This Sunday’s Gospel reading is a crucial text in the divine “rescue mission” Mark outlines in his Gospel. Up to now, Mark has focused on the “rescuer,” describing Jesus’ messianic characteristics. From this point on, Mark focuses instead on the characteristics of the “rescued,” those who wish to follow after Christ when he comes again. Any who wish to do so, Mark explains, must follow the example of Isaiah’s suffering servant, the example that Jesus himself embodied on his way to the cross.
‘Who do people say that I am?’
Who do you say that Christ is?
What happens when Christ does not fulfill your expectations?
How have you taken up your cross and followed him?
A small narrative arc in Mk 7:24 to 8:35 marks a decisive pivot. Jesus had at first traveled primarily throughout Galilee. After some initial success, he experienced hostility from family, friends and fellow pious Israelites. In Mk 7:24, Jesus departed for the foreign territories north and east of Galilee, where he experienced great success and received so much attention that he had to warn people to stop talking about him.
Some of this desire for anonymity was undoubtedly due to the hostility that followed him. The Romans and their local collaborators dealt harshly with anyone who showed independent political pretensions. For the crime of criticizing a petty king, John the Baptist had already lost his life. Jesus must have suspected that the growing excitement around him would surely invite similar wrath.
Yet Jesus could not let go of his mission. The narratives in this section of Mark’s Gospel have a poignancy to them. Jesus turns no one away, but he also begs people not to tell anyone what he had said or done (Mk 7:36; 8:26, 30). He had only to look at the gibbets outside every walled town to know the fate that awaited anyone unable to keep a low profile.
He was not reticent because he feared death. It was instead, according to Mark, because he wanted to reveal his identity on his own terms. He knew that he was not the royal messiah people hoped for. When Peter and the other disciples came to realize that Jesus’ miracles resonated strongly with the messianic visions of Isaiah and other prophetic texts, the issue came to a head.
Jesus was working from a fuller reading of Isaiah than the disciples had imagined. They saw the deaf hear and the mute speak and the blind see, but they did not realize that only because Jesus had accepted the role of the suffering servant described in this Sunday’s first reading was he able to perform these works. Jesus’ journeys took him past crucifixion sites on every Roman road. He identified with the criminals exposed there, recognizing that his own actions would lead to the same fate.
He also knew that any who took up his work would risk the same outcome. The Lord’s rescue mission is a strange one. Anyone who wishes to be saved must risk the hostility, punishment and humiliation that our rescuer first experienced. Whether that risk leads to the death of the body or only the death of the ego makes no difference. Any who follow Christ must accept that to rescue others, one must first accept a cross. The temporary humiliation of some can ensure the eternal salvation of many.