Who are you?

Week of Sunday March 1 – Lent 2
Gospel: Mark 8:31-38

22 They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. 23He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ 24And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’25Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26Then he sent him away to his home, saying, ‘Do not even go into the village.’ 

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

 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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But 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.’

34 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?38Those 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.’


We suffer an eternal confusion and a constant question about who we are.

In contemporary North American culture we consider an individual's psychological makeup to be the key to understanding who he or she might be. We see each individual as bounded and unique, a more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness and judgment that is set over against other such individuals and interacts with them. This sort of individualism has been and is extremely rare in the world's cultures and is almost certainly absent from the New Testament. (Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary  pp see: Dyadic Personality, 16:13-20)

John Donne spoke a corrective to this. (Donne lived from(1572–163; is he writing and reacting as our modern ideas of the individual are being born?)

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 

In contrast to our understanding of individuals

In the Mediterranean world of antiquity such a view of the individual did not exist. There every person was embedded in others and had his or her identity only in relation to these others who form a fundamental group. For most people this was the family, and it meant that individuals neither acted nor thought of themselves as persons independent of the family group. What one member of the family was, every member of the family was, psychologically as well as in every other way. Mediterraneans are what anthropologists call "dyadic," that is, they are "other-oriented" people who depend on others to provide them with a sense of who they are.   (Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary  pp see: Dyadic Personality, 16:13-20)

Despite our extreme individualism, this basic dyadic foundation persists within us. It is intrinsic to being human. Witness Richard Beck:

Our self-concept is rooted in a desire for approval, an approval we often get by shaming the right people with the right people. In shaming others we stand with the crowd and, thus, gain the approval of the crowd…

… [B]ecause self-esteem is inherently an act of social evaluation [such shaming means] we achieve our sense of self-worth through acts of violence. We build up our self-worth by tearing down the worth of others.

This is one of the things I've learned from writers like James Alison and Rene Girard, how rivalry is intimately associated with our self-concept. Our sense of self-worth is created and supported by some contrast and opposition to others, generally a moral contrast. I feel good about myself because I am better than others. More virtuous. More righteous. More authentic. More humane. Less hoodwinked. More tolerant. More insightful. More kind. More something.

From sunrise to sunset every thought I have about myself is implicated in acts of comparison, judgement, and evaluation of others, allowing me to create a sense of self via contrast/opposition with others and then filling that self with feelings of significance and worthiness.  

And the toxicity of social media is that it harnesses and fuels these tendencies to shame others in a bid for the attention and approval of strangers.

Self-esteem is a violent flame waiting to burn others. Social media is the accelerant, an incendiary device where shame is thrown like a bomb at the right people and with the right people.  (Richard Beck)

As a preacher and story teller I constantly talk out loud the dialogue of thoughts and ideas to clarify and develop them; I shall be one of those strange old men who talk incessantly to themselves as they do their shopping. I can tell when I am anxious− my dialogue begins with, "Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Andrew Prior. I am a Uniting Church minister..." I define myself by others.

We are never an island. We always understand ourselves by comparison to others, even if we think we do not define ourselves by them. The question is by whom shall I define myself? Who will be the guiding light for me as I struggle determine what it is to be human and how it is that I should live? Who will give me life as I imitate them?

The fundamental nature of that thing we call our "sinfulness" is to bolster our own personal security by the surpassing of others. We admire them, we aspire to be like them, and then we become rivals. We want to get to the top of the heap.  Our biological urge to survive goes beyond biting our rivals so that we get to eat our fill. We cannot ever get enough; we do not go and sleep of a big feed. We constantly seek more. The obscenely rich feel like they are hard done by.

Hockey has gone beyond expressing the principle that the government should do everything it can to keep taxes as low as possible, ensure taxpayers’ money is spent wisely and police welfare fraud. All non-controversial stuff.

He is inviting average Australians to take the mental leap into his newly constructed Australia, one made up of, to use his words, Lifters and Leaners. He is encouraging Australians to resent those who, for whatever reason, are recipients of public money. Patrick Smithers in The New Daily

Hockey's monetary greed is finally only an outworking of our insecurities about who we are and how we define ourselves.

In one sense this "original sin" simply is. It is how we are as animals. At its most unconscious it becomes dread-fully sinful and morphs into the survival by scapegoat mechanism that cultures use to manage their violence. Rene Girard1 claims that this unconsciousness is constantly exposed by the stated innocence of the victims throughout our Scriptures, right through to the final exposé in Jesus' death and resurrection. The issue is not that we admire, that we copy, that we aspire− or even that we are insecure, or that we feel the urge to rival or to better− this is what we are. The issue is how we will live as we become conscious of this reality, and who will we then follow.

No one is an island. To function, to be human, means that no matter how self-critical we are, no matter how perceptive, we will always follow a way of being. At best we will put some of "our own spin" upon the way of someone else or "somegroup" else. Those of us who think we march to the beat of our own drum, that we are our own person, or that we are finding our own way, and "doing our own thing," could be among the most deluded of people. There is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

No one is an island. The only question is who we will follow to make the best of who we can be.

At Caesarea of Phillip2, at the seat of the greatest power of his time, Jesus wonders who he is. He takes stock of himself. (Mark 8:27-30)

Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest the question of who people say that I am, is not Jesus testing the disciples, checking to see if they have "got it" yet. They say that people did not self-define, but that they took their identity from others− especially from family−   just as we do. (Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary  pp see: Textual Notes on Mark 8:27-30) 

This suggests that in the shadow of a symbol of the greatest power of his time, Jesus is wondering who he will follow. Where does the true power of life lie?  He has already abandoned his identity which was defined by family and place. He is no longer Jesus of Narareth, son of Mary. His family thinks he is out of his mind. (Mark 3:21) He is "deviant,3" a traveller "on the way." He is in a new "fictive kin group,"4 and this group, led by Peter, wish to define him as Messiah.

This is strange to our ears− we who think we define ourselves. But it could have been "music to Jesus' ears," the receiving of multiple "likes" on the Facebook of the day. In the place of power and honour, Caesarea of Phillip, Jesus has been told that he is king of the heap. He has been honoured.

Human being that he is, he too must decide who he will follow, and who he will imitate. Will he follow the path to power? Will he be the conquering Messiah who restores Israel?

Or we could put it another way: He must decide who will define him. For when we admire and follow someone, if we are unconscious of our following, they define us. When we follow; that is, cultivate, the acclamation of the audience, or the congregation, or our Facebook followers, they define us!

The story in Mark smashes two ways of being Messiah into each other. It calls him "Son of Man," well recognised as a reference to the vision of Daniel 7. So the might and glory of the Messiah is confirmed in this story. "Son of Man" is part of the definition of Messiah, and whatever Jesus will choose to follow and be, it will include something of this:

13As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
   coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
   and was presented before him. 
14 To him was given dominion
   and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
   should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
   that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
   that shall never be destroyed.. (Daniel 7:13-14)

There was a variety of expectations of how this glory and kingship would take place. An obvious one was the normal human path to power: war and conquest. (See Amy-Jill Levine The Misunderstood Jew pp56-7)

But the Son of Man must [also] undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed… (Mark 8:31-32) Some insight has told Jesus he is only Messiah if he follows the way of the servant of God. For the early church this was exemplified in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
   yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
   and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
   so he did not open his mouth. 
8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
   Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
   stricken for the transgression of my people. 
9 They made his grave with the wicked
   and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
   and there was no deceit in his mouth. 

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
   he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. 
11   Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
   The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
   and he shall bear their iniquities. 
12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
   and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
   and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
   and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isa 53)

The greatness of Messiah, and the restoration of Israel, is found in service, (cf Mark 10:42) which inevitably involves suffering because it stands against the place of power, against Caesarea Philippi.

But it does  not compete for power! In fact, it almost ridicules power rather than competes with power, and completely undercuts it. It calls power a category mistake. It says seeking power does not work. It says to Power, "Your whole world is a mistake, a fiction. You are completely blind." (Jesus' three fold teaching of his death and resurrection (8:31, 9:30, 10:32-34) is bounded by the stories of healing of two blind men. (8:22-26, 10:46-52))

Service mocks power. It insults it. It does not compete with power so much as scorn the whole rationale of power, and can do this without saying a word. Within the rationale and world view of power your competition for my power actually builds my self-esteem (especially if I can still win) because it says what I have is worth something. Your ridicule diminishes me most savagely. It says the whole game is pointless.

Service therefore puts itself in the way of retaliatory ridicule. The carrying of a cross, we might say, was insult before the final injury. Before one was killed as a message of domination and terror, of ultimate power, the crowd was invited to taunt and ridicule the cross bearer. The crowd was invited to join the side of the oppressors, to define itself in terms of the oppressors, to follow them.

The promise of the oppressor is solidarity. The promise is meaning, safety, and belonging; here "self-esteem is [indeed] an act of social evaluation [where] we achieve our sense of self-worth through acts of violence…" (Beck) It is, as Jesus says to Peter and the other disciples, "the things of people." (John Petty's translation of Mark 8:33)

 Self-denial … is not primarily about squashing our desires or delaying gratification. Jesus calls us to separate ourselves from what defines us…


Self-denial is not self-annihilation, but complete redefinition. Self-denial does not mean seeking or embracing abuse for its own sake, as if suffering itself is redemptive or a mark of virtue. Jesus has spent over seven chapters alleviating needless suffering or oppression whenever he encounters it; how could he be endorsing these things here? Do not allow this text to perpetuate or excuse victimization. The kind of suffering Jesus acknowledges as a reality in this passage (verse 35) is a particular kind: persecution resulting from following him. Self-denial and redefinition come with their risks. Matt Skinner

In relation to this Brian Stoffregen says

As I understand it, the act of carrying the cross was a public display of guilt which resulted in ridicule and scorn from the people. With this understanding, the phrase might be paraphrased: "be willing to publicly display your faith and suffer the consequences that such a display might evoke."

Often, our reluctance to publicly display our faith is the fear of what others might think or do to me. Rather than denying self, we seek to protect it.

You could say, we seek to save our life. We seek to maintain our self-definition, that definition which is actually defined for us by others until we consciously choose who we will follow.

Mark's uncompromising claim is that if we do that we will lose our life. We will be defined by "the Satan," the "things of people," by all that is not good. To save our life we must deny the paths to power, risk ridicule, and consciously and conscientiously follow the way of Jesus. This will define us. This will guide us to what it is to be truly  human. It will give us life.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

1 In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, you have for the first time in history the permanent survival of the victim's perspective becoming a thematic in history through the Spirit of Truth, the Paraclete. It is the Paraclete's work, therefore, that gradually makes possible a reading from the perspective of Empire's victims. Paul Nuechterlein

2 "Caeserea Philippi was built on the site of an earlier city named Paneas, after the Greek god Pan.  Philip's father, Herod the Great, had built a temple there in honor of Caesar Augustus.  (Herod, suck-up extraordinaire, was always trying to out-do himself in honoring his patron, Caesar.)  It is fitting that Jesus' teaching "on the way" should begin at a pagan site associated with the Emperor cult of Rome" John Petty

3 "In antiquity people were expected to act in accord with their recognized social standing, deriving from the standing of their family of origin. People who did not (Jesus) were seen as deviant - unless some unusual justification could be provided for what they did…"  (Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary  pp see: Textual Notes: Matt 12:22-37) and "Travel in antiquity was dangerous and was considered deviant behavior except for certain specified reasons (feasts, visiting family, certain kinds of business). The group travel described here was much safer…." (Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary  pp see: Textual Notes: Mark 1:1-15)

4 "The household or family provided the early Christian movement with one of its basic images of Christian social identity and cohesion. In antiquity, the extended family meant everything. It not only was the source of one's status in the community but also functioned as the primary economic, religious, educational, and social network. Loss of connection to the family meant the loss of these vital networks as well as loss of connection to the land. But a surrogate family, what anthropologists call a fictive kin group, could serve the same functions as a family of origin. The Christian community acting as a surrogate family is for Matthew the locus of the good news. The surrogate family quickly transcended the normal categories of birth, social status, education, wealth, and power, although it did not readily dismiss categories of gender and race. Matthew's followers of Jesus are "brothers," and the difference between the house of Israel and the nations is duly noted. For those already detached from their families of origin (e.g., noninheriting sons who go to the city), the surrogate family becomes a place of refuge. For the wel lconnected, particularly among the city elite, giving up one's family of origin for the surrogate Christian family, as Matthew portrays Jesus demanding here, was a decision that could cost one dearly (see 8:18-22; 10:34-36, 37-39; 19:23-30). It meant breaking ties with not only family but the entire social network of which one had been a part…" (Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary  pp see: Reading Scenarios: Matt 12:46-50)




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