Scripture Notes

Notes on This Week’s Scripture Reading (February 25): Mark 8:31-38

Jesus prophesies his death and resurrection three times in the Gospel of Mark (8:31-33, 9:30-32, and 10:32-34), but each time the disciples fail to grasp his meaning (8:32; 9:32-33; 10:35-37), so each time Jesus must clarify for them what his passion signifies and what it means to “follow” him (8:34-38; 9:35-37; 10:38-45). When, for example, Jesus first tells the disciples about the fate that must befall the “son of man,” Jesus rebukes Peter for failing to see the true meaning of Jesus’ mission. He then goes on to speak about the nature and cost of discipleship, telling his followers that they must “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow” him. They must “lose” their lives to “save” them. The next time Jesus prophesies his death and resurrection, the disciples, Mark says, fail to “understand what he [is] saying” but are “afraid to ask.” Instead, they argue with one another about who “the greatest” of them is. As before, Jesus upbraids them, telling them that the disciple who “wants to be first”—that is, the greatest among them—“must be last of all and servant of all.” Finally, after Jesus’ third pronouncement, James and John prove to be interested only in the power and authority they will have when Jesus rules the kingdom in his “glory.” In response, Jesus tells them that they must not be like “those whom [the Gentiles] recognize as their rulers,” men who “are tyrants over them.” No, Jesus insists: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

It’s worth noting that these three passages (what scholars call “pericopes”) are framed by two episodes in which Jesus heals the blind. In the former (8:22-26), a man’s vision is restored in two stages because Jesus’ first attempt is not wholly successful and so he must lay his hands on the man’s eyes a second time. Here, the man’s physical blindness parallels the disciples’ spiritual blindness, their inability to understand Jesus’ mission or their role as true disciples. The irony of their lack of understanding is made explicit when, in the scene immediately preceding the two-stage healing (8:17-18), Jesus says to them, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see?” Like the blind man, Mark implies, the disciples’ confusion about Jesus’ mission and identity is so profound that they too will need a second (or third or fourth) healing touch to be restored to full sight. In the latter pericope (10:46-52), Jesus gives sight to a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. Though blind, Bartimaeus recognizes that Jesus is the “Son of David,” and he asks that Jesus “have mercy” on him. “Let me see again,” he says. In his brief exchanges with John and James and with Bartimaeus, Jesus asks the same question: “What do you want me to do for you?” Their responses, however, differ dramatically. John and James want positions of power and influence. They want to “sit, one at [Jesus’] right hand and one at [his] left” when the kingdom of God arrives. The blind man wants only to “see” (metaphorically, to “understand”), and he—unlike the wealthy man who despairs when Jesus tells him he must give up all he has “to inherit eternal life” (10:17-22)—is willing to throw off his cloak, perhaps all the wealth that is his, to be saved.

Lou Suarez

Adult Christian Education Team

Last week’s notes (February 18): Mark 1:9-12

Jesus often refers to himself as the “Son of Man” in the Gospel of Mark—each time, for example, that he prophesies his death and resurrection (8:31, 9:31, 10:33). In this week’s scripture passage, however, Jesus is a different sort of “Son,” a “Son of God.” After he is baptized by John, Jesus sees “the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” He then hears a voice from Heaven, presumably God’s, say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:11). (The voice makes a similar proclamation in Mark 9:7. This time, however, the voice speaks not to Jesus but to the three apostles who are with him, admonishing them to “listen to him.”) Jesus is called the “Son of God” only a handful of times in Mark (1:1, 3:11, 5:7 and 15:39). The phrase first appears in the book’s title: “the good news (i.e. the ‘gospel’) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Later, Jesus is called the “Son of God” twice by “unclean spirits” (3:11, 5:7) and once by the Roman centurion who presides at his execution (15:39). The irony is that only Jesus’ adversaries are aware of his identity. To the people in his hometown he’s just the local carpenter, and they are offended by his “wisdom” and “deeds of power” (6:1-6). The scribes believe he is able to perform miracles only because he is possessed by a demon (3:22).  His own family thinks he has “gone out of his mind,” and they try to “restrain him” (3:21).  Even his own disciples, his fellow-travelers, don’t understand who he is or what he has been commissioned to do (4:13; 6:52; 7:18; 8:17, 21; 9:32).

But, then again, why would they? What would “the Son of God” have meant to those in Jesus’ orbit? In Jesus’ Jewish context, the phrase likely would have called to mind the ancient kings of Israel, who, on the day of their coronation, became God’s Messiah (his “anointed”) and “begotten son” (Ps. 2:7-9). Illustrative is 2 Samuel 7, where God says of King David’s son Solomon, “I will be his father, and he will be my son” (7:14). Early on, God promised the people that they would always have a Davidic king, a “Son of God,” on the throne of Israel (2 Sam 7:14-16). And for four hundred years they did. But then, in the 6th century BCE, the Babylonian invaders dethroned the Davidic king, leading many to reinterpret God’s promise: one day God will send a royal figure, a descendant of David, to redeem Israel and restore it to its glory, and he “will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Lk. 1:33). This figure was not to be divine but, as the chosen instrument of God’s plan, would be—like David, Solomon and the other kings—the Messiah, the anointed “Son of God.” Over time, different conceptions of this chosen one were envisioned: a warrior-king like David; a great priest like Moses or Elijah; a cosmic figure who would come “with the clouds of heaven” to destroy God’s enemies. In Mark, Jesus neither appears nor claims to be any of these (not until he testifies before the Council, 14:61). What sort of “Messiah” would insist again and again that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the [Temple officials], and be killed” (8:31)? Is it any wonder that Jesus’ crucifixion was, as Paul says, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23)? Or that Jesus’ true identify and mission would elude even his closest companions?

Lou Suarez, Adult Christian Education Team