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Stories of Jesus

Chapter 4: The Stories

Part One: Jesus before Easter

A Jesus story: The failure, part 2, misunderstood by his friends

Mark relates several stories where Jesus is apparently more successful, but the success is only apparent. He performs miracles—casts out a demon, cures Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, cures several other people, casts out several other demons, and ends up with crowds of people following him. It sounds like the opposite of the previous story, where Jesus is rejected. But here too Jesus has a problem.

According to Mark nobody understood Jesus during his lifetime, not even his closest followers. Jesus saw the miracles as signs of the coming of God’s Kingdom to everyone, but the people took them as proof that one person in their midst had a lot of power. Such a one would be able to win freedom from Rome even as the Messiah was thought to be one who would restore the glories of Israel’s past. No one understood Jesus while he lived.

This lack of understanding features prominently in a story about Peter. As a Catholic, believing Peter to be the first in a long line of popes, I always felt uncomfortable with the second half of the following story: (Mark 8:27-33)

One day while Jesus and his disciples were walking along, Jesus asked two questions. First, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples have some ready answers: “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.” Then Jesus sharpens the challenge: “But who do you say that I am.” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus praises Peter effusively: “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah. Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father, who is in heaven.”

However the “revelation” happened, Peter immediately, as the story continues, shows that he does not understand Jesus at all.

Jesus warned the apostles not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah. Jesus needed people to understand who the Messiah really was first. So he begins to teach them that “the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders and chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.” 

I put the ending phrase in italics because of Raymond Brown’s opinion that Jesus must not have said it. If he had, it would be hard to explain the apostles’ despair at Jesus’ death and their surprise at the resurrection. (An Introduction to New Testament Christology, p. 46) Also for Jesus himself death would have had a very non-human quality about it if he had known all along that it was such a temporary thing. On the other hand, Jesus could very well have predicted his rejection and even death. Many martyrs, even to our own day, have done the same. Think of Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero.

Peter “took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.” No way is any Messiah that Peter believes in going to be tortured and killed by the very ones who should know best who the Messiah is. Jesus’ reply to poor, well-meaning Peter is swift and harsh: “Get behind me, Satan.” Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, never told us exactly how the devil tempts Jesus in the desert, but here Mark shows the devil appearing in the guise of Jesus’ number one disciple with a temptation that is quite a bit like those told by Matthew and Luke.

An atheist complains about God: If God really exists why doesn’t he just prove it to us? A few simple tricks would do it. If we had the laws of nature being unmistakably broken before our eyes, then we’d know there is a being more powerful than all the powers of the universe and human understanding.

For Jesus, though, knowing that God exists isn’t enough. He insists that we understand who God is. The atheist of the previous paragraph was looking for a god completely different from Jesus’ God, and that’s all he would have found if his challenge had been answered. In the same way Peter knew a fact without understanding it. Nothing Jesus could do, but only what Jesus eventually suffered, would cure Peter’s blindness.

Thinking about the main point: Often we think of God as the biggest Being on the block, a Being who can do anything he wants. Of course, God can’t make a square circle or a box so heavy that he can’t lift it, but we have intellectual moves to explain why not. Is it possible, though, that, where it counts most, God, like Jesus, can’t do anything except suffer?

On to "Crucify Him"?