It gets harder from here. That’s one of the subtexts of the Markan account beginning with the healing in Mark 8:22-26. Healing a blind man now requires two steps instead of one. The Pharisees move from preaching to meddling, from questioning to arguing. The disciples see not one but two feeding miracles and still don’t get it. The local heat gets turned high enough that Jesus takes the disciples on a retreat to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.
Even when Peter gets the right answer on the theology quiz, it all goes off the tracks. One of Jesus’ close confidantes becomes the Adversary Incarnate, telling Jesus to shut up about all that suffering, rejection, execution, and resurrection business.
Peter doesn’t just encourage Jesus to ease up. The verb in Mark 8:32 (eptimao) is the same one used to describe how Jesus tells the demons (and in a minute, Peter) to shut their damned mouths. I didn’t curse in that previous sentence. Instead, I gave what I think is Jesus’ assessment of Peter’s scolding censure.
“Get out of my face, you Enemy!” Jesus shouts as he includes the other disciples in the indictment. He broadens that indictment to include “this adulterous (as in unfaithful) and sinful generation” in Mark 8:38. We’ll come back to the importance of that “generation” language presently.
I have been studying the discipline of “performance criticism” lately, especially as it pertains to Paul’s Letter to Philemon. But that study takes one very quickly to the Gospel according to Mark as well. I am trying to experience the Markan composition much more as a “hearer” than as a “reader.” Simply adopting that stance puts me much closer to the original audiences for Mark’s composition than when I grapple with the written text.
It’s clear that it gets harder from here for the disciples. Jesus takes three of them up the Mount of Transfiguration for a glimpse of the glory to come. As they come down the mountain, Jesus commands them to narrate what they saw to no one under any circumstance until the time when the Son of Man would rise from the dead.
Ok, got it. Mum’s the word. Not until…what did he say? “Resurrection” was that thing, according to the prevailing Jewish expectation, that happened at the End of the Age. It certainly didn’t happen in the middle of the Current Age.
So, that must mean that the End was coming soon, right? But the rabbis – at least some of them – were pretty sure that Elijah the prophet would return to announce the Beginning of the End. If the End was near, where was Elijah? After all, that little cameo appearance up the hill wasn’t going to be enough to get the big show rolling.
Yes, Jesus tells them. Elijah does come first. In fact, he has come, even if you didn’t realize it. Have you forgotten our dear friend, John the Baptizer? If you want Elijah back in the flesh, don’t look any further than him. Of course, the Elijah act got him in deep manure with the current editions of Ahab and Jezebel, with his head as the dessert course at a birthday party! It gets a lot harder from here.
Not surprisingly, the three ask no more questions at the moment.
The other disciples had stayed behind and below. While they waited, things got a bit out of hand. A big crowd had gathered, probably because they were hoping for another healing miracle. We are there to wait and watch with them.
The Markan Composer notes that scribes were having a conversation with the disciples. The verb used in Mark 9:14 and elsewhere is suzehteo. It can certainly mean “to argue.” It also has the sense of “debate” or “discuss.” It’s likely that the interchange was lively, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was hostile. As we go along, we can see that the debate must have been about the most theologically appropriate way to deal with the child possessed by a demon.
Jesus walks up. “What’s the deal?” he asks. The crowd is a bit freaked out by him. The verb the NRSV translates as “overcome with awe” often has a sense of fear or foreboding. Could it be that Jesus was radiated a bit of afterglow in the wake of the Transfiguration? When Moses came down the mountain, one account reports that his face was still glowing.
The connection between Moses and Jesus in the Markan account and especially in this section will be worth pursuing in more detail. But for now, let’s note that Jesus comes down the mountain to find what he describes as a “faithless generation.” Just as Moses came down the mountain only to find the Hebrews ready to worship other gods, so Jesus comes down the mountain to a scene of spiritual pandemonium.
The remaining disciples have apparently tried every trick in the book. It’s not like this is the first time they’ve dealt with demons on their own. Jesus has sent them out (back in Mark 6) with authority over unclean spirits. They do quite well in their teaching and exorcising.
But it gets harder from here. Jesus, flush with the fullness of Divine presence and power encountered on the mountain, violently expels the unclean spirit. The boy seems to die. Jesus takes him by the hand and raises him up. Yes, the root of “resurrection” is used in Mark 9:27. When the disciples wonder what they missed, Jesus notes that this genus of demons requires a special prayer to facilitate expulsion.
Jesus hits another public home run, but he can’t leave it there. As is his habit now, public success is followed by private instruction for the disciples. That private instruction always ends up in the same spot – on a Roman cross. The mountain was a delightful detour, not a destination. The healings and exorcisms are signposts not goalposts. The disciples are headed for suffering service, not superior status.
Yes, it gets harder from here. “People today often suppose that the early years of a person’s Christian pilgrimage are the difficult ones, and that as you go on in the Christian life it gets more straightforward,” N. T. Wright observes. “The opposite is frequently the case. Precisely when you learn to walk beside Jesus, you are given harder tasks, which will demand more courage, more spiritual energy. Did we suppose,” he wonders, “following Jesus was like a summer holiday?” (Kindle Location 2183).
Well, yes, since you asked, Professor Tom. That’s precisely what we often suppose. Shouldn’t my life get easier once I start following Jesus? Shouldn’t I have God’s blessings of wealth and status, position and power, certainty and security? In fact, that’s what several varieties of Prosperity Gospel preaching would have us believe. And that’s the wishful thinking of many (at least White, Western, affluent) Christians.
It should be clear from this section of Mark’s account that the Prosperity Gospel comes from some other source than Jesus’ own testimony. No less a light than C. S. Lewis put it in a meme-length quote. “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable,” he told an interviewer in 1944, “I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
The fuller quote is worth examining for a moment. “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy,” he says. “I always knew a bottle of port would do that. If you want a religion to make you really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity. I am certain there must be a patent American article on the market which will suit you far better, but I can’t give any advice on that.”
As some would note, these days the quote is most often used to criticize the wimpy and morally lax Christianity of someone else. I don’t want to assist in that effort. Instead, I will remain in the realm of personal reflection. Do I expect following Jesus to make me “happy” (whatever the hell that means)? Well, yes, I often do. And when it doesn’t deliver, I work up a self-righteous snit and consider asking for a refund.
It’s a good thing I get texts like these in the middle of the Markan account to get my feet back on the ground. It gets harder from here.
Now, I don’t need to go looking for trouble as a Christian. I don’t have to line up martyrdom moments in order to feel faithful. The truth is that if I’m just doing the basic Christian life, then trouble will inevitably find me, and us. It will certainly be the “good trouble” that John Lewis lifted up for our edification. But even “good trouble” is still trouble.
I’m not very good at “good trouble.” I am far too invested in being liked, admired, respected, and rewarded for my own spiritual good. So, I’m not exactly a poster child for this following Jesus business. Nor, I am sad to say, are most establishment Christian congregations. We are much more interested in comfort than crosses. Comfort keeps preachers employed. Crosses don’t.
Yes, it gets harder from here. Is that good news or not?
References and Resources
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.