
In the third passion prediction (10:32ff), they are again "on the way," this time with the additional and ominous addition: "going up to Jerusalem." Again, he takes the disciples aside and tells them that he will be killed, this time going into a fuller and more graphic description of the suffering he will undergo. Immediately after, as if they had not heard a thing, James and John tell Jesus they want to be at his right and left hand "in his glory."
In this third passion prediction, Jesus again says "whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all," but this time, just before doing so, he criticizes the entire hierarchical structure of the "nations"--"those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them (10:43)."
The three passion predictions involve major themes that reverberate all through Mark's gospel. The most central of all is the suffering and death of the son of man who is also, paradoxically, the Son of God.
Secondly, all three instruct on the upside-down nature of the kingdom, and third, the disciples are relentlessly clueless throughout. He speaks "plainly" to them, yet they don't get it. In fact, each successive "passion prediction" also involves more direct and "private" teaching of the disciples, and they still don't get it.
Peter rebuked Jesus because Peter was clinging to notions of a triumphalistic Messiah and couldn't get his mind around the idea of this glorious figure suffering. Jesus won't let him go there. He rebukes Peter back, and then some. "Turning and seeing" the disciples, Jesus says "Go behind me, Satan," the strongest condemnation of any human being in Mark's gospel.
See also the Old Testament book of Zechariah. The high priest Joshua (Jesus in Hebrew) is standing before an angel of the Lord along with Satan. The Lord said to Satan: "The Lord rebuke you, O Satan!" (3.2).
Why rebuke Peter, and why in such strong language? Because Peter is thinking in a human way, and not the way of God. The human way is the way of hierarchy with its virtues of triumph and victory, what we Lutherans call "the theology of glory."
The way of God is the stark paradox of the Son of God reigning from the cross, giving himself for the life of the world, which is to be emulated by followers of Jesus in giving themselves for the service of others, what we Lutherans call "the theology of the cross."
The cross, as most everyone knows by now, was the punishment reserved for only the lowest of the low--slaves, the poor, and rebels against Rome. Rome believed that the death penalty was a deterrent to crime, which they defined as resistance to Rome.
Whatever their other more positive accomplishments, the Romans also suppressed rebellions with a ruthlessness and cruelty that would have shocked other more ancient empires, such as the supposedly more primitive Assyrians or Babylonians.
We "psychologize" the phrase "take up one's cross" today. Fred Buechner says it means "taking up the burdens of your own life." That would make a good sermon on its own merits, but that is not the message of Mark's gospel. In its original Markan context, the exhortation to "take up one's cross" would have been most likely understood as an exhortation to continue to oppose the Satanic, heirarchical worldly powers.
When a person was on the way to be crucified, they would indeed "take up their cross" and carry it to the place of execution. That would have been the first image that people in first century Israel would have brought to mind when they heard the phrase "take up one's cross."
In fact, the rest of the passage confirms the clear purpose of encouraging his followers to follow on the way of the cross. If his followers try to save their lives, as Peter will do, and Judas, they will lose it. If his followers are "ashamed" of him, he will be "ashamed" of them, which was a particularly powerful charge in a culture steeped in the psychological and social tensions of honor and shame.
Everything in Mark is oriented toward the cross, the place where the Crucified paradoxically reigns. Half the book of Mark is passion story. The shadow of the cross even falls from the end of the story back to the beginning when John is arrested (1:14).
It is precisely in his self-giving, in his "losing" his life, in his cross, that Jesus is revealed as God's Son (15:39). Faithful to the way of God to the end, even in the face of God's abandonment (15:34), Jesus is crushed by the powers, but vindicated by God in the resurrection.
Mark doesn't let his readers go to the resurrection too quickly, however, and never without the cross first. The first 15 chapters of Mark focus almost entirely on the cross, and chapter 16, the resurrection account, is rather vague and even somewhat discomfiting. (The women at the empty tomb were afraid, and fail to do what they are instructed.)
Mark wants the focus on the cross. There we see a stark demonstration of the violence and cruelty of the religious and political powers. Jesus' denial of himself shows not only his faithfulness to the way of God, but also shows the way for his disciples to follow.
Image: Yellow Christ, Paul Gauguin.