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Commentary: Mark 8:31-38

Mark 8:31-38 fall in the first section of Jesus' ministry, mostly in Galilee and its environs. Here the setting of "the villages of Caesarea Philippi" is assumed. The text for the day is found in the larger text segment of Mark 8:27 to 10:52. The section is structured around three passion predictions (8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10:32-34). Our text contains the first of the three passion forecasts.
The first portion of Mark 8:31-38 (actually it runs through 9:1, but this verse is usually too difficult for lectionary selection, so it is omitted) also forms the conclusion of Peter's confession (8:27-33). The catechism that follows in 8:34-38 is a theological and ethical reflection on the interaction between Jesus and the disciples.
Elements of Structure
The text for today falls into two parts. Mark 8:31-33 are part of Peter's confession (8:27-33) and form the conclusion to it, while Mark 8:34-38 contain a reflection on it.
As noted in the comments on the transfiguration passage, Mark 8:27-9:13 are part of a large concentric structure. Mark 8:31-33 fall into the section of the structure in which Peter intervenes and is put in his place. The catechism is also organized as a concentric structure. It can be outlined as follows:
A denial of self for the sake of the cross, 8:34
B saving and losing life, 8:35 C gaining the world and losing life, 8:36
B the price of life, 8:37
A shame (denial) and judgment, 8:38
The purpose for looking at a concentric structure is to learn what is at the center since the heart of its meaning lies there. In this case, Jesus' core message is this, "what will it profit people to gain the whole world and forfeit their lives?" The other sayings arrayed around the core saying illustrate the difficult processes of spiritual formation and discipleship ethics that lead to life.
Message and Interpretation
Mark 8:31-33 need to be examined as a text segment. Notice the "began to teach" phrase. Jesus is introducing something new to the disciples, his prospective suffering in Jerusalem. Accordingly, he adopts a phrase, "Son of Man," that implicates the disciples. The phrase can mean "a human being," an apocalyptic figure based on Daniel 7:13, a circumlocution for "I" or "me," or it can mean "someone like me." In the first three cases, it is a phrase Jesus used to describe himself, but in the fourth case, it is a phrase that describes a vocation shared by speaker and hearer. In other words, the first three uses are christological, but the fourth use is related to discipleship. Jesus is saying that what happens to him is not unique but the fate that awaits those who follow him. This is, of course, what the sayings in 8:34-38 also communicate.
Disciples accustomed to seeing Jesus perform miracles, win arguments and conquer his foes were willing followers, riding a messianic bandwagon to Jerusalem to power and glory. Now Jesus begins to tell them that it will not be so easy. It is more complicated than they had assumed. Their opposition means business, and their opposition is concentrated in the international elites who control Jerusalem and collude with Roman imperial power, the elders (the lay elite), the chief priests who control the temple system, and the scribes who produce the ideological justifications for temple domination and collaboration with Rome. This is no mean enemies list. They can be lethal political foes.
Little wonder that Peter pipes up, "God forbid! I had something different in mind." Jesus' reaction is strong. He calls Peter "Satan," because he does not stand on God's side but sees things from a human point of view. The human point of view is the framework of the elites who kill and maim to protect their interests and powerful prerogatives.
This distinction between two opposing points of view is at the heart of Mark's Gospel. Throughout his journey with the disciples Jesus has been trying to teach them by word and deed that God's power is available outside of the official channels and power structures of their world. But the disciples keep getting lured by the thrilling prospect of ruling over others (10:41-45). This struggle is at the heart of Mark's story of Jesus.
Mark 8:34-38 then put into discourse what has been played out in the villages of Caesarea Philippi. This is an action-reflection text, first the interaction between Peter and Jesus, and then the reflection on what we have just witnessed.
This context helps to interpret the first saying. What is the self that one must deny in order to follow Jesus? Is Jesus asking us to deny who we are as God's handiwork? Of course not. Jesus is asking the disciples to deny the self that wants to rule over others and subject them to their power. This is the "self" that is admired in the ancient world. Yet this is exactly the self that must be denied so that the servant self can emerge (10:41-45), and this may even mean accepting death on a cross, the ultimate shame and humiliation. This is no easy saying, and yet it stands in judgment over the church and its leaders who have continued to lust for power and control, subjecting others to their rule.
The second saying in 8:35 suggests how confusing it can be. It is the very folks who believe that they have saved their lives who have lost them. The prominent and powerful see themselves as examples of God's blessing and largesse. Yet their moments of glory may reveal nothing more than their distorted values and distorted lives. They have gained the whole world and forfeited their lives (8:36). Their formation has been exactly the opposite of what God desires. True, they stand out from the crowd and rule over others, but they have paid for their success by selling their souls.
Seen in this perspective, the question in 8:37 is most poignant. What can one give in return for one's life? How much is life worth. The word life is psyche, sometimes translated soul. It is important here because "life" refers to the core of one's whole being, that is, one's life as lived before God.
The final saying reminds the hearers of judgment. Honor and shame are at stake in the judgment, and what matters finally is what God honors and whom God honors in the judgment. Shame isolates one from God. To purchase the world at the price of being ashamed of God and God's servants is too great a price to pay. lliam R. Herzog II