Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”
And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But 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.” 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. For 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those 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.”
Let's begin by looking at the writing strategy in the Gospel According to Mark.
As I mentioned to you before, the Gospel According to Mark was most likely written to a Roman audience. Remember that Mark had to explain what the Passover was and had to explain the dietary purification rituals to his audience and, if the audience were Jewish, they would not have needed such an explanation. No, these are not Jews who are his audience.
But we can also see certain sensibilities that were important to the Romans. Mark uses specific phrases and characterizations regarding Jesus that put his audience in mind of one of their heroes. That hero was Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar was a man of action and planning and strategy. He was charismatic and he cared for the poor. In fact, if you don't mind a brief history lesson, it was his concern for the poor that got him killed. Yes, yes, so many histories of the time try to portray the assassination of Julius Caesar as the noble Senate rising up against a man who was trying to consolidate power within himself. But the truth is that Rome had experienced several such leaders like Marius, Sulla, and others.
But what set Julius Caesar apart was his concern for the poor. He started works programs and food programs and it made him extremely popular. The Roman nobility could not bear their resources to be diverted to taking care of the poor.
And Jesus, like their Julius Caesar, was a man of action. In Mark's Gospel, the word immediately or straightaway is used 39 times. Mark is telling us that Jesus doesn't fool around. That explains why he needs periods of rest and two sometimes distance himself from the crowd. Jesus is always on the move.
One more thing about Mark and Caesar is the very first chapter of the Gospel. It tells us that when Jesus was baptized according to the Jewish tradition and especially that of John the baptizer, a dove was seen to descend on him. Now, you and I look at that and think that it represents the Holy Spirit and the text says that it was and we let it go at that. I mean, that is a momentous occasion and certainly worth remembering but Mark intends more than that. The descent of a dove was seen as a divine anointing, even to the Romans.
Here's how we know that: when Julius Caesar was considering who should be appointed as his heir, and he had many choices, he saw a dove descending on his nephew Octavian. That was his sign, he believed, that Octavian was to be his heir. In the very same way, Mark is using that image to intrigue his Roman audience and to signify that Jesus was the heir of God.
So, the Roman audience has it figured out, from chapter one, who Jesus really is. But Mark chooses to wait until chapter 8 to reveal it among the disciples. But this is also a strategy of writing in the ancient world. The Romans, especially, just hated having anything surprised on them in their literature. They demanded some kind of foreshadowing or some hint as to where the story was going to go. A modern Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie detective story would never fly in ancient Rome. They want to figure it out and have the answer before they ever get to the last page. This is why we see Jesus foreshadowing his death and his suffering throughout Mark, so that it will not come as a surprise to the audience who reads it.
Literarily speaking, therefore, chapter 8 of Mark is some pretty exciting stuff. The Roman audience is hooked on who Jesus is and the drama builds as Jesus begins to reveal what will happen to him. The scene takes place in Caesarea Philippi, a Gentile city northeast of Galilee. This is outside their normal environs, in a place where teaching could take place for them and only them. For a little while.
As I said, the audience knows who Jesus is but in chapter 8, verse 27, Jesus asks his disciples who he is. Of course, we know their answers: some say John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the prophets. If you remember the story of king Herod and John the Baptist from Mark chapter 6, you will notice that the disciples give the very same answer that Herod gave! The disciples seemed to be no more informed than wicked king Herod.
Then Jesus pushes them beyond that. Alright, that's what the people say but you can do better. He asked them directly “but who do you say that I am?” of all people, it was Simon Peter who gave the answer that Jesus is the Messiah. In other translations it uses the word Christ but, let's be clear, Messiah and Christ are the Hebrew and Greek words for “the anointed one.” so let's not fret over the use of Christ or Messiah. They both mean the same thing.
Then Jesus orders them to be quiet about it. It wasn't yet time to stir up that kind of trouble. In fact, the word that is used to command silence was the very same word used in exorcisms. It is a divine command.
Then, in verse 31, Jesus begins to show his disciples—and Mark shows his audience—that Jesus is going to suffer and be rejected and die. Well, that was just too much for the Roman crowd. To see a good man suffer betrayal and death was agonizing.
In Aristotle’s work called The Poetics, he says that the hero of a tragedy must be flawed, that he must have some dark side that can make us associate with him and can also alleviate the pain of watching him suffer. I say him because Aristotle did not have many female protagonists. Aristotle said, “the suffering of an innocent man is too much to bear.” and yet, that is the very story of Jesus. The Greeks and the Romans understand this. The story of Jesus goes against everything the Greeks and Romans hold dear in their heroes and in their literature.
But, once again, this is also what happened to Caesar. A good man who cared for the poor but even Caesar had his failings and his flaws. Caesar was not a sinless, spotless man. So, imagine the pain of the Roman audience that they felt for their hero Caesar who was flawed but now they see one better than Caesar who is without blemish but yet suffers betrayal and death.
Mark's Gospel is relentless. Even Simon Peter tries to pull Jesus aside and say, “no, no. These things can't happen.” but Jesus is so intent on his mission that he equates Simon Peter, the man who just revealed who Jesus really is, wish an adversary. Let's be clear, Jesus is not calling Simon Peter the devil. The word Satan means simply adversary or opponent. Simon Peter’s fear and weakness puts him at odds with the courage and conviction required of a true disciple.
After rebuking Peter, Jesus then calls the crowd together with his disciples and tells them what it means to be a disciple. They have to deny themselves, deny their fears, and do what Jesus does by following him. If their life is the most important thing to them, they will lose it but, if they surrender their lives to following Christ, then they will gain so much more.
The audience of the Gospel According to Mark see that very clearly. Separated by almost 2000 years, may we have the same discerning eyes and ears to see it in the same way. This Gospel story is about following Christ in his suffering, aloneness, betrayal and, for the disciples and many of those in Church History, even death.
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