When plain speech follows chapters of parabolic teaching, a reader knows to pay attention. This week’s gospel reading starts with the phrase “and he began to teach,” something that Jesus certainly does in the gospels, but then no parable follows. Instead, Jesus speaks boldly that the Son of Man (the apocalyptic figure of justice in the vision of Daniel 7) will not act but will suffer. As hard as it is for a lover of medieval literature like myself to acknowledge, the Greek infinitive does not indicate that the one who goes before the Ancient of Days demanding justice will mount up on the cross, heroically, after the manner of “The Dream of the Rood,” but will have things done to him. To forget as much is to ignore part of the horror of the passion of the Christ (not the Mel Gibson movie, which is horrifying in its own ways), the fact that the Son, despite our best attempts to say that He really wasn’t anyone’s passive victim, turns out to be just that: a passive victim.
Perhaps Peter was the first of us Jesus-followers to realize that such a conception of the Christ just would not do. When he confronts Jesus, the verb choice is especially significant: in Mark 1 and Mark 4, two significant occurrences in Mark, Jesus has been the one rebuking, and in both cases, the one rebuked had been a force of evil or at least of chaos, a demonic spirit or a raging sea. Peter here takes Jesus’s own plain teaching as a moment of spiritual intrusion, a moment when even the Messiah whom he had just confessed starts speaking as if a wicked spirit were in the driver’s seat. When Jesus in turn rebukes Peter, Mark does not try to translate what he calls Peter but simply transliterates the Hebrew: Get behind me, Satan!
Those who have studied with me in Sunday school or who have been reading my lectionary posts for long will recognize this riff, but I reproduce it anyway, just for the sake of those who have not heard my theory about “Get behind me, Satan.” In 2 Samuel, after Absalom’s rebellion, Shimei of the house of Saul, who had openly and publicly uttered curses on David when all signs pointed to the aging monarch’s downfall, comes to David and begs his forgiveness. David, invoking royal prerogative, does indeed forgive his sins. When he sees and hears this, David’s nephew Abishai turns on his king, saying that forgiving such a traitor is unacceptable. David, in a Hebrew idiom that’s a bit hard to translate, asks rhetorically, “Who are you, that you should become satan [an enemy] to me?” Now most translations will transliterate what Jesus says to Peter and translate what David says to Shimei, but the Hebrew word is the same. In other words, although the writer of 2 Samuel does not show much of a developed demonology, Mark, who does, gives to his readers a strong sense that, in addition to everything else that Peter is, he’s a person who overestimates his own right to say just what a righteous King should be, just as Shimei was a thousand years before him.
When Jesus turns from the disciples to the crowds, the connection between what he tells them and what he told Peter could scarcely be clearer: this revolution will not happen when people take up weapons but when they take up crosses. Those who would save their lives will lose them, but those who would give their lives will gain life. What shape the Kingdom of God is not up to the Shimeis and the Peters of the world but given to all, in all of its scandal, and the question is not who will be too weak to make such a Kingdom take place but who will be so ashamed of the forgiveness of traitors and the weakness of the Christ that they abandon the scandal altogether.
In this season of Lent, we do well to remember that sin does not only name those well-defined moral lapses that the old see all around among “kids these days” but also gives us a vocabulary to talk about those who refuse forgiveness, who demand a Christ who wages war rather than suffering passively, who want the visions of the apocalyptic seers rather than the words of Jesus in Palestine to be the starting point for how we treat our neighbors. We are sinners all, and we do well to remember that it’s in our moments of self-righteousness that we’re most likely to forget.
May the Lord who remembers the faithful help us to remember the kindness of the Lord.