The episode that we proclaim from St. Mark’s Gospel this morning is familiar to us because it appears in one form or another in three of the four Gospels. The question of Jesus’ identity is really the focus of St. Mark’s Gospel, the first Gospel to be written. So the question as Jesus poses it is really inevitable. His activities of proclaiming, teaching, healing, and exorcising demons have forced speculation about who he is. In fact, the disciples have asked this question themselves four chapters earlier when Jesus calmed the storm that had threatened to capsize their boat on the Sea of Galilee. “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?” Now Jesus turns the tables and, in a two-step progression, probes the understanding of both people and his disciples.
Everybody is right, but not right enough. The people have situated Jesus within the prophetic tradition. His ultimate identity is that the spirit of John the Baptist or Elijah inhabits him. This connotes he is ushering in the messianic age. Others would not go that far. His is one of the prophets, denouncing the failures of the covenant relationship with God and urging a return to the ways of God. Jesus fits this picture, but it is only a partial picture.
Peter takes it a step further. Jesus is the Messiah, the awaited one. This is true, but it is not for public consumption. Peter has the right word, but Peter does not have the right understanding. Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man which quite literally means that he lives in solidarity with God and with his neighbor. While it is true of Jesus, it must also be true of his disciples. They too must live in solidarity with God and with the people who follow Jesus. Jesus is redefining what it means to be the Messiah. It means suffering, dying, and rising from the dead. The healings and exorcisms of suffering people were revelations of God’s love, a love that people had to understand and out of which they had to live. Jesus was not someone who performed random miracles. They were part of a deeper revelation. This is why Jesus silenced people after healing them. He feared they would spread misunderstanding and not the Good News.
It is also why he silences Peter when Peter began to rebuke him for talking about suffering and death. Jesus’ answer is to turn his back to Peter and tell him, quite literally, to get back to following him. If Peter thinks that being the Messiah is about glory and triumph for the Messiah himself and for his followers, he is sadly mistaken. Being the Messiah is about rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection. That is how Jesus’ life will unfold. However, it is also how the lives of his followers will unfold.
Scripture scholars have posed that this Gospel was written in Rome by a man who acted as Peter’s secretary or scribe. Remember, Peter was a fisherman and may have been illiterate. The Gospel actually appears just before the persecution begun by Emperor Nero. The Christian community of Rome was aware that this persecution was brewing. There were questions among them. Had they been duped by Jesus? Was their decision to follow “the Way,” as it was first called, a mistake? To bolster the morale of the community and to answer the doubts that were troubling them, Mark’s Gospel speaks of suffering more than the other two synoptic Gospels put together. The entire Gospel is overshadowed by the Cross.
The two readings that accompany this Gospel passage remind us of the place that suffering holds in the life of the disciple. Isaiah saw Israel as God’s suffering servant, as one who found vindication in God’s call to adhere to God’s covenant. The Letter of St. James reminds us all that faith is empty if it is only a faith of words and ideas. It must be accompanied by works, works like those performed by Jesus who is seen consistently as one who alleviates the pain and suffering of those suffering from disease or disability or the possession of evil spirits. Peter had to come to realize that his faith in Jesus as the Messiah also meant that he had to embrace the Cross. The same holds true for each of us who proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator