The gospel of Mark is an interesting book. The author wrote it in two distinct halves. Doublets seem to be a theme of Mark, and that plays into the gospel as a whole, as well as the individual vignettes.
The first half (1:1-8:21) is generally understood as an attempt to show who Jesus was. There are stories and parables showing healings, feedings, walking on water—the miraculous. Then 8:22-26 are thought to be key verses which provide the link between the two halves of the book. These four verses tell the story of a blind person who was healed as a two-part process. When asked if sight had been restored after the first attempt to heal, the response indicated that there was sight. However, it was blurred, people were described as “trees walking.” Then, after a second touch from Jesus vision was clear. This two part healing is reflected in the style the gospel. For both the disciples and the later readers in the first half of the book vision is dim while in the second part it becomes clearer.
Today’s text (8:27-38) is the beginning of the second half of the gospel. It begins a new season for the disciples. They had begun their journey with Jesus full of great hope and expectation. They had been called to be “fishers of people”, they had been instructed to cast out demons and heal the sick. Then the turning point, vision becomes clearer, the ethos changes. The talk now is largely about suffering, poverty and death. In the tale, the disciple Peter, protested when he heard this and no wonder, what a shock it must have been at that moment.
When I read a story in the gospels I want to look for some relevance for myself and contemporary times — a reader-response hermeneutic. So, as I read today’s passage, I paused, I pondered, I looked for the themes that gripped me as I moved into the second half of Mark. Two words came to mind as I pondered these well-known verses.
The first word was identity. This whole second half of the gospel starts with a question. “Who do you say I am?” It seems to me that is an important question in contemporary culture. There is a general cry for identity. People want to know who they are. One only needs to look at the popularity of organisations like ancestory.com. There is a search for identity and belonging. Furthermore, there is the rise of people seeking tests purported to analyse DNA giving an ethnic background. The results of these tests are often blazoned on social media. Not only are people asking who they are but feel a need to be share with others who they are.
That leads to an important question or maybe, two important questions. I’ll continue to ponder them this week. The first is “Who am I?”. From this flows my second question to think about, “Who do others say I am?”
In the sixth understanding of the community it says, “to be the same on Monday as on Sunday; to be the same at work as at home; to be the same with our family as with our friends and colleagues.” Would the answer to “Who am I?” and “Who do others say I am?” be the same.
The second word that came to mind as I read this passage was destiny. Peter and the other disciples clearly thought the direction of their destiny was determined. They had been called, they had been instructed to heal and cast out demons. Then came the reality of that destiny. It wasn’t going to be all healing people and casting out demons. There was going to be hardships, many hardships.
In his small way, Peter kicked back against this change. It did not change his destiny, Peter needed to change his thinking, his mind-set. The author of the gospel then depicts Jesus as saying the same thing to the crowds. Clearly, this story was written from the vantage point of knowing the end of the story rather than predicting it. Yet, today I can read it and ponder about my destiny, my journey, my vision. It’s not very grand. I suspect most people don’t have grand visions, but simply want to do the best they can to help others. Then having committed to that task in whatever way is right, do the best to follow it regardless of hardships on the way.
Of course, I don’t want to give the impression that the second half of Mark is all doom and gloom. Right after this discourse is the transfiguration. As Maria Noonan Sabin says, “God’s creative power to transform or transfigure us from suffering humanity into persons of radiant joy is the key to Mark’s theology.” (The Gospel According to Mark, Liturgical Press, 2005, 158)
Enjoy the journey!
(Photo: The Forbidden City, Beijing, December 2017)