Minding What Matters (First posted 2/23/2021)
“But, turning about and peering at his disciples, [Jesus] gave Peter a dressing down and said, ‘Get out of my face, Satan!” Jesus continued, “For you are not focusing your thoughts on the things of God but rather on things that concern human beings” (Mark 8:33, my translation).
In last week’s “Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines” I focused on what it means to “change one’s mind” when the Kingdom of God begins among us. I noted that this mind-changing experience really is more of a mind-blowing reality. In the current text, we see that Peter’s mind is not properly “blown” and remains focused on all-too-human concerns of power, privilege, and position, concerns of safety, security, and certainty. In his fear, Peter takes it upon himself to begin to correct Jesus and gets a royally humiliating dressing down in return.
I can’t be too hard on Peter. How can he be responsible for knowing what he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know? I’m reminded of the most famous quote from former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But,” Rumsfeld concluded, “there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Rumsfeld was panned and parodied dozens of times for his verbose and convoluted explanation. But he’s quite right. Peter finds himself in unknown unknown territory. “We must understand that in ancient Judaism,” Hurtado writes, “there was no concept that the Messiah would suffer the sort of horrible fate Jesus describes in 8:31. Thus,” he concludes, “Peter’s response in 8:32 is in one sense fully understandable” (page 136). This talk of rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection just made no sense to Peter, and he tried to put a stop to such nonsense.
In Mark 1, Jesus calls for “metanoia” as one of the proper responses to the presence of God’s reign among us. God is on the move in the world, Jesus declares. Prepare to have your mind blown. Peter was neither prepared nor willing. So, he finds himself in league with the Satan, working at odds with the coming of God’s gracious rule.
It is no easier for us now. Metanoia always demands the deconstruction of our favored worldviews which prop up our privilege. “Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together,” James Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and,” he concludes, “no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy” (page xv). This is a call to have our white supremacist minds blown for the sake of the Gospel and love of the neighbor.
The verb I translated above as “focusing your thoughts” is “phroneo.” The Greeks spent a lot of time thinking about thinking. They had a number of words to describe different types of thinking. The verb here points to a general context of thinking. We might use the terms “worldview” or “frame of reference” or even “point of view.” So, Jesus is not criticizing isolated thoughts on Peter’s mind but rather his view of reality. As noted from last week, the coming kingdom of God changes everything. We can change our worldview to match, or we can find ourselves opposing the kingdom.
Years ago, I spent a week in a class with David Frederickson at Luther Seminary. He walked us through the inter-textual relationship between Mark 8 and Philippians 2. “Share this framework for thinking among yourselves,” Paul writes to the Philippian Christians in verse five, “which is in Christ Jesus…” (my translation). Paul uses the noun form of “phroneo” for what I translate as “this framework for thinking.” One of Frederickson’s points was that the “things of God” Jesus mentions in Mark 8 are best summarized by the Christ hymn in Philippians 2.
In fact, the whole argument of Philippians could be read as an expansion, a Christian midrash, on Mark 8. Paul’s call to the Philippian Christians is to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). Forms of “phroneo” appear twice in that verse. This behavior means that the readers would “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others better than yourselves” (2:3). That call will find its commentary concluded in Mark 10, as we will read below.
The opposite of this worldview is described in Philippians 3:19. There are many who “live as enemies of the cross,” Paul warns his readers, and not for the first time. He can’t impress on them strongly enough the importance of his encouragement here. “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame,” Paul continues, “their minds are set on earthly things.” The word Paul uses is once again a form of the verb, “phroneo.” Enemies of the cross with minds set on earthly things – that sounds a great deal like the confrontation happening in Mark 8.
If we track the plot from Mark 8 to the climax of this section in Mark 10, we can see that Frederickson is right on target. The disciples continue to focus on human concerns. They are especially anxious about their own power, privilege, and position in the coming kingdom. That anxiety comes to a full boil when James and John ask to be seated at Jesus’ right and left hand when he comes into his royal glory. It’s time for another rebuke and some more teaching.
“It shall not be so among you,” Jesus tells them. God’s rule is about reversal – the least being the greatest and the last being first. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” Jesus concludes, “and to give his life a ransom for many.” That’s the worldview, the frame of reference, the point of view at stake already in Mark 8. The kingdom is beginning in Jesus’ ministry. That ministry puts him on a collision course with the powers of sin, death, and the devil. Those powers will do their worst to Jesus, but Life is on the other side. Those are “the things of God.”
Jesus turns from this difficult conversation to the crowds standing with his disciples. The private call to the disciples now becomes a public declaration of what this journey will cost anyone who comes along. All of this talk of cross-bearing and life-losing might sound abstract and spiritual to us in our current situations. But, Hurtado notes, “it is necessary to emphasize that the words must be taken literally if we are to read them as Mark intended. When Mark’s first readers read these words,” he continues, “they could have understood them only as a warning that discipleship might mean execution, for in their time the cross was a well-known instrument of Roman execution for runaway slaves and other criminals of lower classes” (page 138). The cross was a tool of execution by state authorities, Hurtado reminds us, and following Jesus was bound to get one crossways with the people in power. That never ends well.
Jesus calls disciples to be more than “allies” in God’s reign. Jesus calls disciples to be “accomplices” in the work of the kingdom. I heard that helpful distinction in an ELCA-sponsored webinar on February 10, 2021, offered by Dr. Aja Y. Martinez. In a talk entitled “The Responsibility of Privilege: A Critical Race Conversation for Allies and Accomplices,” Dr. Martinez noted that “allies” are often helpers in anti-racism work but often function as tourists rather than residents.
She noted that it is far more comfortable to stand with the marginalized than to stand against the powerful, the privileged, and the positioned. Standing with the marginalized is often the posture of what she termed as “allies.” Standing against the powerful on behalf of the marginalized and vulnerable is the posture of what she termed as “accomplices.” If’s far more comfortable to be a helper from a place of strength than to be a partner from a place of vulnerability.
Accomplices, Dr. Martinez noted, put their bodies at risk for the sake of the marginalized and the vulnerable. Accomplices are in the fight for the long haul and not for the acclaim. Being an accomplice with the Crucified – that sounds a great deal like Jesus’ call to discipleship here in Mark 8.
Finally, however, we should note that none of this is suffering for the sake of suffering. Disciples may not have the privilege of going around the cross. But the cross is also not the final destination. The goal of all of this is New Life, beginning now and never ending. “Mark’s gospel has a stark and simple structure,” N. T. Wright says in The Resurrection of the Son of God, “chapters 1-8 build up to the recognition of Jesus’ Messiahship, and chapters 9-15 build up to his death. But always, in looking ahead to his death,” Wright concludes, the chapters “look ahead to his resurrection” (page 620).
Disciples begin to live in the power of the New Life here and now. As accomplices of the cross we demonstrate that sin, death, and evil are defeated. In the season of Lent, we can and should reflect our path to and through the cross, the places where we are called to be accomplices for justice and focused on the things of God.
References and Resources
Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2011.
Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.
Hall, Douglas John. “The Theology of the Cross: A Usable Past,” in Seminary Ridge Review, Spring 2006.
Hennigs, Lowell. Forgiveness: The Road Home. See the “Books for sale” section of lowellhennigs.com.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.