Today’s Gospel reading is the central point of Mark’s Gospel. Up to this point, Jesus has been teaching and healing, leading the disciples to recognise that he is someone sent by God. The crowds have shown excitement hinting at their hopes of the promised Messiah. Their Messiah was generally hoped to overturn the Roman government and usher in a time a ‘Kingdom of God’ which would fulfil every dream. Mark has a shocking surprise for the disciples.
These words are spoken by a prophet – as made clear in the verses preceding our selection – one who has listened and proclaimed the message received from the Lord. Like many prophets, he has not been listened to – instead he has been persecuted. The insults listed were common ones in the ancient world, pulling the beard, hitting on the back, spitting. He has accepted these, confident that he has been faithful to his calling and trusting God to vindicate him. To ‘set one’s face like flint’, that is like a hard and unyielding rock, is a poetic metaphor used several times by prophets, emphasizing their determination not to give up when attacked. The use of courtroom languages is common in the prophetic books, warning the faithless or persecutors that they will be judged by God.
This is the third of what scholars call ‘Songs of the Servant’, written by or about a specially chosen one who faithfully brings God’s message. This as well as the last of the four songs, which is called the ‘Suffering Servant’, would have been known to Jesus. These were used by the early church to understand the death of Jesus as part of God’s plan of salvation. In the liturgy today, it reflects the rejection Jesus predicts for himself in the Gospel selection.
Psalm 114:1-6, 8-9, in some Bible Psalm 116
This is a confident psalm of Thanksgiving, which echoes the trust of the Isaiah reading. The psalmist has also been persecuted, but after calling upon the Lord, has been rescued.
Often the middle reading goes its own way, and today James gives us practical advice with some sound teaching. Here the emphasis is again on how any claim to religious faith cannot be in words only, but must be shown in action. And once again, James is particularly concerned with the poor and needy. The emphasis on works with faith has at times been a problem for some Protestants, but an important aspect of Catholic practice – at least in theory! James challenges us to reflect on what our own ‘works’ say about our beliefs.
In the first half of Mark, Jesus has been ‘proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God’, and spent much time teaching the crowds and his disciples. He has made claims to an unusual authority, and performed some striking miracles, like stilling a storm and feeding thousands with small quantities of bread and fish. There has been ample opportunity for the crowds, for the Pharisees and scribes, and especially for the disciples to answer the question, ‘Who is this man? (Mark 5:41). But Mark records that rather than observing what Jesus was saying and doing, the Pharisees asked him for a ‘sign’ (Mark 8:11-13). Jesus refuses to respond, knowing how hypocritical their request is and how they have ignored the ‘signs’ he has already given. He leaves them and goes off goes off across the lake with his disciples.
Without much of a transition, Mark tells of a trip to the region around Caesarea Philippi which about 50 miles northwest of Damascus. This was a large pagan city, dedicated to Augustus Caesar as an imperial God and enlarged by Herod’s son, Philip. There is no indication that Jesus went to preach there and Mark does not explain any reason for this journey. It might have been to give the disciples and himself a break from the crowds, as he had tried to do shortly before (Mark 6:31). It also would give them time to reflect on what they have seen Jesus do and teach, and now Jesus asks them about what they have heard others say of him. After their answers, which are vague but indicating some prophetic role, he asks for their own answer. In the Greek text his words are emphatic: ‘but you, who do you say’. Only Peter speaks, though maybe the others consider him be their spokesman. His identification echoes what the evangelist has told us in the opening words of the gospel, but this is the first statement by anyone contemporary with the story told in the Gospel that recognises Jesus as Christ (in Greek) or Messiah (in Hebrew).
In Mark, Jesus does not directly answer; you can compare Matthew 16:17-19 with its words of approval to Peter. Then surprisingly, he tells the disciples that this recognition is to be kept secret. I suspect they were baffled for surely the Messiah must be revealed to Israel! What does come after that would no doubt have been totally unexpected and shocking. Jesus begins to teach them that what he means by Messiah goes against anything they have anticipated. Although the hopes of the time were vague, expectations were a great prophet like Moses or a great ruler like David, someone who could overthrow the Roman conquerors of the Holy Land. ‘The Kingdom of God’ would then be a new earthly Kingdom. (Some of these hopes are reflected in the gospels, compare John 6:15, when Jesus fled a crowd that wanted to make him a king.) But Jesus turns to the ‘suffering servant’ of the prophet to show what ‘the Christ’ will experience.
Jesus uses his favourite title for himself, the Son of Man, to make the first prediction of his passion, death and resurrection. Peter is appalled, and no doubt the rest equally disturbed by the idea that Jesus should face such suffering. Surely that must not happen to the Messiah! He tries to get Jesus to take a different direction, but is rebuked with the strong accusation that he is ‘Satan’. That does not identify Peter with what we think of as ‘the Devil’ – instead the basic meaning of the word ‘satan’ means an ‘adversary’. In using that word, Jesus says Peter is one who speaks like a tempter or opponent of his mission. Did Jesus feel then the tempting appeal of Peter’s efforts to avoid such a fate, but rejected that comfortable way? (Compare how he prays to be spared in Gethsemane.) At any rate, he insists not only on his own suffering, but goes further. Those who want to follow this Messiah must also – again like the prophetic servant – be willing to suffer themselves. That must have been a frightening moment for the disciples whose hopes had been so different.
From this turning point in his gospel, Mark will show Jesus moving steadfastly towards his final days, to confrontations with the authorities in Jerusalem and the fulfilment of his prediction.