Commentary on the Readings
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
Peter followed Jesus but had misunderstood the goal
The question we now turn to whoever asks us to follow him is: “Where do you want to lead me?”
The disciples forgot to put it to Jesus when, along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, they heard his call, “Follow me!” (Mk 1:17). Fascinated by his word and by his look, they immediately left their nets and their father, the hired servants, and went with him, without objections, without asking questions, and were involved in a misunderstanding. Convinced that they had chosen a successful man as guide, they found themselves in front of an executed man, unable to come down from the cross.
The decision to accept the offer of a trip depends on the goal which is proposed, on the strength that we feel we have, from the budget we can count on, the interest that we are fond of. It is a test that should be done and even Jesus suggests it to those who want to go with him, “Do you build a house without first sitting down to count the cost to see whether you have enough to complete it?” (Lk 14:28).
On the Way to Rome, where he was thrown into the arena and would shed his blood to bear witness to his faith, Ignatius of Antioch, in A.D. 110, wrote to the Christians in the capital of the empire, “Now I begin to be a disciple.” He devoted many years of his life animating, as a bishop, the churches of Syria, and yet, only at that time, along the road that led him to martyrdom, he began to feel himself a disciple. He was sure not to be mistaken: he was going with the Master, towards Easter.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Only when I follow the footsteps of Christ, I walk safely.”
When we compare our judgments with those of God we realize the immense distance that separates them. How to fix our judgments that are likely to point life to the ephemeral? How to make them consistent with those of the Lord?
In the Old Testament God soon began to educate his people to a new logic. He showed that his preferences are not for the great, but for the small. He chose Israel among all other nations, not because she had asserted herself for her power, but because she was the most insignificant (Deut 7:7). He chose David, the youngest of the sons of Jesse (1 Sam 16:7). Nowhere in the Scriptures, however, has God spoken so clearly on this issue as in the famous passages of the “Servant of the Lord” found in the book of Isaiah.
We have already spoken of this Servant on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Today, this mysterious figure is offered to us once more. He is a man hit, humiliated, insulted, beaten (vv. 5-6), that God, however, has not abandoned in the hands of the enemy. He glorified him, giving success to his mission and showing everyone that he was a righteous person (vv. 8-9).
It is hard to say if the Prophet was referring to a real man or if he was talking, in a symbolic way, of the people of Israel, destroyed by the violence of the enemy. What is certain is that the early Christians saw in this character the image of their Master, Jesus of Nazareth, rejected by his contemporaries, opposed and defeated by the religious and political leaders of his time, but recognized by God, through the resurrection, as the real winner.
The fruits do not make the tree alive, but the tree that does not bear fruit is as if dead. Even the faith that does not lead to works—says James—is dead.
The works referred to are not the ritual practices, the worship, the solemn liturgies of the temple. He has already stated that religion “pure and undefiled” is to help the orphans, assist widows in their tribulation (Jas 1:27), in respecting the poor and doing works of mercy (Jas 2:1-13). Today he takes up the theme with a particularly concrete example. If a brother or sister is in need of clothes or food, it is useless to console him/her with small talk, you have to give him/her some help, otherwise the faith that you claim to have is only an illusion.
If the act of faith is reduced to theological statements or adhesion or to the profession of determined revealed truths, surely many people who, without knowing Christ, leading an exemplary life, are attentive to the poor, helping those in need could not say to have faith. But the Spirit of the Lord Jesus does not close himself within the confines of the structure of the Church. It acts freely, animates even the pagans, moves deep within every person urging him to give his own life. Those who obediently allow themselves to be guided by his impulses, even without realizing it, has embarked on the journey of faith, he is following in the footsteps of Christ.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is always on the move and his disciples walking behind him. From the very start, they were aware of following an extraordinary character. They always paid much attention to what people said about him. They were sensitive to the praises; they were pleased with the approvals gathered because his success involved them too. Yet, even after months of communion of life with the Master, they failed to grasp his true identity.
Several times in the first chapters of this Gospel, we read that the crowds and the disciples have put themselves the question: “Who is this?” He has the power to cast out demons (Mk 1:27), performs miracles, commands even the waves of the sea, and they obey him (Mk 4:41) … Who will he be?
With today’s passage the central part of the Gospel of Mark begins, in which Jesus reveals the mystery, answers the question on everyone’s mind and shows his true face.
The episode is set in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi (vv. 27-30), the city that Philip, a son of Herod the Great, founded at the far north of Israel and erected as the capital of his kingdom. It is inhabited mostly by pagans and this is perhaps the reason that pushes Jesus to leave the towns and villages along the Sea of Galilee and begin a journey towards that region. He shows the desire to bring salvation to all the children of his people, even to the most distant.
We are in the middle of the gospel, and so we can also think that Jesus has reached halfway the formation he is giving to his disciples.
Along the way he addressed to them two questions; simple enough, the first one: Who do people say I am?; the second is more challenging: Who do you say I am?
The list of popular opinions circulating among the people has already been reported by Mark at greater length: “King Herod heard about Jesus, because now his name had become known. He said, ‘John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.’ Others thought, ‘He is Elijah’; and others, ‘He is a prophet, like the prophets of times past’. When Herod was told of this, he thought, ‘I had John beheaded, yet he has risen from the dead!’” (Mk 6:14-16).
These were the opinions of the people, but Jesus wanted to know what the disciples have understood. Had they caught a glimpse of something more or cultivated the beliefs of all?
A few days before had given them a severe rebuke: “Do you not see and understand? Are your minds closed? Have you eyes and don’t see and ears that don’t hear?” (Mk 8:17-18). They were unable to grasp his identity.
Now here’s the surprise: after reporting what people were saying, Peter shows to have understood everything and, on behalf of the others, proclaims: “You are the Messiah,” the Christ, the savior spoken of by the prophets, and that all the people are waiting.
It’s hard to find a more appropriate response.
In the Gospel of Matthew the pleasing reply of the Master is also remembered: “It is well for you, Simon Bar-jona, for it is not flesh or blood that has revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (Mt 16:17).
To Peter’s response follows the strict imposition of silence. Jesus does not want the news about his messianic identity spread around (vv. 27-30) and the reason for keeping the secret is clear: Peter gave a precise definition only in form, in fact, the idea he has in mind is totally distorted. He continues to be convinced that the Master will soon begin the kingdom of God on earth and thinks that this will be implemented by an ostentation of power, through signs and wonders that will require the attention of all. He is certain that Jesus will get a resounding success and this is also the opinion of the other disciples who, despite having understood something more than the crowds, are drawn into the mentality that evaluates the outcome of a life based on success gained. They have not yet realized that, from the beginning, the Master has considered diabolic the proposal to take power and to present himself as a ruler of this world (Mt 4:8-10).
The misconception is total and for Jesus the time to correct this dangerous mistake has arrived. He should make very clear what is the goal of his journey, explaining how the Father will fulfill in him his work of salvation.
Mark wrote his Gospel for the Christians of Rome, to invite them to do a check of the reasons which led them to believe in Christ. The misconception in which Peter and the other eleven fell, in fact, is always looming over all Christian communities. The professions of faith can be impeccable, but the question remains: what image of God and what concept of life lie behind these so accurate formulas?
In the second part of the passage (vv. 31-33), Jesus begins to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must suffer many things. He is not bound to succeed, but to fail; that he will not triumph over those who oppose his plan but that he will be defeated. He does not go to Jerusalem to scare off his enemies, but to give them his life.
He began to teach. This statement of the evangelist reveals some embarrassment, some disappointment of the teacher who, in the middle of the school year, after having repeatedly explained a lesson, is aware of having to start from scratch because the students are not really able to assimilate it.
The disciples can neither understand nor accept the prospect of the gift of life. It’s not for this that they left the house, the boat, the family to follow the Master. Where does he want to lead them, to ruin, to defeat?
Jesus does not withdraw a word, in fact, two more times he repeats to them, “The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him” (Mk 9:31); “You see we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be condemned to death. They will make fun of him, spit on him, scourge him, and finally kill him” (Mk 10:33-34). This latest announcement is particularly dramatic because it lists, in detail, almost pedantic, the six works that make up the human response to God who comes to meet him to offer him salvation. A seventh will follow: “Three days later he will rise” (Mk 10:34), but this will be the work of God.
Human logic cannot but be upset in front of such a prospect. In fact Peter, on behalf of all, reacts (vv. 32-33), not for fear of sacrifices, we know that he would be willing to risk his life if necessary (Jn 18:10), but to win, not to lose. He does not feel like committing himself in an absurd project. He cannot accept to walk a road that leads to failure, that is why he tries to make the Master change his mind.
Jesus’ response to Peter, who wants to turn him from his way is tough, “Get behind me, Satan!” (v. 33). He does not intend to turn Peter away from him, but to bring him back to the right path. His words do not mean “Go away!” but “Come behind me,” “Stay with me while I give my life.”
Peter made the mistake by putting himself ahead of the Master. Moved by his religious beliefs, he felt compelled to show him the way. Jesus invites him to return to his place—behind—and to follow in his footsteps. He calls him “Satan” because, having absorbed the thoughts of men, which makes him blind and unable to understand the will of God (Wis 2:21-22), he suggested to the Master, without even realizing it, choices opposite to those of the Lord.
After having rebuked Peter, Jesus calls the crowd (vv. 34-35). It is surprising that, on the road leading to Caesarea Philippi, there appeared, unexpectedly, a multitude which, previously, was not mentioned at all. Mark brings it on stage for a theological reason: He sees in this crowd the multitude of Christians of his community personified. He wants to put them in front of the strict conditions set by Jesus to anyone who wishes to follow him. They are the demands that cannot be mitigated or made more acceptable. They can only be accepted or rejected, but they are treatable.
The radical nature of this choice, that does not allow discounts, hesitation or second thoughts, is invoked with three imperatives: “Deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me.”
“Deny yourself” is to say, “stop thinking about yourself!”
It is the reversal of the logic of this world. Man has rooted deep in his heart a tendency to “think of himself,” to be at the center of interest, to seek in everything his own advantage and to ignore the others. One who chooses to follow Christ is called first of all to reject this egoistic withdrawal, to give up making choices, the view of his own advantage.
The disciple who has “stopped thinking about oneself” does not even take minimally in consideration the positive impact that he has on the person of the good deeds he performs. He does not think even of the glory that will be reserved for him in heaven. He loves gratuitously, in pure loss, as God does.
The second imperative, “take up your cross,” does not refer to the need to patiently endure the tribulations of life, small or big, nor, even less, an exaltation of pain as a means to please God. The Christian does not seek suffering, but love.
The cross was the punishment reserved for slaves, to those who did not belong to themselves, but to another. To embrace it means making the choice to become the servants of others. Jesus has become one, as we sing in the famous hymn of the Letter to the Philippians: “He emptied himself, taking the nature of a servant; he humbled himself by being obedient to death, death on the cross” (Phil 2:7-8).
In Jesus, God has shown he does not belong to himself, but to be the slave of people.
The cross is the sign of God’s love and the ultimate gift of self. To carry it behind Jesus means to join him in making oneself available to others, even to martyrdom.
The third imperative, “follow me,” does not mean “take me as a model,” but share my choice, make my project yours, risk your life for love of people, along with me. You’re going to encounter misunderstanding and rejection; you will see your dreams dissolve and all human projects called into question; you will feel like dying, but your destiny will not be the ruin; I do not want to lead you to death, but to true life. However, to reach it, it is necessary that you pass through death (v. 31).
In the last part of the passage (v. 35) Jesus develops, resorting to sapiential argument, his proposal.
What does it profit a man to gain control of all the kingdoms of this world, succeed in the fields of knowledge, money, power, glory, pleasures, injures himself and spoils his life? All of his achievements, all his successes are ephemeral; they have no consistency because death is imminent on them: “Even those who have given their name to the land … leaving to others their fortunes and wealth” (Ps 49:11-12).
Only those who make their lives a gift builds lasting work.
When God, in the final judgment, will consider the lives of everyone who will not be united to Christ, embracing the Cross, and the fate, will be forced to register their failure, to verify that they have wasted a unique opportunity that was offered.
The debates about the identity of Jesus continue to this day. No one denies that, more than any other man, he has marked the history of the world. But not enough to cultivate this belief to be regarded as his disciples. To admire Christ is not to be his disciples.
The apostles received from Jesus the strict injunction not to disclose his identity. If we do not verify, in the light of the words in today’s Gospel, the reasons why we proclaim ourselves Christians, he could also strictly impose silence to many of us.