Take up the cross: context

27 Now Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Messiah.” 30 Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him. 31 He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. 32 He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” 34 He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 35 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:27–35)

Context. Jesus’ running debate with the Pharisees and the scribes from Jerusalem continues unabated. The narrative in Mark 7 was placed between the bookends of the two stories of a miraculous feeding of the crowds (6:34-44 and 8:1-10). Last week’s conflict with the Pharisees and Jerusalem scribes was preceded by the story of Jesus walk on the water and the healing of the crowds. What follows the conflict encounter is the healing of the Canaanite child, the cure of the deaf-mute (23rd Sunday gospel), and the second feeding of the crowds.

This second feeding results in another request from the Pharisees for a sign. Clearly, this group of religious leaders is unable to break out of the mode that the Messiah’s arrival is a future event. With the evidence of miracles before them they continue to ask “what can you do next – show us a sign” Jesus’ response is unequivocal: “Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” (Mk 8:12)

Jesus seems to have concluded that there is simply a persisting blindness among the Pharisees that reflects a hardened heart for which no sign will be convincing. This is why Jesus warns his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees – that interior disposition that leads them away from the Kingdom of God already present among them (Mark 8:14-21). At the same time, Jesus hints that the disciples too may suffer from a degree of blindness – as they do not seem to grasp the fullness of the meaning of the miraculous feedings.

But even as Jesus warns them he continues his ministry of healing – in this instance, healing blindness. But note that the healing seems to occur in stages: blindness gives way to a less opaque seeing and eventually to clarity of sight. So too, if the apostles will remain with and in Jesus, they too will gradually come to fully “see” and understand the larger mission of the Holy One of God. (Mark 8:22-26) Mark’s gospel is the only one that records this particular miracle. This miracle story suggests three groups of people: (1) the uncured blind, (2) those who have received a touch from Jesus and see partially, and (3) those who have received the second touch and can see clearly.

All this leads to Caesarea Philippi and one of the pivotal moments in the gospel of Mark – continued tomorrow

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