Year B: Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Peter’s Confession about Jesus

Mark 8: 27-35

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?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Messiah.” Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him. 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. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 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.” 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. 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.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. “Who do you say that I am?” How has your response to the question of who Jesus is, changed as your faith has deepened? How would you answer that question today?
  2. 2. Have you ever been tempted to avoid or deny your own suffering? Have you ever tempted someone you love to do that?
  3. This reflection by John Shea rattled me. Do you think we primarily live life securing our own safety and comfort, praying for protection, and bracing for impact over the suffering that might come our way? How have we lost touch with what Jesus was most concerned about? “a life of trust in God and service of others”
  4. How does the disillusionment you may feel about life and the chaos in the world today help you to identify with what Jesus is about? Explain
  5. Give an example of how you “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus”, for His sake, and for the Gospel.

Biblical Context

Mark 8: 27-35
Mary McGlone CSJ

According to many scholars, this is the turning point in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus had been teaching in Galilee, now he turns toward Jerusalem and begins to focus on teaching his closest disciples about what it means for him to be the Christ, God’s anointed one.

Last Sunday, we considered the need to have our ears opened in order to hear Christ’s message. This Sunday, the scene opens with Jesus asking the disciples what they have heard about him. They respond with people’s opinions.

Some say he’s John the Baptist. Both John and Jesus were popular preachers who gathered followers and were a threat to powerful civil and religious leaders. Yet, their messages were quite distinct. As Jesus admitted, John was known for fasting while he was famous for feasting. Herod’s fear that Jesus was John returned from the dead shows how much power John had over the popular imagination.

Elijah, the other popular guess, was the prophet who disappeared in a fiery chariot and was expected to return at the end of time (2 Kings 2:1-12). People who identified Jesus with Elijah were putting him in the category of the prophets. They were guessing and maybe even hoping that he might be the one to usher in the end of the world. Thinking of Jesus as Elijah indicated that they thought he was sent by God and faithful to the tradition of Israel.

It seems that there was popular talk and plenty of confusion about Jesus. The disciples’ answer about what people said was the same answer Herod came up with after he had John put to death (Mark 6:14-16). People thought something unusual was happening among them and their varied explanations showed that they were paying attention and wondering, even hoping that something might come of it all. At the same time, their answers remained speculative. Nobody who said those things had to make any commitment; they could remain in the safe agnostic territory of “perhaps” and “we’ll see.”

At this point in Jesus’ mission, idle speculation was worthless. After letting them talk about what they had heard, Jesus terminated the opinion poll and put them on the spot: “But you! You! Who do you say that I am?” That was the question of their lives. Why were they on the road with him? What were they seeking? How far were they willing to go?
Peter’s answer was complete, and Jesus would immediately expose it as completely mistaken. Like a deaf man whose speech was muddled Peter proclaimed, “You are the Christ.” In reply, Jesus warned him not to talk about that to anyone.

Mark then says, “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer.” That was hardly what the crowds and his disciples were expecting from a messiah. It was a contradiction in terms. Jesus might as well have offered them dry water or cooling fires. How could the hero-savior, the king of heaven, the ruler of the earth, suffer and die?
Rise after three days? Everyone knew that “three days” was code for “in God’s good time.” That meant we have no clue when it will happen, but we continue to hope. This was a story none of them would have ever written, a play they might not have tried out for had they understood the plot.

Unable to believe that Jesus meant what he was saying, Peter pulled him aside to try to talk some sense into him. Jesus, standing with Peter and looking at the disciples, replied: “Tempter! I am the leader here. Follow me!” 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.” Jesus then addressed everyone around and put a clear choice before them. In effect he told them: “Either you try to save yourselves and end up with nothing but yourselves, or you give all that you are to this Gospel message, and you will learn what salvation means.”

John’s parallel to this moment of decision comes when Jesus invites his followers to partake in his body and blood, thereby inviting them to participate in his total self-giving. In John’s Gospel, Peter responds by saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life” (6:68). In Mark, Peter makes no reply; he and the others simply continue to walk with Jesus.

At this stage of the Gospel, Peter and the disciples are like the deaf man whose ears Jesus opened. Peter, speaking and acting on behalf of the disciples, communicated two important things. First, he professed faith in Jesus. Then, when Jesus told him his faith was distorted, he remained to learn more.

The journey to Jerusalem would be long and hard, and even when they reached the climax of the cross, the disciples hadn’t comprehended Jesus’ message. But they had the love and faithfulness to remain on the road with him, and that was all that was necessary.

Disappointing Our Fantasy

John Shea

 I often have the opportunity to talk about the Gospels at retreats and workshops. Whenever I mention the “disciples’ lack of comprehension” themes, I ready myself for a predictable question. Most often it arrives quickly. “If they (the disciples) were with Jesus on a daily basis and they did not ‘get’ what he was all about, how do you expect us (me) to get it?”

I usually stammer something about how the Gospels are written and what reading the Gospels can do for contemporary Christians. In the story of St Mark’s Gospel, the disciples stumble consistently. Even at the end the women flee the tomb in fear and do not obey the young-man-in-white’s command (Mark 16:1-8).  But, as readers, we are in a different position. We can learn from their mistakes. We can watch the disciples not get it, and that allows us to get it. As Quakers might say, “As ‘way’ does not open for them, ‘way’ does open for us.” Their failure provides the possibility of our faithfulness.

But lately I have become less sanguine about faithfulness. The disciples’ lack of comprehension may be a prediction of our own inevitable failure. Their misunderstanding and our own comes from an entrenched way of thinking, a “thinking human things.” This fundamental way of thinking is universally held. Even Jesus’ straight speech cannot dislodge it. The problem with the Son of Man is that he disappoints one of our foremost fantasies.

We are little people. Even if we have rank, it is not high enough. Even if we have money, we are not wealthy enough. Even if we command respect, there is always one who ridicules us. We need an in- crease of importance. As eagerly as we want to promote ourselves, just as eagerly do we want to protect ourselves. We sense the fragility of our lives. A fall from the little grace we have haunts us. We fear becoming sick, and old, and dying. We never have enough or are enough. In a word, we “lack.”

But we can fantasize. We can join Tyve’s reveries from Fiddler on the Roof and sing, “If I were a rich man.” We can spin scenarios of revenge, making our enemies the footstools under our feet (see Ps 18:38). We can close our eyes and see ourselves in charge, making decisions that help thousands and who respond with adulation. Of course, we will be healthy far into old age and die like Zorba the Greek, standing and howling out the window at winter. We may be little in reality, but we are large in dream.

The Messiah can feed this fantasy When the Messiah comes, he will wipe away every tear (Rev 7:17; 21:4), seat people at table and feed them (Luke 12:37), heal every sickness (Matt 9:35), love and reward each person (Matt 25:34). He will save our lives and make us great. He will fulfill “the Things of Humans” that they cannot fulfill for themselves.

And in the early part of the Gospel of Mark, it certainly looked like that. Everything that attacked and oppressed the human was taken away.  Satan was routed. Jesus, the fulfiller of fantasy, had arrived. Everyone flocked to him, although he always tried to move on. Everyone proclaimed his greatness, although he told them not to. He wasn’t what they thought he was. But they couldn’t hear that because what they always fantasized had finally come to pass.

Jesus profoundly disappointed the fantasy of human fulfillment. The Son of Man goes a different way and offers a different way to all who follow him. He lives a life of trust in God and service of others. He does not harm others to secure his own life. In fact, saving himself is the last thing that is on his mind. Therefore, he does not mitigate our fear by making us great and assure us of our importance by allowing us to lord it over others. He will not sanction our own chronic concern with our status and position or look the other way while others suffer so we can save our life in this world. In short, he does not give us what we want. And when we know what we want with such certainty and pray for a Messiah to come and get it for us, who needs this Son of Man?


Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.