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  • Michael Minch

Mark 8:22-9:1

Jesus challenges the disciples and Mark’s readers:  “Who do you say that I am?” (29).  This question is the fulcrum upon which the gospel narrative balances.  And the answer we give is the character of Christianity in the world.  Do we know who we are following, and what is he about?  Is giving the right words in answer to this question enough?

This is a kind of “second prologue,” like the first, it begins “on the way.”  In 1.2 it was the “way through the wilderness.”  Now, it is the way “to Jerusalem.”  The second half of the Gospel abandons the narrative sites of sea, boat, and wilderness.  The journey across waters now becomes a journey from the margins of Palestine to its center.  Beginning on the extreme north of Mark’s world (near present-day Lebanon), Jesus will slowly wind his way down through Galilee, then into Judea, and Jerusalem.  Mark is now going to rebuild the plot tension in preparation for the showdown in Jerusalem.  All of this is part of an ongoing struggle over Jesus’ identity and what that means for us.

Jesus Heals the Blind (not simply, “the blind man”) 8.22-26

Jesus uses Isaiah for this motif, e.g., Isa. 29.18; 35.5; 43.8.  Bethsaida was not actually a “village” (kome), but rather, a Hellenistic city (polis).  Perhaps Mark calls it a village as a kind of refusal to recognize its Hellenistic identity, but this small matter is not clear (and passed over by most commentators).  The thing that makes this healing stand out from the earlier healing of the deaf-mute in 7.37, is that it is something like a two-step process.  After Jesus’ first application of spit the man reports an odd thing:  seeing people, but they are so out of focus that they look like “walking trees”!  That’s an odd description, but it makes clear that the full healing of this man awaits.  

The most important thing about this healing is that it is meant to be seen in light of the spiritual blindness of the disciples that has just been mentioned.  The reader is invited to see the blind man as a metaphor for the blind disciples.  The story is a literary sub-plot that mirrors the developments of the major plot: the story intimates that the disciples too, will have a “second touch,” but only after they have struggled with an incomplete and blurred vision of Jesus.  Peter will make a true but uncomprehending confession in the next section:  “You are the Christ.”  We will see that the disciples will not understand the meaning of that confession (Camery-Hoggatt, 220). Understanding will happen later.  Morna Hooker calls this an “acted parable of the miracle of faith” (198).  The miracle visually demonstrates the spiritual malady of the disciples, and their understanding of who Jesus is also occurs in two stages.  That is, they now see in part, but they will see more fully.  Painter suggests that this story is a parable of hope about the disciples—now they see in part, but in time, they will come to see more clearly. 

The placement of this healing story by Mark is not random, but artful.

Credo at Caesarea-Philippi, Peter’s Confession, 8.27-33

Here, Jesus again turns and interrogates his disciples, a Markian device, as in the boat scene

we’ve just left.  Though not cited directly, the “Who am I?” is an allusion to the important dialogue between the founding prophet Moses and Yahweh at the burning bush (Ex. 3).  Afterall, Jesus is now ready to begin the long march to Jerusalem to confront the powers, as Moses was summoned to Egypt to confront the powers and liberate the people from Pharaoh.  Jesus, is, of course, on his own expedition of liberation.  “Who am I?” marks the very heart of Markian discourse-as-challenge.  The disciples’ response here is almost exactly parallel to Mark’s editorial report back in 6.14f.  

Peter’s answer to this question is momentous.  It introduces into the story for the first time the politically loaded term, “Messiah” (Christos).  Jesus is not only a prophet and rabbi, he is also a royal, therefore, political figure who will restore certain kinds of political fortunes for Israel.  The revolution, Peter is saying, is at hand.  With his confession, Mark’s story takes a radical turn.  The question of Jesus’ identity has been asked repeatedly in the narrative, from 1.22 on, and Mark has martialed a number of stories to confirm that opening salvo: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ… (1.1).  Mark has been showing us who Jesus is, but also showing us that Jesus’ identity is repeatedly lost on the other characters in the story.  The narrative strategy, of course, is this: as the characters stumble along, the readers/hearers can grasp the superior, and truthful view, informed by dimensions of the narrative the characters cannot hear.  It is not insignificant that the Centurion’s confession that Jesus is the Son of God will come at the foot of the cross (Camery-Hoggatt, 223-25).  

It's not enough to know that Jesus is the Christ/anointed of God.  It is necessary to know what it means, including, intrinsically, what it means for oneself and for the world.   

A part of understanding this crucial scene is being aware of its important setting.  Caesarea Philippi was a major Hellenistic city built by Herod Philip in honor of Augustus.  It had been called Paneas in honor of the god Pan, and there had been a shrine for Pan there.  But now there was a shrine for the emperor cult.  In addition, it had also been a site where the god Baal had been worshipped.  Jesus then reveals something critically important about himself in this city dedicated to false gods.  We see something of great importance about the divine Jesus in this location of so much false divinity.  And to extend the paradox, the divine Jesus will insist on using the title Son of Man.  The People’s Man.  The Human Being.  The exhortation by Jesus for the disciples not to tell anyone he is the Messiah implies that he accepted the title but did not want it published about, lest doing so would lead to premature and gross misunderstanding.  A title without a context for its understanding can be worthless, damaging, and even, dangerous.  Jesus has only begun to provide the context for this title.  

The Passion Prediction, 8.31-38

At 8.31 Mark introduces a sub-theme which is perhaps on barely a sub-theme:  What will happen to Jesus will happen to his followers as well.  Leadership is servanthood.   Defeat is victory.  Death is the path to life.  Cf. Matthew 20.20-28.  If the mother of James and John has gotten her request, her sons would have been nailed to a cross on either side of Jesus.  In 8.31-33 Jesus announces for the first time that he will go to Jerusalem and die (an announcement Peter misunderstood).  Jesus will make three explicit announcements of this kind.  (Why?  One reason: ancient readers did not read silently to themselves, but only out loud, this was a device to emphasize.  Hebrew does the same thing.)

Mark’s Gospel was written for a church under persecution.  Families were divided.  Jews and Gentiles were divided.  The church was carrying out its moral, spiritual, and political mission in sharp contrast and some hostility, to the empire.  If Jesus was Lord, Caesar was not.  “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is the Christ” are the church’s earliest political, as well as theological, claims.

So Jesus’ hard, challenging words are not merely a warning or intimation to Mark’s church, but an interpretation of what was happening. 

9.1  “Truly (amen), some of you here now will not experience death before you see the kingdom of God coming into power and glory.”  

Power is related to suffering servanthood, being a community of love, truth, grace, and healing.  Paul referred to this as living as Christ lived, as he provided a “model” for us, “emptying” (kenosis) himself, in Phil. 2. 1-11.  Throughout Mark, Jesus has discouraged proclamation about himself and his works, he has propagated what theologians call a “messianic secret”—not allowing himself to be proclaimed as Messiah until the term and concept could be redefined—it has to be linked to suffering and crucifixion, to being the Crucified.  This idea of a suffering Messiah was radically new.


Although we are not called to invite suffering into our lives in a certain and important sense, as so doing would be a form of Gnosticism and Pelagianism (explain), and therefore a pathology and heresy-- in another way, living a life as a disciple of Jesus Christ does invite suffering… .  Barth said, “One cannot try to be a martyr, one can only be ready to be a martyr” (CD, III/4:79).

But what of those who suffer?  Do we fail to respond with love, compassion, peace, and justice?  Do we bless it?  We can be all too uncareful in our talk of suffering (one of the insights of feminist/womanist and liberation theologies).  Yet we are called to pick up our own crosses, which means nothing other than the expected result of clashing with the powers that run one’s society.  

Can we rich citizens of US empire and the colonial legacy, white supremacy, patriarchalism, and theological triumphalism we’ve inherited really understand this pericope, this call to discipleship, the Gospel itself?  How much we need the leadership of the Liberation theologians and communities!

Jesus asks his disciples what increasingly becomes the central question of his Gospel, the question of who he is.  This remains and always has been the central question.  CS Lewis boiled it down to this.  Jesus was a Liar, a Lunatic, or the Lord.  How do our lives answer this question?

Thanks for reading,





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