The Bible’s Worst Word: “If” and what follows
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Xenophon was a Greek writer, historian, and friend of Socrates in the fifth century BC. He was also a soldier; in fact a commander. He wrote about his own speeches to encourage the troops before a battle:
“If you desire victory, stand and fight…. anyone who wishes to live would be a fool if he tried to run away when he knows that it is the victors who save their lives.” (Cyropaedia 3.3.45 in Marcus, Mark 8-16, p. 626)
“Whoever wishes to save his life, let him strive for victory…” (Anabasis 3.2.39, ibid).
Like a commander encouraging his troops before battle, in words that almost echo Xenophon’s Jesus says,
34“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
This is the season of Lent: I believe this text is exactly what we need to hear. We need to start with the utter seriousness with which a speech is given to soldiers before they go into the life-threatening situation of battle
Lenten Fasting: Good, but…
Typically, Christians give-up something they enjoy as a form of fasting in this season. It used to be that people gave up meat. Some even gave up all animal-based products including cheese and eggs. But we live in more self-indulgent times. It is more common to find us giving up pleasures rather than dietary essentials.
I am persuaded that all kinds of fasting can be spiritually helpful because fasting confronts us with the strength of our desires – and with the blatant fact of the extent of our habits of self-indulgence. It is hard to say “no” to pleasures; failure in Lent is common. In this way, fasting is like spiritual push-ups and sit-ups; it is training that strengthens us.
But it is a long way from the self-denial of desserts, or alcohol, or whatever other kind of pleasure we have given up for Lent, to a battlefield, where human bodies will soon lie in the dust of death. Fasting in Lent is valuable, but let us guard against trivializing this text.
In Defense of Peter
Peter and the others who joined Jesus cannot be faulted for believing that his long-term goal was to raise a real army and go to war against their Roman oppressors, to liberate the Promised Land in final fulfillment of the promise God had made to Abraham. That’s what many people believed that God’s Messiah, his anointed one, was going to do.
Almost no one seemed to believe that Messiah would be caught, tortured and executed by the Romans. The literature of the period simply does not include that expectation.
But Jesus announced that he was leading his followers to Jerusalem, the capital, not to get himself enthroned in Herod’s place, but rather, he said, the “Son of Man,” as he called himself,
31 “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
It is no wonder that Peter was scandalized. Probably he was thinking that Jesus was succumbing to some dark, Satanic temptation to despair. The ending bit in which Jesus spoke about rising on the third day seems to have gone by unnoticed in the dust storm kicked up by all the unexpected talk about suffering and death.
But Peter and the others were going to have to learn from Jesus a different version of the climax to Israel’s story. Jesus rebuked Peter, calling him Satan; a character who would divert Jesus from his God-directed mission. Jesus says:
32“Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
That name-calling sounds like a final verdict, as if there was no more hope for Peter, but that turns out not to be what Jesus meant. Peter, instead of being an obstacle, a Satan, should get back to where he had been, behind Jesus, as a follower.
Actually the words, “get behind me” are the same as “come after me” which he tells all of his would-be followers to do. It is the command to the troops, “fall in.”
34 [Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
It sure does sound like a literal battle-charge, but Jesus knows that the battle will be won in a different way. He himself will be the one, just as Isaiah the prophet described, who would suffer and die on behalf of the nation. He would allow himself to be humiliated, tortured, and killed, as the powers of evil exhausted themselves on him.
But God would vindicate him, he said, by raising him from the dead on the third day. His death would actually be the means by which God would defeat Satan and redeem his people.
The Real Battle
So no, there would be no physical battle against Rome, but yes, there would be a battle. It was against the powers of evil itself. And this is the key.
Evil is real; it is powerful, and it is deadly. “If” anyone wants to follow Jesus – and the “if” is also real – that person must be willing to engage the battle against evil at the risk of life itself.
Decisions had to be made, Jesus said. Sometimes families would be split over it. Therefore, Jesus offered his followers a new, alternative family, comprised of people who repented and embraced his vision of the kingdom of God.
Jesus of course did suffer and die, and did rise again on the third day. And his dire predictions about the self-destructive path of armed resistance to Rome also came true just a few years after Mark wrote his gospel, when the Roman army destroyed and desecrated the temple in Jerusalem.
What then do these strong words have to do with us?
We are faced with exactly the same “if”. If we want to be followers of Jesus, if we believe that following him will lead ultimately to saving our lives, we too must be willing to enter the battle against evil, with the serious resolve of a soldier before battle.
Evil is essentially destructive. Evil is about causing harm, causing suffering both to people as individuals and to people as groups. Evil is about ruining things that are good – our bodies, our relationships, our planet, our unity, our humanity.
And this is why self-denial or renunciation of the self is such an essential part of following Jesus. We come into the world as newborns, pre-loaded with self-interests, and every year that we live we seem to acquire more. We were born thinking of our own needs, believing that we could cry the world into giving us more food.
I have lived long enough to know that that same demanding selfishness typically grows with our growing sense of self, to include the natural extensions of ourselves: our family, our race, people of our background, accent, educational level, economic status; – the “good guys.” People like us.
Most humans will try to be good to their own people. Most people will respond to a need by lending a hand. Most will even be sacrificial in service to their own children or families, or neighbors, or tribes, or nations.
But, most people are willing to be evil. If I am threatened, or my pride is offended, or if my people are at risk; if our pride feels threatened, we are capable of anything imaginable. In the name of protecting “my people, the good guys like me,” from those other people, the bad guys, who are not like us, are willing to be destructive, to be harmful, to cause suffering. Evil is real, and powerful, and seductive.
To me, Lenten self-denial may be about giving up sweets; like all exercise, it is good training. But it does not stop there. If it does, it was trivial; all for nothing.
What I’ve seen
I have lived, as you know, in former Yugoslavia, where people were willing to fill mass-graves with the bodies of other people who were, in some slight way, different from themselves.
I have also visited the shrines to human evil at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the crematoria at the end of the rail-lines. I have been watching in these days the slaughter of thousands of Syrians by the brutal Assad regime, Shiite Alawites killing mostly Sunni’s.
Evil is real. I have seen people destroying themselves and their families with drugs or alcohol. I have seen whole groups suffering because of intolerance of people who are different. I have seen resentment and the failure to practice the most basic of all Christian virtues, forgiveness, tear apart relationships. Evil is real.
Because evil is real, we desperately need to hear Jesus’ words of battle-preparation. Let us re-phrase Jesus’ words this way: If anyone would be a follower, a disciple of Jesus and so experience the life he came to give, they must fall in behind him, and renounce their destructive self-interests like troops heading for the fray, and practice his way of living.
And if we do, what is the promise here? That we will not have lost our lives, but we will find them, save them! The path to life, to real life, to fullness of life is not the self-righteous exclusion of others, it is the open-hearted embrace. It is the beautiful discovery of the fact that we have family, as it turns out, among people who are quite different from ourselves.
The path to life is to forgive instead of seeking vengeance, to heal instead of wounding, to live as Jesus lived. In the prayer of St. Francis,
“grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”