Monday, May 04, 2020

Mark 8:34-38, 9 1-10

and when he had called the people unto him
with his disciples also
he said unto them,
"whosoever will come after me,
let him deny himself,
and take up his cross
and follow me
for whosoever will save his life shall lose it;
but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's,
the same shall save it.
for what shall it profit a man,
if he shall gain the whole world,
and lose his own soul?
or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words
in this adulterous and sinful generation
of him also shall the Son of Man be ashamed,
when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

We have just heard Jesus speaking to the disciples, and then to Peter alone. But Jesus is now speaking to the multitude -- the crowd. Everyone hears this bit.

The conversation with the disciples about Jesus' identity happened on the road. So isn't it likely that the crowd has also joined them on the road; that Jesus is continuing to walk and talk? In which case, Jesus has turned a concrete situation into a spiritual metaphor. "You are following me down the road. But let me tell you what it would be like to really go down the road I am on...."

First, anyone who wants to walk behind Jesus would have to disown or denounce himself. Expressions like "take up the cross" and "we all have our cross to bear" have worked their way into our language and lost their force. But for Jesus and Mark, stauron only means a grotesque and disgusting implement of torture. "If you want to walk down the road that I am walking down you are going to have to waterboard yourself" might do the trick. This is an entirely new strand of teaching, not obviously following on from anything Jesus has been saying about wheat and farmers. 

The second thing Jesus says seems to contradict the first. He says, "Completely give yourself up. Pretend you don't exist. Be prepared to be killed in the nastiest way possible." But then he says "Hang on to your psyche, your spirit, your essence, who you are. Nothing is more valuable than that. Your person-hood is more valuable than the entire universe."

He then throws in a perplexing "therefore". You need to completely give up on Self; and you need to hang onto Self above all things: it follows from that that you if you are ashamed of Jesus in the here and now, he will be ashamed of you when he comes back "in the glory of his father".

The crowd didn't hear the previous conversation. They don't know that Jesus has accepted the title of King. Talk of him shining with God's glory and being accompanied by God's angels must have taken them aback, slightly.

It is certainly an obscure saying. But we can see a sort of a thread. Completely disown yourself. Hold onto yourself at all costs. These two things are kind of the same. The Son of Man is going to be rejected and killed. The Son of Man is going to be lent the glory of God and command God's armies. These two things are also kind of the same.

and he said unto them,
"verily I say unto you,
that there be some of them that stand here, 
which shall not taste of death, 
till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power." 

Jesus has been preaching about the Kingdom of God from the beginning. It's like the man who threw seeds outside his house, and was surprised when flowers suddenly sprung up. It's like a tiny seed which grows into a huge tree. Peter has called Jesus King: and now King Jesus says to the wider crowd that the Kingdom of God is going to arrive really, really soon. Not today, not tomorrow, but within decades. And when it comes, it is going to come with power. That word again: dunamis. It's going to come with mighty works. With miracles. With an abundance of miracle-juice.

This is probably the hardest saying in the whole canon. Some of the people who heard Jesus speak at Caesarea Philippi that day, sometime around the thirtieth year of the common era, will still be alive when the kingdom of God arrived. Some of those exact people must still have been alive when Mark's book came out. Some of them may even have even read it.

The standard Biblical lifetime of a human being is said to be three score years and ten; so if "some standing here" includes children, the Kingdom is allowed to be delayed for another sixty years -- say until 110 CE. But if Jesus is only talking to the adults in the room, the Kingdom has got to come by CE 70 or 80. If we take the kingdom referred to here to be the same event referred to in the last verse -- the time when the Son of Man will appear in the glory of his father with holy Angels in attendance -- we would have to say that this prophecy was never fulfilled. Jesus never came back. And that, theologically speaking, is a bit awkward.

Logically, there are five options available to us.

1: Jesus was wrong.

2: Jesus never said it. Mark remembered it wrong.

3: Jesus didn't mean that the Kingdom would come very soon. He meant that some of those listening to him preach would live forever.

4: Jesus was using "taste of death" in some esoteric sense -- of course everyone listening would eventually die, but in some deeper sense some of them would not "taste" death.

5: Jesus was using the word "kingdom", not to refer to something which people would still be waiting for two thousand years later, but something which did indeed happen in the lifetime of his audience:. The Resurrection; Pentecost and the destruction of the Temple are three popular candidates.

But let's not get too hung up on this verse. Let's look at the whole chapter. Jesus has accepted the title of King. He has openly referred to God as his Father. He has said that he is going to die, and then "stand up" -- whatever that means. He is going to appear with God's glory and with the angels -- whatever that means. This is going to happen real soon. This is the same Jesus who has, up to now, been trying to keep his miracles secret and ordering demons to keep quiet about him. Something is about to change.

and after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John 
and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves 
and he was transfigured before them.
and his raiment became shining
exceeding white as snow
so as no fuller on earth can white them.
and there appeared unto them Elias with Moses: 
and they were talking with Jesus.
and Peter answered and said to Jesus, 
"master, it is good for us to be here: 
and let us make three tabernacles; 
one for thee, 
and one for Moses, 
and one for Elias."
for he wist not what to say
for they were sore afraid.
and there was a cloud that overshadowed them: 
and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, 
"this is my beloved Son: hear him."
and suddenly, 
when they had looked round about, 
they saw no man any more, 
save Jesus only with themselves.
and as they came down from the mountain, he charged them 
that they should tell no man what things they had seen, 
till the Son of Man were risen from the dead.
and they kept that saying with themselves, 
questioning one with another what the rising from the dead should mean

Pretend you are reading this story for the first time.

Pretend, perhaps, that you have grown up in Galilee. All the old people claim to have known someone who knew Jesus, in the way that every old Scouser knows someone who was at school with Paul McCartney. Some of them refer to him as the Prophet Jesus. Some think he was the prophesied forerunner and that the Messiah himself will be along any day now.

And then this book comes out. The memoirs of Peter, some people say.

Peter has just said, for the first time "You are the King". Jesus has just said "Some of you lot standing here will live to see God's Miracle Kingdom". Okay, you think. So that is Mark's unique selling point. That is what his mysterious God-spell thing is all about. Jesus wasn't just a prophet who came down from heaven in a fiery chariot. He was the Messiah all the time.

But that's not the big secret. That's only the first part of the secret. Now read on.

There is a mountain about sixty miles north of Capernaum. It is notable today for being Israel's only ski resort. It's the highest mountain in the area: you can see the whole country from the top. You'd have to pass through Caesarea Philippi to get there. A very high mountain is a very good place to go if you are planning to have a special meeting with God. Sinai would be better but Sinai is three hundred miles away. This was the whole purpose of the trip. They passed through Ceasarea and had a very important conversation on the way, but Mount Harmon was always where they were headed.

Jesus takes the Big Three up the hill. (I suppose he left Andrew in charge down below.) And....voom. Divine fanfare. Special effects sequence. Everything you think you know is wrong.

Jesus changes. "Transfigured" is a religious word. We pretty much only use it when talking about this story. Mark's actual Greek word is one that we use in modern English. He says that Jesus metemorpothe: he metamorphosed. Like a very hungry caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly.

Jesus's clothes change. Mark's language is disconcertingly concrete. He literally says that Jesus's clothes became whiter than any known washing powder could wash them. ("Such as a launderer on the earth is not able thus to whiten").

Two force-ghosts join him: not just any two but the two founders of Judaism. Moses, the friend of God who wrote down the Torah, and Elijah, the most famous of all the Prophets. The one who went to heaven without dying first. They are talking with Jesus.

Mark doesn't tell us what they talked about, and I think that is dramatically right. This is grown-up talk: Jesus talking to two titans on equal terms. Why would Peter and James and John be privy to it? Peter is terrified, and offers to put up some tents, as you would. Possibly in order to calm him down, everyone is enveloped in a cloud. Some commentators tell us that "over-shadowed" means "enveloped in brightness" but I can't see anything in the text which requires that reading. Jesus is super-bright; suddenly everything goes dark, so only those people on the mountain hear the next bit. The actual voice of God, actually God, actually says actual words: "This is the son of me, the beloved, listen you to him."

And then everything is back to normal. No prophets, no cloud, and I suppose Jesus's normal clothes, dusty from a six day slog from Capernaum to Ceasarea.

I don't think that the divine voice has gone to all this trouble so it can say to the chief disciples "This is my son, so you should have a good listen to what he has to say: it's really worth hearing." They are all doing that already.

Jesus keeps concluding his teaching sessions by says "If you have ears, you can hear" and the disciples keep entirely failing to hear. God has taken them up the mountain to cure them of their deafness. He is giving them the capacity to understand what Jesus is saying. "Hear him!" means "I give you the power to hear him!" I am taking away the impediment; I am making it possible for you to understand; I am letting you in on the big secret. It makes us think of what Jesus said to the deaf man. "Be opened".

We are pretending that we are reading this story for the first time. But those of us who have read it before may have scratched our heads when we came to Mark's account of Peter's confession. Hasn't Mark left a bit out? Or put another way: haven't Matthew and Luke -- the other Gospel writers, probably more familiar to us than Mark -- put an extra bit in?

Here is Mark, again:

And He was questioning them, “But whom do you pronounce me to be?” 
Peter answering, says to him, 
“You are the Christ.”. 
And he warned them that they should tell no one concerning him. 

But here is Matthew, telling the same story

He says to them, “But whom do you pronounce Me to be?” 
And Simon Peter answering said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 
And Jesus answering, said to him, 
“Blessed are you, Simon Barjona! 
For flesh and blood did not reveal it to you, 
but My Father in the heavens. 
And I also say to you that you are Peter, 
and on this rock I will build My church, 
and the gates of Hades not will prevail against it. 
I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of the heavens, 
and whatever you might bind on the earth shall have been bound in the heavens, 
and whatever you might loose on the earth shall have been loosed in the heavens.” 
Then He instructed the disciples that they should tell no one that He is the Christ.

I'm not for the moment interested in why Matthew adds a hundred words about what a great guy Peter is before we get to the bit where Jesus denounces him as Satan. (Perhaps Peter was too shy to report that bit to Mark? Or perhaps Matthew felt obliged to add a few word bigging up the head of the Church in Rome?) But I am very interested in Peter's declaration about Jesus. 

Mark says Peter makes one claim: "You're the Messiah". 

But Matthew says he makes two. "You're the Messiah; you're the Son of God."

Matthew's Jesus is quite sure that Peter didn't work that out for himself: God told him. This makes the story of transfiguration rather redundant. Jesus takes Peter all the way up the mountain so that God can tell him what he already knew on the ground. Peter announces that Jesus is the Son of God. And then Peter goes up the mountain, and God tells him that Jesus is the Son of God.

Matthew's Gospel is an expanded retelling of Mark, almost definitely. In general, Matthew adds words and lines and verses to what Mark says. But in a very small number of cases, Matthew leaves stuff out. The story of the two-stage healing of the blind man is one such case. Mattew deleted it. It only appears in Mark.

I think that Matthew understood Mark's story about the blind man very well. I think he recognized that the blind man represented the disciples. I think he saw that the disciples, like the blind man, only gradually had their eyes opened. They partly understood Jesus at first, they understood him more fully later on. At first, the blind man can see nothing. Then he can see vague shapes that could be people but could be trees. Then he can see perfectly. At first, the disciples have no idea who Jesus is. Then Peter reveals that he is the Messiah. Then God reveals that he is the Son of God. 

And Matthew doesn't like that. He thinks Peter's eyes were opened all in one go. So the story of the blind man has to end up on the cutting room floor. 

Perhaps Mark is particularly addressing those people who still think Jesus is the prophet Elijah. That's okay, he is saying. You are part of the way there. You don't necessarily see the whole thing at once. 

Perhaps there is a divergence of theological opinion. Perhaps Mark thinks that the Messiah-ship of Jesus is something that human beings can work out for themselves; but that his divine Son-ship is something which requires a supernatural revelation. Matthew doesn't think you can know any of it unless God tells you. And he thinks that Peter -- more than James and John and even Andrew -- is Top Apostle because he was the one God decided to tell.

I prefer Mark's version. Looking at Jesus and trying to tease out what these cryptic and self-contradictory puzzles mean will take you a long way. They will take you to the point where you can see that Jesus is God's special King. But that won't help you to grasp the idea that God's special King is going to be an apparent failure. 

Like the disciples on the boat, you are probably looking and looking but not seeing. Like Peter, you're probably still saying "oh, no, no, no, God, you've got that bit wrong." You can only see the whole picture when God decides you can.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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1 comment:

Scurra said...

My dad (a vicar) likes to also note that this bit (the Transfiguration and the declaration) comes exactly half way through Mark's gospel; the set-up has been completed and the second half of the story is the pay-off.