Thursday, March 26, 2015

019-Beginning to See

A correct declaration of faith is
not the same as having faith.

There is nothing random or haphazard about the placement of the stories and teachings in Mark. The two pericopes discussed here are no exception.

Leading up to these verses we’ve seen Jesus defying the cultural and religious traditions regarding the Messiah, of Jesus breaking down boundaries and traditions, and of the people wondering who Jesus is. We have seen how the individuals and groups in power and exercising authority – represented by Herod and the Pharisees – trying to force Jesus to fit into their schemes.

We have heard Jesus warn his disciples about the “leaven of Herod and of the Pharisees,” and we have heard Jesus call the disciples blind and deaf. It is in this context that the next verses are to be read and interpreted.

(From Discussion Outline, First Thoughts)

imageMark 8:27-33 are seen by most scholars and commentators as the very center of the Markan gospel account. These verses provide a climax to the first half of the account and function as a hinge to tie the second half to the first. The text for this session includes a part of this critical, central passage. We leave the remainder for next time.

A bumbled healing

The first pericope is a narrative in which Jesus appears to have some difficulties in fully healing a blind man. It is the only such case in the entire corpus of all the gospel accounts. This story is itself appears to be an illustration of the entire Markan account. At the halfway point, the disciples have a vague understanding of who Jesus is, but they do not see clearly. More healing must take place. However, at least in Mark’s account, the disciples never see clearly.

imageJesus is the Messiah that to these disciples looks like a tree walking around. Even more disturbing is the fact that they never achieve clear sight or understanding—not in Mark’s narrative. Commentators like to say that the resurrection was the moment that full sight came for the disciples—but not in Mark… This inability of the disciples in Mark to achieve sight is a source of tension. It is the same tension that Mark’s nonending creates. The rhetorical function of Mark’s ending forces the reader to exclaim in horror, “No! It cannot end that way! The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, cannot, must not end in fleeing, fear, and silence![1]

There are other considerations for this story:

  • Relation to two other key healing episodes in 7:31-37 and 10:46-52, both in rhetoric and in theme.
  • Relation to Isaiah 35, particularly vv. 5-6 and the overall context of the chapter.
  • That perhaps Mark intentionally depicts Jesus as “weak” in contrast to the disciples’, Herod’s, the Pharisees’, and the crowd’s expectations.[2]

A correct declaration

This next section (vv.27-30) is the first half of the critical centerpiece of the gospel account. This takes place “on the way” to Caesarea Philippi.

The geographic context for this story is significant. Jesus had just been in Bethsaida, the northeast fishing town on the Sea of Galilee that belonged to Philip’s tetrarchy. Caesarea Philippi was further north in this territory and was to be distinguished from the much larger coastal city of Caesarea Maritima. Herod the Great had named this inland Caesarea in honor of Augustus. He also had a temple of white marble built and dedicated to Augustus in the city (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 15.10.3). The imperial overtones underlying the geographic location of the story are clear. Mark has Jesus identified as the Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah, indeed a royal figure, precisely here in a city dedicated to another king, and from Mark’s perspective a lesser, earthly king. The eventual irony of the charges against Jesus, that he was the “King of the Jews” (15:26), is already anticipated in 8:27-30.[3]

imageThe phrase “on the way” will eventually be revealed as “code” for “the way to Jerusalem and the cross.”

For the first time since 1:1, Mark uses the title, Christ. It is in the most politically charged setting that its second use appears. To declare Jesus as Christ is to disavow all other claims of power as less than Jesus. He makes the disciples declare this openly, yet commands them (as he did with the demons) to keep silent about it. It is all strange and bizarre.

A part of the interpretation of this text surely has to do with its original Roman audience. They too, were facing the question of who Jesus is, and what does it mean to declare him as Lord (against Caesar). This story is provided to give the audience comfort and encouragement that the first disciples had to decide who Jesus was and where Jesus fit in the hierarchy of powers, and that they confessed the dangerous declaration.

On the other hand is the command to keep silent. This will have to wait until next time. This is the reason why Mark’s second half exists. In the second half the disciples (and the audience) learn what “Christ” really means, as opposed to what they expected.

Peter’s “correct confession” is deceptive. It points out an important reality: we can have what appears to be everything in order—words, actions, and so on—and still have it very wrong.

Correct confession can be deceptive. It can mask false discipleship, idolatry, and even a perspective that Jesus attributes to Satan. A perfectly correct mission statement does not reveal the true discipleship of either the pastoral staff or the congregation that appears to follow it to a tee.[4]

[1] Feasting: Mark, locations 8291, 8295.

[2] Feasting: Mark, location 8269. “In this episode of the healing of the blind man, Mark makes Jesus appear weak, in order to say something important about who Jesus is, who the disciples are, and what Jesus is doing to form them into the kind of followers and leaders they need to be… Jesus’ apparent weakness is a vehicle for Mark to convey something that is at the heart of true discipleship.”

[3] Feasting: Mark, location 8425.

[4] Feasting: Mark, location 8489.

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