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Questions on the Way — Mark 8:27-9:1

Kathleen Rushton —

In her explanation of Mark 8:27-9:1 Kathleen Rushton highlights the significance for Christians of understanding suffering, death and resurrection for discipleship.

While they are “on the way”, Jesus asks his disciples a general question: “Who do people say that I am?” When Jesus asks a question it is often a signal that he is about to give a new teaching. That question prepares for a weightier and more personal one which is at the very heart of the Gospel and is addressed not only to the disciples but to every reader. We will need to listen to the question, and then respond from the depths of our hearts.

Near a Turning Point

All that Mark tells us about Jesus so far has led to his asking the disciples: “But you, who do you say I am?” We are near a turning point – the end of his ministry in Galilee (Mk 1:14-8:30) and the beginning of the journey to Jerusalem. Jesus has been presented as an authoritative teacher who reflects God’s power through “mighty deeds” (dynamis) of exorcism, healing, stilling the sea, walking on water and the multiplication of bread. Jesus has reached out to the most alienated, the suffering, sinners, women, the possessed and the marginalised.

Jesus has called himself the bridegroom (Mk 2:19), lord of the Sabbath (2:28), physician (Mk 2:17) and founder of a new community (Mk 3:14). His actions have inspired awe and amazement (Mk 1:27; 2:7; 4:41; 6:2). However, he has met with resistance and misunderstanding by religious authorities, his family, the townsfolk and his own disciples. Jesus has suppressed any talk of his messianic identity. His teachings are in parables. His actions are like parables both concealing and revealing the mystery of who he is.

Being On the Way

The Roman Empire looms in that “Jesus went on with his disciples towards the villages of Caesarea Philippi”, which is named after the emperor. Its buildings, activities and history were associated with imperial claims and power. “On the way” (Mk 8:27) evokes the Old Testament backdrop to Jesus’s actions. God led the people, for example, on “the way” out of Egypt. Later, Isaiah prophesied that God would prepare “a way” for the people to return joyfully to Zion (Jerusalem).

Likewise, the journey to Jerusalem (Mk 8:31-10:52) is both a geographical and a spiritual journey on which disciples learn that the way to share in the glory and resurrection of Jesus is by following him on the way of the cross. The Christian life as a journey and as a pilgrimage was so central to the early Church that “the Way” was the first name for Christianity (Acts 9:2; 18:25-26).

First Prediction of the Passion Mk 8:31-33

Peter’s confession: “You are the Messiah” marks a transition from the first half of this Gospel (all about the discovery of the identity of Jesus) to the second half (all about the mystery of his suffering and glory). This climax is followed by an astonishing anti-climax. In a sharp change of tone and direction, Jesus talks openly about his being the Messiah and that for his followers this will mean the cross. The Gospel story from now onwards is permeated by the cross-resurrection.

Jesus is vulnerable to the plots against him. He will “undergo great suffering” and be “rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes” — groups that comprised the Sanhedrin, the supreme religious authority. Yet here, as throughout the New Testament, his suffering and death is not the end — “after three days [he will] rise again.”

Cost of Discipleship Mk 8:31-9:1 Formation of Disciples

After Peter’s rather blundering response, Jesus speaks openly to the crowds and the disciples about radical discipleship. In six sayings, he outlines what it means to follow him “on the way”.

The first saying, beginning “Whoever wishes/wants to …”, indicates that to be a Christian is a personal decision. To “follow” is not to be a passive bystander but to follow Jesus wherever he goes. Denying ourselves requires a total shift in the centre of gravity of our lives, reckless abandonment to Jesus and letting go of our own agendas and attachments. Taking up the cross in the context of the Roman occupied world evoked a fearsome image of death.

The second saying offers the paradox of losing our life to save it. This is not about accepting suffering and death as good in themselves but as the way to fullness of life.

The third and fourth sayings are drawn from commerce — profit, gain, forfeit and exchange. Jesus calls his followers to a trade-off: to accept losses for unimaginable gain.

The fifth saying explains why someone would turn away from Jesus: concern for reputation and fear of human disapproval.

The final saying offers comfort to those who remain faithful despite the cost because “the reign of God has come”.

Being on the Way Today

Following Jesus is not merely about believing privately but living our faith publicly in word and action. We will need to stand up and be counted, consistently and with integrity being Gospel people living for the common good.

Jesus avoids Caesarea Philippi, which is associated with imperial claims and power that have damaged the fabric of the surrounding village life. Instead, he ministers to the majority of the population who are living at or below subsistence level. God’s purposes for Jesus and his disciples contest the purposes of the Empire as well as the popular views of the Messiah. Jesus defied expectations that the Messiah would bring about glorious victories and change through war. Instead, he transformed people within themselves so that they were able, with him, to bring about the reign of God.

Our participation in the prophetic ministry of Jesus is not primarily about addressing every crisis, but in season and out of season, faithfully addressing whatever is not fulfilling the reign of God.

Our energy and resilience to live “on the way” with Christ, the suffering-death-resurrection way, will arise as we realise their intimate connectedness. This interconnection is found throughout the New Testament. I’m hyphenating death-resurrection to remind us of this inseparable connection in faith.

We might want to reflect on Jesus’s question: “But you, who do you say I am?” and respond to it as a question for this stage of our lives. It may focus us on our participation on the way. 

Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 263 September 2021: 24-25