24th Sunday Ordinary time, September 16, 2018
Isaiah 50: 4c-9a; Pa 116:1-9, James 2: 14-18, Mark 8:22-37
At first glance, the Gospel of Mark may look like a bunch of stories about Jesus strung together randomly. Only does it begin to make real sense when you realize how very carefully the stories are arranged to illustrate what Jesus is teaching. Today’s Gospel is an ideal example of that. This is why I have copied the paragraph below which comes just before the reading in the missal – the two are meant to go together. (Mark 8: 22-26: When they arrived at Bethsaida, they brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. Putting spittle on his eyes he laid his hands on him and asked, “Do you see anything?” 24 Looking up he replied, “I see people looking like trees and walking.” 25 Then he laid hands on his eyes a second time and he saw clearly; his sight was restored and he could see everything distinctly. 26 Then he sent him home and said, “Do not even go into the village.”)
We are reading from the center and pivotal point of the gospel of Mark – up until this point Jesus is portrayed as a sort of “mystery man” by Mark. Jesus is full of secrets and hides his true identity from people. Now the mystery begins to be revealed. Jesus gives the first prediction of his Passion / crucifixion, and then goes on to discuss the cost of the discipleship. He suddenly speaks very plainly and openly.
So we begin the reading with a man who has lost his sight. Jesus takes him away from the crowd, and puts his hands on his eyes. The man sees, but the images are distorted. He only sees men walking who are near to him, and they look like trees. Then Jesus puts his hands on his eyes again, and has him look up, out into the distance. This second time, the man sees clearly. Just like last week, the healing fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah’s description of the Messiah. This healing is unique, in that is in two parts, for near sight and far sight. Why is that? Hold that question for a couple of minutes, for the disciple’s spiritual eyesight will also be tested in this Gospel reading!
After the healing, Jesus and the disciples set out for Caesarea Philippi. They go out of their way to go there. Where is their final destination? In fact, they are now walking toward Jerusalem for the final time. Why a side trip to Caesarea Philippi is relevant? In ancient times, this area, now known as Balinas, was the center for Baal worship, the idol-god of the Phoenicians. The prophet Elijah had the show-down with the prophets of Baal there over what God the Israelites would worship. We know the area in the Old Testament by the name of Canaan, now called Lebanon, north of Israel.
The Greek mythological god Pan, was said to have been born in Caesarea Philippi also, in a cave where the waters of the Jordan River originate. Finally, a temple was built in Caesarea Philippi for Caesar Augustus, ruler of the Roman Empire. Augustus was declared a god shortly before Jesus was born. What an interesting place Jesus chose, to bring the question of his identity out into the open! Was Jesus a mere man, a myth, or the Messiah? The debate continues still today, but any choice eliminates the others.
So we start with, “What do others say about Jesus?” The answers are John the Baptist, Elijah, or other prophets- answers which are all variations on the idea that Jesus is a great and unique man, but still, a human being. But the moment for truth is when the 2nd question is asked: “Who do who say that Jesus is?” Peter gives the answer we treasure: “You are the Christ.” It is a confession of faith which is probably stuns everyone to hear it said out loud. Now it’s no longer speculation, no longer whispered or hesitantly suggested in a round-about way. Still, Jesus knows Peter and the rest do not fully understand yet what being the Christ means, so he tells them not to tell anyone else. They will be ready to tell others only after the resurrection and ascension.
In many ways, Peter is like the blind man. He can see Jesus up close as the Christ. He can recognize the Christ from his teaching, his behavior, and his miracles.
But Peter’s far sight, his ability to understand why they were on their way to Jerusalem is not so good yet. When Jesus openly launches into the topic of suffering, torture, rejection, and crucifixion, as well as resurrection, Peter reacts like a man still blind; he did not see that coming, and he cannot see the far-reaching implications of his identification of Jesus as the Messiah (Hebrew) or Christ (Latin).
If you think about it, Peter’s reaction is really quite appalling! He is sharp and blunt with Jesus; he tells him off as if Jesus were a fool. He scolds Jesus as if he is entirely wrong and confused, like an errant child. But that doesn’t last long. Jesus responds even more sharply, calling Peter, “Satan”! Jesus tells Peter he is short-sighted, blind to the things of God, and he can only see the short-term desires of a selfish man.
Then Jesus gathers the rest of the people around him to press the lesson home. To follow Jesus, a person cannot expect to have wealth, power, social status; Jesus will not become one of the religious leaders, a ruler in a palace, he will not have a great army. He will be humiliated, ridiculed, and give himself over to those who value political gain over honesty and honor. Jesus has given up his home, his family, the security of the carpentry shop, and is putting his future into the hands of evil men.
When I read about miracles like the healing of the deaf and mute man last week, or the healing of the blind man today, I think of all those people who have given up on God. They have prayed for healing for a loved one, only to have a broken heart when there was no healing; only suffering. They say Christianity is a lie, because their life never worked out, good behavior was never rewarded. Yet Jesus turns around these expectations. Life will be painful and seemingly tragic. The search for “security” can lead to loss. Freedom and material success are not promised. Relationships disappoint.
We are to live with eternity in mind, not just today. We are to live to glorify God, not ourselves. We are to gain our soul, not an estate. We are to take up our cross, not search for a crown. So how do we confess that Jesus is the Christ, and accept the cross both? How do we face conflict and struggle and not lose our faith? How do we become real agents for social justice and compassion? These are the questions that Jesus is asking us to answer, and we will continue with this theme for the next 2 weeks.