Jesus' challenge" "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me," (Mk 8:34) is not to glorify suffering. In her interpretation of Mark 8: 27-35 Kathleen Rushton suggests that our relationships in creation will enable us to respond to suffering.
The banner headline of The Weekend Press read: “South in pain over loss of Lions test.” It was no surprise to find this response to the New Zealand Rugby’s announcement that during the 2017 Lions Tour no All Black tests would be played in the South Island. What I did not expect to read was the religious language used to describe this loss. According to a Canterbury official the post-earthquake situation of Christchurch without a world-class stadium was a “cross we have to bear”. The expression used in the interview shows how the saying “to bear one’s cross” to convey loss and suffering is engrained in popular and religious consciousness.
The invitation of Jesus to disciples, from which this expression is drawn, is in Mk 8:34: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If read out of context and with present-day understandings, this invitation can glorify suffering. Generations of people — especially women, the poor and the Earth — have endured suffering that could have been alleviated.
In Laudato Si’ On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis refers constantly to “three fundamental and closely entwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself” (par 66). How do these three interconnected relationships enable us to read Mk 8:34, in its many contexts, for whakawhanaungatanga (making right relationship) with Atua (God), tāngata (people) and whenua (land)? And how do we with Pope Francis hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor (LS, par 49)?
In the gospel of Mark, the verse 8:34 is near the beginning of the central section of Mark when Jesus and the disciples are “on the way to Jerusalem” (Mk 8:22-10:52). The focus is on the formation of the disciples. This highly symbolic and carefully structured section begins and ends with those who were blind coming to see (Mk 8:22-26; 10:46-52). This contrasts with the disciples who fail to understand what Jesus is saying to them.
From the waterfront town of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus and the disciples walked about 30 kilometres north to the villages of Caesarea Philippi near the headwater of the River Jordan on the southern slope of Mt Hermon. In Mark, Jesus does not visit the city itself, which is associated with imperial claims and power which have damaged the fabric of village life. God’s purposes for Jesus and his disciples contest the purposes of the Empire.
The story is located in an area where the high taxation levied by imperial Rome threatened the people’s subsistence living. Approximately 90 per cent of the population lived at or below subsistence level. Hunger and disease were ever-present. Suffering was seen as a normal and distasteful part of life, which in the main was unavoidable. Human existence required the ability to endure suffering. This survival skill was passed from generation to generation. While suffering was accepted as part of the human lot, it was not considered good or redemptive.
This context of suffering differs remarkably from that of western culture, where suffering is not seen as part of normal everyday life. Everything possible is done to take pain away as quickly as possible. Whole industries revolve around the elimination of pain. Television advertisements persuade us that there are instant cures. While this “eliminate-suffering” approach orders life, strands of Christian teaching promote suffering as a Christian virtue.
“To suffer” in Mark
Three times Mark uses two words usually translated as “to suffer” or “suffering”, but literally meaning “to endure many things.” “Many things” is followed by a form of the verb “to endure.” This construction is lost in English translations. A woman “had been suffering (had been enduring many things) from haemorrhages for twelve years” (Mk 5:25). Jesus teaches that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering” and “he is to go through many sufferings” (endure many things Mk 8:31; 9:12).
There are two distinctions. The first concerns the suffering of the woman who had endured haemorrhages. This is general human suffering which is healed or alleviated as Jesus inaugurates the basileia of God. The second distinction concerns the suffering which arises for Jesus and those who choose to be faithful to inaugurating the basileia of God. The going will get tough. This suffering would end or could be avoided if Jesus and his disciples walked away from action for the basileia of God.
In earlier chapters Mark (1-8) showed what the basileia of God offers and two ways of responding: those who follow Jesus with enthusiasm (the disciples and crowds) and those who oppose and reject Jesus (leaders, scribes and others). Many of the latter use force. The Pharisees conspire with the Herodians to destroy Jesus (Mk 3:6). Herod has John the Baptist beheaded (Mk 6:14-29). Both the ancient reader and the present reader know Jesus was crucified.
Cross in the ancient context
The cross was an instrument of torture. Jesus’ shockingly strong invitation (Mk 8:34) introduced new dangers. Centuries of theological layering obscure from us the reality of the cruel, shameful means of execution which imperial Rome imposed on conquered peoples — slaves, rebels and trouble makers — but never on its own citizens. “To take your cross” refers to a specific reality: to pick up the crossbeam, carry it to the place of execution where you would be nailed or tied to it and then hoisted up on an upright pole and left to die. The gifts of Earth — trees, metals and fibres — are misused as instruments of torture.
The meaning of Jesus’ invitation would have been clear to ancient readers. They would have understood the cross to have referred to execution and not to suffering in general. They would have known, too, that unlike general human suffering, the suffering brought about by adherence to God’s basileia “for the sake of the Gospel” (8:35) could have been avoided by renouncing Jesus. By continuing to be faithful, disciples risked having to endure many things because of the basileia of the powerful.
In addition, in the ancient world, and for most people today, the basic unit of society is their multi-generational kinship group rather than the individual person. In that context, to renounce oneself means to lose everything — parents, clan, identity, voice, power and the ability to earn what is needed to sustain life. Modern western readers individualise Jesus’ invitation “to deny oneself” because the basic unit of Western society is understood as the individual. To renounce oneself, therefore, means to renounce one’s very individuality.
I have discussed the literary and cultural contexts of “enduring all things”, the cross and denying oneself, to enable us to interpret Jesus’ invitation without glorifying or promoting suffering. The artist, Felolini Maria Ifopo depicts the cross as “an ever-present symbol … a living tree reminding us that Christ is living with us.” What are the implications of Mk 8:34 for whakawhanaungatanga (making right relationship) with Atua (God), tangata (people) and whenua (land), so that with Pope Francis we hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor?
Published in Tui Motu InterIslands, Sept 2015.