Walking Trees and Dire Costs
St. Mark continues his theological biography, and following last week’s healing of the blind and speech impaired man, the Roman Lectionary jumps ahead to Chapter 8: 27-35. During the interim Jesus performs his second multiplication of loaves and fishes; he is the only evangelist to describe two such events. Most scholars see Mark’s doublet here as symbolic of his mission to Israel and the Gentile world. In Mark’s first account, the disciples gather twelve baskets of leftovers (an allusion to the Twelve Tribes) while in Chapter 8 there are seven baskets collected. Francis Moloney explains that in the secular world (pardon the anachronism) the number “7” indicates completeness, and the Bible itself connects the integer “7” to a variety of circumstances, from Genesis 10 where it is reported that there are 70 nations in the world, to Acts 6 where 7 deacons are ordained to serve the Hellenized (non-Jewish) Christians.
But as in John’s Gospel a few weeks ago the breads miracle is the opening of a chapter long discussion; the parallels between the early writer Mark and the much later writer John are quite remarkable here. Jesus returned to his Jewish homeland shortly after the second breads miracle, and immediately is confronted by Pharisees demanding a sign. Jesus, depicted in 8:12 as weary and troubled in spirit, gets into a boat and heads for the other shore. The disciples in 8:14 realize that they had only one loaf in the boat. Jesus awakens, and warns them that they were drifting into the dangerous territory of “the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Their faith was sorely lacking, and there was no better proof than the worry of the disciples fretting about the limitations of their one loaf after they had seen Jesus feed two groups of 9,000 in the Markan accounts.
The issue of faith is such a problem that Mark inserts the second half of what is problem another doublet, Mark 8: 22-26. This is a repeat of last Sunday’s reading, the healing of a blind man. Jesus again uses spit, rubbing it on his eyes and laying hands upon him. What happens next is one of the New Testament’s more memorable phrases. When Jesus asks him if he sees anything, the man replies, “I see people looking like trees and walking around.” Jesus then lays hands upon him again, and this time the man sees perfectly. All of my commentaries agree that the story is an analogy for the growth of faith, a direct response to the blindness of the disciples described in the previous paragraph. Strongly implied, of course, is the gradual coming to full faith as seen in the blind man’s restoration to full sight. Mark, too, is the only evangelist to dare state that Jesus could not perform miracles in the absence of faith. (Mark 6:5)
This brings us to Sunday’s Gospel. Francis Moloney reminds us that there are two audiences witnessing Jesus’ ministry: we the readers, who know that Jesus is “the Son of God” from the opening line of the Gospel (Mark 1:1), and Jesus’ disciples who are still evidently struggling with Jesus’ identity and meaning. Moloney goes on to explain that Mark 8: 27ff is the turning point of this Gospel, for we have Peter’s confession of faith that at one level at least has settled the identity question. What is still up in the air, of course, is whether the disciples understood the cost of discipleship, which Jesus elaborates as Sunday’s reading unfolds.
Moloney also notes that Mark 8:27, with Jesus heading to Caesarea Philippi, is the beginning of a showdown journey to Jerusalem. Luke has a similar journey motif in his Gospel. As Jesus and his disciples are proceeding, Jesus asks them what people think of his identity. Their answers are good and accurate. Mark himself had recorded earlier that King Herod believed Jesus to be John the Baptist returned from the dead. Then Jesus addresses the group in a very personal way with the same question, and Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.” This is quite a step from the earlier answers, for all of the individuals identified by the disciples had been precursors of the Messiah. Peter’s answer—whether he understood the implications of the theology of this title with precision or not—is a significant act of faith, which at its face means that Jesus is the One who has come to complete history, so to speak. It is worth noting, too, that all four Gospels—in various formats—have Peter make the corporate act of faith for the Twelve.
For all of its power, the statement of Peter does not include an understanding of precisely how the Messiah would accomplish his work. For in 8:31 Jesus outlines his own violent death. Peter reacts strongly, “rebuking” Jesus, in fact. Jesus issues an even stronger rebuke to Peter, to the point of calling him Satan. “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” We are reminded here that about fifteen years earlier St. Paul had described the cross as “scandal to Jews and folly to Greeks.” Peter’s error is understandable at one level, but given what he and the others had seen and heard, more was certainly expected.
The reading continues at 8:34 with Jesus now addressing the crowd with his disciples. His words here are best summarized as “the cost of discipleship.” For “whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Jesus goes on to say that “whoever wishes to find his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” There is the great temptation to interpret Mark here as speaking metaphorically, but three factors must be considered. First, there was still a strong component of Mark’s original audience that considered the Second Coming as an imminent event; for them, time was short and an imminent death was a small price to pay for life in the New Kingdom. Secondly, Mark’s Gospel was probably written during a time of persecution of Christians, and Jesus’ words would have highly pertinent to the original audience. And finally, Mark’s recording of Jesus’ words were taken at face value by St. Luke writing some years later. Luke records Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ words, but he editorializes by adding the word “daily” (Luke 9:23) so that the disciple must daily take up his cross; Luke was the first evangelist who seems to have considered that Christianity might last for years and centuries, and he expands the spirituality of “taking up the cross” into daily living.
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