“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt 16:16).
Peter’s prominence in the Gospel narratives reaffirms that at the time the New Testament was being composed, some hierarchical and scriptural themes had been settled by the early church.
The role of the Twelve as representing the 12 tribes of Israel in the new Christian dispensation was established. With the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Rome became the center of the world and the new focus of church leadership and authority. Peter and Paul, believed to be martyred in Rome, made the city the most important patriarchal center for Christendom.
Today’s famous scene in Matt 16 (like its original in Mark 8), affirms Peter’s special role as head of the Apostles. The image of Peter as the “rock” on which the church stands was interpreted literally rather than taken for the pun it was, and subsequent theologies of the church have built on this designation to create papal succession and the authority of subsequent popes as vicars of Christ on earth.
Yet, like other versatile biblical symbols, we ought to ask what kind of "rock" Peter was by looking at the imagery in context with other passages. For example, the story of Moses in the desert when the people begged for water concludes with Moses striking the rock – twice – and water flowing out. His failure to trust God results in his not being allowed to enter the Promised Land.
The failure of Peter to trust Jesus and, in fact, his denial of him, creates a crisis of grief so profound that Peter weeps bitterly, his heart and his pride broken. The Rock is struck and out flows the sign of his rebirth in a baptism of tears.
His encounter with Jesus at the Sea of Tiberias completes his restoration in another baptism scene as he jumps into the water to reach Jesus on the shore. In the eucharistic ritual of his triple protestation of love, Peter is comfirmed as the first evangelist of Mercy. It is his failure and full restoration by the Risen Christ that equip him to be the leader of the church.
Peter is indeed the rock on which the church and its mission rests, but he is a rock broken and healed, a failed leader restored by unconditional love. This is the foundation of his authority to preach Jesus and to lead the church.
How far from the trappings and status assigned by history to the popes as temporal figures, yet how close this Peter was to the heartbreaking, radical mystery of his Lord. Here is our model for finding the mystery of God's love by letting life break our hearts.
“What were you arguing about on the way? But they remained silent” (Mark 9:33).
One of the great mysteries of the disciple’s relationship to Jesus was why it took them so long to figure out what following him was going to entail.
From the middle of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus could not have been more explicit about the suffering and rejection that lay ahead for him in Jerusalem. After three separate statements about his coming execution, Jesus still found his disciples quarreling among themselves about who would be first when he entered his glory.
American folksinger Emmylou Harris sings a story song about this misunderstanding called “Jerusalem Tomorrow” (<strong>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwwckZbrXck</strong>) in which a failed traveling preacher who has been bilking the crowds with his own “ministry” of fake healing and storytelling signs up with Jesus after realizing he is different.
Jesus tells him he will get "paid off down the line," and he decides to follow. The song ends with “We're headed to Jerusalem tomorrow.”
We all know the shock the man is in for. Jesus is no huckster or short-term flash of glory, but the Holy One of God who will save the world by sacrificing himself. All of his disciples will share in the paradox.
The road to Jerusalem will strip us of our agendas and illusions about personal glory. But it will also be the path to true joy in this life and the fullness of life to come.
"Why could we not drive the spirit out?" (Mark 9:29).
Jesus' disciples are surprised that in his absence they cannot handle a father's request for an exorcism of his son. They invoke Jesus's name, but the possessing spirit will not yield. By the time Jesus returns, the entire scene has roiled into a stand-off fueled by crowd excitement.
Mark's account provides two detailed descriptions of the boy's convulsions and the father's plea that someone save his son before he destroys himself by alternatively throwing himself into fire and then water. Even Jesus' efforts are forceful, producing a dramatic confrontation with the demon, whose departure leaves the boy as though dead, a corpse.
The disciples want to know what was lacking in their efforts. Jesus says that "this kind can only come out through prayer." The words "this kind" reveal that there are some evil spirits of a higher and more powerful order, and that real spiritual combat may be required beyond the ordinary formulas for exorcism.
Prayer, of course, reminds us that only the Holy Spirit accomplishes any real spiritual change. The disciples are only channels of this movement, and so they must deepen their relationship with the Spirit to be instruments.
Most of us will not encounter such combat, but all of us are invited to grow in our discernment and collaboration with the Holy Spirit, whose "possession" of us through baptism is why all lesser spirits are displaced and denied access to us (unless we open ourselves to their influence).
What all of us do encounter are the "larger" demons that flourish within the many cultural and ideological forces that drive social moods and ethos, often doing real harm and much seductive mischief and misdirection. For example, consumption driven by popular marketing and entertainment, or the frenzies that race across social media to produce mass responses. How many fall susceptible to prejudice and caricatures, stirring fear and hatred and actions that result from them?
To witness such forces at work to demonize and terrorize society is an awesome and troubling experience. Many are astonished to see the social fabric fraying and civility disappearing from our political and civil landscapes. How did this happen, and what can be done to repair the damage inflicted on otherwise good and reasonable people?
Once we realize it is in fact a spiritual crisis, then we will know what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to deepen their spiritual resources and personal discipline to confront evil by devoting themselves to prayer. Only intimate personal friendship with the Holy Spirit will enable us to move into deeper realms where the real transformational work of God is taking place to save the world.
“But I say to you …” (Matt 5:39).
If we sometimes find the Beatitudes to be otherworldly or a bit too idealistic for practical living, today’s continuation of the Sermon on the Mount will not make Jesus’ challenge to his disciples seem any easier. What is important to keep in mind is that Jesus is inviting us into a fundamentally different way to think and act in our relationships.
Most scripture scholars agree that the audience for the Sermon were people living in a culture based entirely on honor. You were someone if you asserted your honor, the honor of your tribe, family and social station. To lose honor was to find yourself outside the only support system there was.
Successful people built up their honor by obeying social rules, rising within the ranks of set protocols not unlike today’s business etiquette or reciprocal duties to return a favor, invite those who have hosted you to a similar meal or event, showing signs of gratitude, etc.
We glimpse this quid pro quo world in Jesus’ parables about inviting guests, seating at banquets, showing hospitality, especially when he challenges everyone by breaking the rules, eating with social outcasts, the poor and the sick who cannot reciprocate. It made so sense within an honor culture to contaminate yourself with losers or to offend important people who could help you advance in status.
Jesus challenged religious and legal perfectionists by holding that there was more to keeping the law than just the letter. Not murdering or committing adultery also required us to control our contempt and our lust, a much deeper kind of virtue only the pure of heart possess.
In today’s gospel, Jesus gets to the heart of the honor identity by telling his disciples to turn the other cheek and go the extra miles, two instances in which powerful people could humiliate those of lesser status. Striking someone in the face was away to remind a slave, a child or a woman (wife, servant) who was boss. A Roman soldier could by law force a Jew along the road to carry his heavy pack for one mile.
Jesus’s instruction was in fact an effective strategy to challenge the abuser to see his victim as a person of equal dignity by exposing the injustice of his use of force. The backhand blow of the first strike could only be repeated with an open-handed blow if the victim stood his ground and “turned the other cheek.” It would have to be a blow reserved for a fight between equals. And carrying a soldier’s pack an extra mile changed the relationship from a legal to a personal basis, putting the burden onto the soldier.
Christian pacifism has never been about passivity or nonresistance to evil, but is a way of disarming the aggressor by exposing injustice or by applying persuasion and even shaming. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. understood this perfectly.
The ultimate example of Jesus’ message was to show that God was so powerful that God did not have to protect the divine honor. God is free to pour out his love on both those who obey him and those who do not. The capacity to forgive those who offend us, to show mercy on those who do not deserve it, even reject it, is the ultimate sign we are the children of the Heavenly Father revealed by Jesus. This is really the goal of this new kind of moral being and behavior, and the only way the world will emerge from its violent ways.
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
Today’s first reading from Genesis 11 about the “Tower of Babel” was a tale from the prehistory meant to caution humans from entertaining any divine aspirations. The human race is dispersed geographically and linguistically by a jealous God for building a brick tower to connect earth to heaven. Think of the pride of place and technological prowess claimed by the tallest skyscraper in today’s world. “Is there anything we cannot do?” some boast.
Yet just 14 chapters later, in Genesis 28, Yahweh extends just such a connection from heaven to earth as Jacob dreams of a ladder of ascending and descending angels. It is a sign of favor affirming the promise made to Abraham and his descendants of an unbroken covenant. The Gospel writer John sees the imagery as a foretelling of the Incarnation, for Jesus was himself the connection between divine and human and our “ladder” to heaven.
Today’s gospel passage from Mark makes clear that the only way to heaven is to follow, or imitate, Jesus. And how do we do that? By taking up the burden of our lives, denying ourselves and living as Jesus did. Therefore the ladder to heaven is the cross.
Our longing for God eventually confronts us with the need to get our shoulders underneath the particular responsibilities and opportunities our life presents. We can neither play it safe by refusing to live, nor by pretending to be self-made and independent of God’s direction. Jesus makes it clear that those who seek to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for his sake will save them.
Every cross will fit perfectly the person it is intended for, for it is the sum total of the circumstances, choices and influences that have made us who were are. The secret of life, quite simply, is to become your real self. No other cross will get you to heaven, Bearing your own with faith and submission will insure that you are “lifted up” together with Jesus, in his sufferings and in his glory.
“Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:27).
Many dramatic plays divide the production with an intermission. The first part of the play introduces the characters and the plot, building up the tension and the questions introduced by the story. During the intermission, the audience retreats to the lobby to discuss the action and speculate how the play will resolve itself.
Exactly halfway thought his gospel, Mark brings his audience to the central question, “Who do you say that I am?” In a shocking scene near the city of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus not only tests their understanding of who he is, he reveals that most of their expectation of success and glory in Jerusalem are totally wrong. He is going to be rejected and executed. Peter, who has just identified him as the Messiah, is so upset that he scolds Jesus, only to be reprimanded severely.
A stunned audience leaves the theater to fathom the meaning of this reversal. The central faith question is pressed in on each of them. “Who do you think Jesus is?” Where will you stand when he is rejected and killed? It is a crucial exercise, for the purpose of the Gospel is to challenge our faith. The rest of the play will make sense only to those who are open to the mystery of Jesus’s self-sacrificing love.
The gospel must overtake us in the most personal terms possible for it to have its full impact. It is not a story about other people, about disciples who lived 2,000 years ago. The gospel is about us. Jesus deliberately looks directly at us during the dialogue at Caesarea Philippi. The question is not, who do other people say that I am? But who you say that I am? As we let this question focus on our minds and hearts, we realize that everything else depends on how we answer it.
“Do you see anything?” (Mark 8:24).
In the previous chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we had the healing of a deaf mute. Jesus leads the man away from the crowd and, using spittle and touch, restores first his hearing and then his ability to speak.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals a blind man by putting spittle on his eyes. Like the earlier miracle, some creative effort is evident, and the healing seems to happen in stages, again performed in private, away from the crowds.
On possible explanation for this manner of healing is that Mark wanted to emphasize that Jesus is like God at creation. Spittle and mud, touch and prayers, even special words like Ephphatha (“Be opened”) or the idea that light gives sight. “Let there be light.”
And like the first creation, Jesus works with what he has. He is like an artist in clay, creating with sighs and breath, touch and even spittle, an intimate expression of personal identity (as anyone knows who has provided a saliva sample to discover his or her entire genetic heritage).
Another way to understand these miracles is to see them as stages on the way to recognition and faith. The blind man can hear Jesus’ voice but cannot see him. He feels Jesus leading him outside the village, then the sensation of Jesus touching his eyes. At first he can only see form and color, describing people as like walking trees. Only with additional touch does the man see clearly. He is able to see Jesus for the first time.
These are also resurrection stories. Before we know Jesus we are barely alive, unconscious, blind, deaf and mute to the full encounter with God that is always present to us. We must be awakened to new life, called into being by the Word.
Jesus works with us where we are and at whatever stage of development we are in. He works through the ordinary circumstances, limitation and problems of our everyday lives to awaken us to greater and greater awareness of what God has in store for us. Discipleship is an ongoing encounter that draws us deeper and deeper into the divine life Jesus offers us.
This is why the perfect prayer is, “Lord, I long to see your face.”
“Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” (Mark 8:15).
One of the aspects of the gospels and of Jesus as a teacher is the power of language to transcend the literal meaning of words to reveal a much deeper realm of metaphor and symbol. If we cannot cross this threshold to grasp the underlying truth in the imagery Jesus uses, we will find it hard to understand his invitation to faith.
The evangelists use the frequent misunderstanding of the disciples to illustrate how Jesus had to teach them them by pushing them past the literal to the figurative. Today’s passage from Mark is a good example.
After another frustrating encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus and his disciples get in the boat to cross the lake. The disciples forgot to bring enough bread. Jesus uses the situation to warn them to “be on guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod.” The disciples think Jesus is talking about physical bread.
No, Jesus responds, reminding them of his ability to multiply bread at will. Why are they worried about having enough bread? He is warning them against the subtle, pervasive influence of the Pharisees and of Herod. Like yeast, their blindness and hostility against Jesus has so permeated their minds, they are incapable of hearing the truth. “Don’t let this yeast into your thinking,” Jesus says.
There is another leaven they should be cultivated—the leaven of faith, which also has the power to shape their understanding of everything. This is the leaven of the parable in Luke 13:21, when a woman takes and hides leaven in a large batch of flour to produce enough bread to feed a whole village. This is what the Kingdom of God is like.
St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (5:8) tells the community to replace “the old leaven of malice and wickedness with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Jesus death and resurrection has transformed the old Passover from slavery in Egypt to liberation from death to new life.
This Passover is represented in the gospels by the frequent trips back and forth across the lake, where so many astonishing revelations occur for the disciples during violent storms and Jesus’ appearance walking on the water. If these are actually resurrection appearance stories, we are encountering a powerful metaphor in the gospels, but we must grasp it to understand who Jesus is and what faith in him demands of us.
Jesus is surely warning us today to guard against other kinds of leaven, invisible and pervasive influences that shape our thinking without our knowing it, but with serious consequences. Fear is one of these -- fear of people we see as different or threatening. Nationalism -- a sense of superiority that justifies inhumane treatment or violence against anyone we decide is an enemy. Consumerism -- a seamless world of desire for things, food, entertainment, pleasure, constantly stimulated by television and film, the Internet, can replace reality with illusions.
These forms of leaven cannot co-exist with the leaven of the Gospel, which is the Holy Spirit, who requires total collaboration with our spirits. One leaven must replace all others entirely.
“Amen, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12).
The Pharisees were skeptical of Jesus, and so they asked him to give them a sign to prove that he was from God. They want certainty; he invites them to take the path of discernment and faith.
When Jesus was presented in the Temple as a baby, his mother was told that he would be a sign of contradiction destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel. It was an ominous foretelling, for the final sign given to an unbelieving world was the sign of the cross.
In another passage during his ministry, Jesus spoke of the sign of Jonas. The son of man would go down into the belly of a whale for three days, understood as his death and resurrection.
The great “messianic secret” in Mark’s gospel is that the world expected a majestic, powerful figure to restore God’s rule with great sigs and wonders, rooting out sin and punishing sinners. Instead, Jesus dies for sinners and invites everyone to reshape the world with justice and love.
What sign would reassure us that we are doing God’s will? We want hints and small rewards along the way to be sure. But what we have are ordinary days and regular chores and responsibilities that hold our lives together in our families and communities. If we do these faithfully over time, we will see God everywhere.
The Hebrew word <em>tikkun</em> means to stitch up a tear. If we want the world to be mended, we are invited to take our scissors and thread each day repair the small places where the fabric of friendship or society is worn and rent.
Imagine a million tailors going forth each day. To see their collective gift, is this not sign enough that God is with us, in the world and in our hearts?
“Give me discernment, that I may observe your law and keep it with all my heart” (Ps 119:34).
Every reformer is criticized for breaking tradition. The early church had to defend Jesus for his radical interpretation of the Mosaic Law. Critics said he was a law breaker and a heretic. No, Paul and the evangelists responded: Jesus actually rescued the Law from those literalists. legalists and fundamentalists who failed to grasp the underlying essence and Spirit of God’s revealed truth
In today’s gospel, Matthew shows how Jesus set an even higher standard of obedience to the law. The Fifth Commandment says, “Thou shalt not kill,” but the one who attacks his brother verbally is also guilty of murder. The Sixth Commandment says, “Thou shall not commit adultery,” but someone who lusts after a woman in his heart has also committed adultery.
The spirit of the law reduces all of us to the status of sinners, for who has not harbored anger or lust in his or her heart against others? Humble discernment exposes everyone’s need for mercy and challenges the righteous person and the legalist who claims to have never sinned and therefore to be superior to others.
Jesus’ most direct critique of the religious teachers of his day was reserved for those who devised complicated rules and rituals to display their public piety, while shielding their failure to keep the basic commandments of love, honesty, respect for parents, purity of heart and compassion for the poor. They were hypocrites—those who wear masks to hide their true motives and deeds.
Jesus not only kept God’s word, he was God’s Word, the ultimate standard for what happens when mercy and justice come together in discerning sin and healing the sinful heart. There is no question that human beings fail to keep every law, but God’s mercy finds us where we are and loves us toward the holiness only God can give.
The legalist is eager to judge others, to wield power over others, always “in the name of the church.” But the result is seldom real conversion of heart or joy, but more likely a life of obedience based on fear. The battle going in the church between some bishops and Pope Francis over finding the best pastoral approach to Catholics in second marriages illustrates this.
Evangelization is not possible if the only face the church can present to its own people and to the world is the face of judgment, penance and exclusion. Who will be spared or left to stand with the “holy remnant” of the perfect huddled around leaders who claim they alone represent God? Where is the joy of the Gospel?