Holy Fools? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 16B
Mark 8:27-38 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
“Who do you think I am?” In answer to Jesus’ question Peter answers: “You are the Messiah.” Peter had been with Jesus long enough to figure out that there was something special about him. But when Jesus tried to define what that meant, Peter was indignant. That didn’t fit in with his vision of what it meant to be one of the key figures in Jesus’ retinue. How could the Messiah (Son of Man) suffer rejection by the religious leaders and then face execution. That is not the fate that one would expect of a messianic figure. This should be a path of glory (Palm Sunday?). But such is not Jesus’ understanding and Peter rebukes him as a result. Perhaps that’s understandable. After all, Peter and his colleagues weren’t counted among the nation’s elite, but if Jesus could gain power (of some type, whether political or religious), then he might find himself in a position of importance.
Growing up I came to understand that if you weren’t the most popular kid in school then it paid to be friends with the people who were at the top. Better to bask in their glow than live on the margins. If you could be one of the confidants, an insider, then even if you weren’t top dog, you would get some respect. I learned that lesson well! It served me well! Perhaps it still does. As an author, even if people don’t know my name, if they know the name of the endorsers that might lend credibility to my book. My sense from reading the Gospel of Mark is that the disciples, including Peter, enjoyed being in the inner circle of one of the region’s most popular religious figures. Jesus’ description the path ahead didn’t bode well for Peter, and he felt the need to object.
Jesus responded to Peter’s rebuke by offering one of his own. He says to Peter: “Get behind me Satan.” It’s not that Peter was possessed by a demon, but his sentiment had a rather demonic origin. It was a temptation to take the easy route. Jesus had already faced such temptations and had rejected them. But here they come again. Peter’s vision was based on human things, not divine ones. From a human point of view, suffering rejection and death made no sense. Paul says of the cross that it was foolishness and a stumbling block to both Jew and Gentile (1Corinthians 1:18-25). But from a divine perspective it made perfect sense, but that is only because suffering and death are accompanied by resurrection. It is the resurrection that provides the divine response to the human rejection of Jesus and his message.
Of course, the human vision appeals to Peter. The path of glory is always more palatable than the way of the cross. I must admit that it is far more appealing to me. I know that I make concessions to my flesh. While preachers often talk about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, at the end of the day most of us who earn a living from preaching recognize that it’s often the comfortable who butter our bread and so we need to be careful in how far we go in afflicting them.
It is not easy embracing the way of the cross. While we may honor those who take that route, declaring them martyrs and saints, we do so that we can live vicariously through their sacrifices. Consider one of those important Protestant saints through whom so many seek to live vicariously the way of suffering and death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer seemed to embody the “cost of discipleship” that he had written about in the mid-1930s with his imprisonment and death in the 1940s. I have seared into my mind the phrase from Discipleship—“when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” I honor Bonhoeffer for following through on that vision, but am I ready to die? Like Peter, I probably continue to see things from a human point of view.
Even if I’m not likely to suffer death for my faith, I could suffer embarrassment. Yes, the prospect of looking foolish for Jesus doesn’t seem too attractive either. But, Jesus addresses this as well. If you’re embarrassed by me, then I’ll be embarrassed for you. How often do I find myself embarrassed by my religion? Yes, it’s probably because of the actions of certain “co-religionists,” but maybe it goes deeper. Maybe, especially in this day and age, being identified with a particular religion is deemed foolish, at least in polite society. Here I’m reminded of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s famous Speeches to religion’s “cultured despisers.” The famed father of modern theology sought to answer those who had been taken captive by “suavity and sociability, art and science,” with no room left “for the eternal and holy Being that lies beyond the world” [Friedrich Schleiermacher on Religion, p. 1]. Schleiermacher did his best to create a system that would appeal to the cultured despisers, but I doubt that Jesus’ vision would fit well with it. For to be a follower of Christ leads to becoming something of a fool. Again turning to Paul: “We are fools for Christ's sake” (1 Cor. 4:10 KJV).
I will admit that I find it difficult to put myself in a position to be considered a fool. Perhaps that is due to my own struggles with self-image growing up. Letting myself be seen as anything other than in control is difficult. It’s not that I don’t have fun, I just don’t want to be seen as a clown. But could that be part of what it means to follow Jesus. I don’t mean being clownish, but be willing to lose one’s place in society. Jesus seems to suggest that if we’re willing to embrace this path there will be blessing, but is it too much of a risk? St. Francis of Assisi might find this appealing, but is it the path for me?
As I ponder this passage and how to live it, and having noted St. Francis, I might reflect on the example of his namesake, the current Pope. To be Pope is to have all the trappings of royal dignity (even red shoes), and yet Francis has chosen to lay them aside. Rather living in the grand papal apartment, he decided to take residence in the hotel nearby, where the monks live. As I hear it some of the Cardinals and bishops aren’t too happy. They liked the trappings of power and resent his simplicity. Could that have been what was ruffling Peter’s feathers?
So, here we are. We who see ourselves as disciples of Christ (and most especially those whose denominational name claims that vision), are we ready to face the embarrassment of the cross? Or do we find ourselves standing either among the cultured despisers or those who are working to make the faith more palatable to them?