Jesus’ teaching addresses both the general public and his disciples in the first half of Mark’s gospel- but from ch. 8 onwards he increasingly gives specific instruction to his disciples. The final verses of today’s reading illustrate this altered course. They are given on the road to Caesarea Philippi – and they comprise the first of three teachings about true discipleship. In the first one, discipleship entails living selflessly and obediently. Those who would follow Jesus must ‘deny themselves and take up their cross’. In the second, if you want to save your life, you must lose it – abandon your ego – for the sake of the gospel. And in the last one, if you’re ashamed of Jesus and his words, you will forfeit the company of his Father. Mark portrays Jesus here – similar to the parable of the sower – as wanting to know how much ‘seed’ has fallen on good soil and taken root – what his intimates have learned about him – how much of his teaching has been understood and appropriated – and he seems especially to want to know how much the disciples have embraced and interiorized his teachings – where they stand in relation to him.
We don’t have a living likeness, a painting or photograph of Jesus. What we do have are several literary portraits Jesus in the NT and some extra-canonical narratives. Mark offers us some of those images when the disciples report that people see Jesus in 3 ways. To some he is John the Baptist reincarnated. Never mind that Jesus doesn’t wear a hairshirt and eat grasshoppers & wild honey. Both of he and John preached the need for repentance and forgiveness of sins and talked a lot about the imminent reign of God. To some others he was the 9th c. BC prophet, Elijah. Because Elijah did not die but was whisked into heaven by a whirlwind, it was popularly believed that he would return as the precursor to the Messiah. Although neither John Baptist nor Elijah was the Savior – both were regarded as forerunners of the Messiah. Finally, the disciples tell Jesus that others are convinced he is a prophet – a spokesman inspired by God and sent on a mission to reveal the divine design for salvation and to challenge people to embrace it. (Continued…)
While all these perceptions may have been credible, Jesus still wanted to know what the disciples believed? What was their personal response to him? That’s the bottom-line in a relationship with Jesus. Where do you stand in relation to me? If there is a central point in Mark’s gospel it’s probably the confession voiced by Peter who said, on behalf of all faithful disciples, that Jesus is God’s Messiah. Then, almost immediately, Peter denies Jesus’ teaching about his imminent passion and death – and Jesus calls him not the rock on which his Church will be built, but Satan. The more things change, the more they stay the same – and twenty centuries later we still wrestle with the question, ‘who is Jesus’?
I can give you the answers of four of the 20th c. best-known theologians. Karl Barth said: “You are the totaliter aliter, the vestigious trinitatum who speaks to us in the modality of Christomonism”. Paul Tillich said: “You are the ground of being who speaks the theonomous truth of analogia entis and heals our ambiguities and overcomes our angst and existential estrangement”. Reinhold Niebuhr said: “You are our impossible possibility who brings your children of light and darkness hope in the face of our estrangement and broken ontological relationships”. And James Cone said: “You are the Oppressed One whose blackness is both literal and symbolic – you have never left us in the struggle for liberation of the oppressed”.
These abbreviated portrayals sound abstract, and they are – but there are two important facts about them. The first one is that there is a lot of truth in these formulations. Theologians do talk this way – but once you master their vocabulary, you learn that there is a richness here that more pedestrian language cannot attain. The other fact lies in Albert Schweitzer’s observation that ordinary persons as well as historians and theologians use the past to show their commitments to the present. The different faces of Christ portrayed on TV and in Hollywood films is a case in point. I think ‘Jesus movies’ typically say more about the times in which they are made than the era they mean to portray. The cinematic Jesus is a man – or perhaps a god – but a creature made in our own image. If you want more evidence, search ‘Jesus’ at Amazon.com where you will find 175,986 book titles. Wow! It’s frustrating in technologically sophisticated modernity with the ‘Google’ search engine at our fingertips – and instant access to virtually anything and everything we want to know – that we cannot have complete certainty about what was in the minds of Jesus and his disciples when he posed today’s question and they answered it? Things that you’re liable to read on the internet or see in the movies, they ain’t necessarily so!
I used to take students on field trips. On one of them we visited the IBM headquarters on Fifth Avenue in NYC – where banks of massive floor-to-ceiling ‘drum computers’ could be seen through sidewalk windows. Our host told us how wonderful these machines were and how they could give a definitive answer to any question in several languages in a matter of seconds. Then he directed me to a console with the invitation to ask the computer a question. I typed in “who was Jesus?” and immediately the printed answer began rolling out on tape. “Jesus of Nazareth, born 4-6 BC in Bethlehem – parents Joseph and Mary – crucified by Pontius Pilate 26-30 AD – etc., etc.” I said this is interesting – but advocates of various answers to my question have spilled lots of blood and ink over ‘who was Jesus’ for centuries. “Yes,” said our host, “Isn’t modern technology wonderful!” That someone programmed these computers seemed lost on him.
All the same, every serious theological and biblical student continues trying to discern the mind of Jesus and his disciples at Caesarea-Philippi. I’ve tried – and it has turned out to be a not altogether fruitless or futile thing to do. Without rehearsing all the failed attempts to ‘prove’ what Jesus and the disciples were really thinking and experiencing, I think that more than a half-century of worrying over these matters has made me better-informed but no better persuaded in my heart of the truth of Peter’s confession. In striking ways, I think I’ve learned that this business is a lot like loving and being in love – you know that you love this person – but for the life of you, you can’t name all the reasons why. Oh, you can say that you pay the bills or wash the clothes or car-pool the kids or cut the grass – and that’s a long, maybe inexhaustible list. But the reason you can’t name all the reasons is that the reasons get richer and fuller over the years – and none of them, nor all of them together, suffice to answer the question at any given moment. Pascal put it succinctly when he reminded us that the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of. And that’s why, if you ask me why I love, and I want to give you a really good answer, I’m likely to tell you a story – as the gospels do – rather than give you a long list of reasons.
That’s what reminded me of Elie Wiesel’s lovely book, The Gates of the Forest, in which he relates a wonderful Hasidic tale that tells a story like today’s gospel lection from Mark. Hasi-dism, you may know, is a movement within modern Judaism – its name means ‘pious’. It spread rapidly throughout eastern Europe, but its most important center today is in Brooklyn. You have probably seen pictures of its followers in black suits with black hats and long, uncut and curly sidelocks. What you may not know is that its beliefs are expressed through mystical storytelling, not in tomes of systematic theology. So, remembering that today’s reading in Mark is Jesus’ well-known question to his disciples, their various answers, and finally Peter’s confession “You are the Christ” – this is Wiesel’s story.
“When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There, he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and then the miracle would be accomplished, and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion for the same reason to intercede to heaven, he would go into the forest and say, ‘Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer’. And again the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: ‘I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place, and this must be sufficient’. And it was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished. Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: ‘I am unable to light the fire, and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and it must be sufficient’. And it was sufficient.”
That’s the connection I make between Elie Wiesel’s Hasidic story and today’s gospel. Very like those rabbis who were unable to light the fire or remember the prayer or even find the place in the forest, we sometimes forget the difficult theological formulations and the proper liturgical practices. But we can still tell the story – and that really is sufficient.
I take comfort from that when a ‘senior moment’ causes me to forget an offertory sentence – or when I inadvertently add to or delete a word from the liturgy. What’s important is that I tell the story. One of the great prayers in the Book of Common Prayer concludes by expressing the desire of Christians to know Jesus Christ “as he is revealed in Scripture and the breaking of the bread”. That’s what we’re about here Sunday after Sunday – in hymns and prayers and Bible readings and sacraments and sermons and all our servant ministries – we’re just telling the story that Jesus is the Son of God – God’s own Christ – the long-awaited Messiah. And, very like those poor rabbis who weren’t able to get everything exactly ‘right’ – even when we fail to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘I’ – we know that the miracle somehow continues to be accomplished so long as we remember the story, and tell it.
An old hymn that most of us know makes that point beautifully. (LEVAS, p. 64)
“I love to tell the story of unseen things above – of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love. I love to tell the story, because I know it’s true. It satisfies my longing as nothing else would do.
“I love to tell the story, for those who know it best – seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest. And when in scenes of glory I sing the new, new song – ‘twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.
“I love to tell the story, ‘twill be my theme in glory – to tell the old, old story – of Jesus and his love.”
The Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Moral Theology, Duke Divinity School and Emeritus Professor of Community and Family Medicine, Duke University. He is an author, Episcopal priest, and avid golfer.