This Sunday's reading begins with Jesus’ first warning to the disciples that he must suffer and die. (See also Mark 9:30–32 and Mark 10:33–34.) These brief warnings always end with the reassurance that he would rise again (v. 31).
In the verses just before today’s passage, Peter declared that Jesus is the Messiah. Finally, the disciples understand who Jesus is. Instead of praising Peter, Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” (v. 30). Peter’s statement marked a turning point. Jesus left his ministry in Galilee to journey to Jerusalem, knowing that those in power oppose him. John the Baptist’s fate was a foreshadowing. Jesus could have chosen differently, and stopped preaching about the kingdom for a time. But he continued the good news and warned his disciples of his coming death.
Peter was in total denial and scolded Jesus. For Jesus, there were only two views of reality: God’s way and the human way. Humans of ten focus on the miraculous, power, and control. Enduring suffering, instead of wielding the power to avoid it, was a startling and alien thought. Jesus heard in Peter’s protest an echo of the temptation he overcame in the desert, so he scolded Peter. “Get behind me” was simply a way of saying, “Go away!” Calling Peter “Satan” recognizes the temptation to deny and avoid the way of suffering.
Jesus was careful in his teaching to use conditional words: “If any want to…,” “Those who want to…,” “Those who are….” Hearers can decide for themselves if the conditional words apply. Here, again, we see the limit of Jesus’ authority. He did not have the authority to force anyone to follow. He could only invite and point the way. Jesus told his disciples privately about his suffering and death, but he warned the crowds publicly of the potential result of following him. It was the custom for the condemned to carry their crossbar to the place of crucifixion. Mark wrote after Emperor Nero’s infamous crucifixion of Christians in Rome, and Mark’s audience already was living under the threat of martyrdom.
Jesus made it clear that the way ahead was a way of suffering and service. Glory is reserved for the time when the Son of Man will come again. It is not part of the current contract; but in Mark’s world, it was expected soon—within the lifetime of the reader.
The predictions of death highlight the suffering, not the resurrection. That is consistent with the original ending of Mark’s Gospel, which deals quickly and mysteriously with the message with the empty tomb. The oldest manuscripts end with the women leaving in silence, too afraid to tell anyone the good news. Hearers must decide if they, too, will stay silent and afraid. Or will they face potential suffering and death to proclaim the good news?
Jesus’ emphasis on servant ministry is a theme that runs throughout Mark’s Gospel. Jesus ministers to people who can give nothing in return. He serves at the expense of his peace of mind and energy. Giving his life for the reign of God provided a model for others to follow. Life comes from God. We can choose how to spend that life, but we do not have the power to lose or save it. That is God’s domain.