really human

I really want to be

One Sunday after arriving home from church, I checked around to see if our puppy Aidan had gotten into mischief.  (May he rest in peace.)  Fortunately, he had not.  He saved his misdeeds for when I was changing my socks and shoes.  Whenever a sock would dangle near his mouth, he would try to clamp his teeth on it.  (I am not unaware of the canine predilection to such behavior.)

I had a brief conversation with him.  I told him that not everything that comes within his field of vision is something for him to bite or chew.  But then, I also explained that I understand that he’s still learning how to be a dog.  He’s still learning how to be a puppy.  I assured him that’s okay.  I’m still learning how to be a human!

Learning to be a human—learning to be an authentic human—is a theme that emerges in Mark 8:27-38.  It may not be immediately obvious, but I’ll try to bring it out.  As you read the text, it’s helpful to especially pay attention to the title “Son of Man.”

What does “Son of Man” mean, anyway?  There isn’t any one single answer.  It first appears in the Old Testament, especially in the book of the prophet Ezekiel.  God calls the prophet בֶן־אׇדׇם (ben ’adam) over ninety times.  The NRSV translates it as “mortal.”  It highlights the difference between the prophet and his God.

In the gospels, no one calls Jesus “Son of Man.”  He calls himself that.  By this time, the term has taken on a messianic feel.  That would seem to fit the context.  After all, Jesus has just asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  They give various answers.  Then he asks, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter responds, “You are the Messiah” (vv. 27, 29).

Even so, that isn’t the end of it.  There’s still the idea that “Son of Man” means “human being.”  In the Anchor Bible, it’s translated as “The Man” (342).  We could see it as Jesus’ humble, self-effacing way of referring to himself.  The fact that he orders them in verse 30 to keep a lid on this “Messiah” talk would lend credence to that.

A few years ago, I discovered the Scarlet Letter Bible (which was at a website that has been taken down).  It was done by Caspar Green, who was a pastor for twenty years.  He described it as “part translation, part paraphrase, part imaginative interpretation.”  He translated “Son of Man” as “the authentic human.”

Here’s what he did with verses 31 to 33, where Jesus chews Peter out.  This is right after he has told the disciples to not say anything about him.

“Instead, Jesus began to teach his students that the authentic human must suffer and be rejected by the rulers, the religious, and the bureaucrats, that he must be executed and three days later return to life.  He said this was no secret.

“Peter took Jesus aside and berated him, but Jesus turned his back to Peter, and as he looked at his other students said to him, ‘Get behind me, Satan.  You don’t speak for God.  In fact, your thinking is quite banal.’”

Shortly, we’ll look at what possesses Jesus to jump on the man who is, arguably, his best friend.  Peter seems to be genuinely concerned for him.

But for now, what does it mean that Jesus is the authentic human?  We tend to emphasize, even overemphasize, his divine nature.  When we make mistakes—when we sin—we tend to say, “I’m only human!”  Or to someone else: “welcome to the human race.”  I know; I do that myself.

Of course, putting it that way makes it sound like being human is an excuse.  It doesn’t sound like being human is an awesome calling, a glorious challenge.  I’ve sometimes said, “To the extent that we are Christlike, to that same extent, we are human.”  Our problem is that we tend to be less than human.  We tend to be inauthentic in our humanity.

Here’s our friend Caspar Green’s take on verses 34 and 38:

“He called the crowd and his students together and told them: ‘If you want to be my follower, you’ll have to put your willingness to be executed for treason against your overlords ahead of your own concerns…  Whoever is embarrassed by their association with me and what I say because you want to fit in with all the cheating and corruption going on—the authentic human will consider them embarrassments when that one comes with the splendor of God commanding heaven’s legions.’”  Now that is fierce!

I said we’d look at Jesus getting on Peter’s case.  What’s going on with that?  Where’s the love?  How is Jesus acting like the model human?

Well, even an authentic human can be tempted.  Jesus, like anyone else, was continually tempted.  And on that day when he asks his disciples what people are saying about him, he knows the storm clouds are gathering.  He isn’t naïve.  He knows that the course he’s on is dangerous ground.

The very last thing he needs is for his good friend to weaken his resolve.  Peter may think he’s doing Jesus a favor.  But by trying to persuade Jesus to take the easy way, he’s only feeding the temptation that has surely been presenting itself to Jesus.  It only increases his agony.

Notice how, in verse 33, Jesus turns and looks at his disciples when he rejects Peter’s suggestion.  Peter may have spoken with him one-on-one, but Jesus wants to make it loud and clear to everyone that he can’t live that way.

I see two things happening here.  One is the need that Jesus feels to drag the temptation into the light of day.  It is the hidden temptation that is the most lethal, the one that is the deadliest.  By speaking of the temptation—bringing it into the open—Jesus takes some power away from it.  He still has to deal with it, but he makes himself vulnerable and accountable.  The same goes for us.

The other thing I see happening in this incident is how often we play the role of Peter.  How often do we weaken the resolve of others to do the right thing, for whatever reason?  Maybe it’s a case of, “I don’t want to hear that!  I can’t deal with it!”  How often have we done that, even to loved ones?  How often have they done it to us?

So, what is Jesus’ remedy?  Here’s verse 34: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Earlier, I quoted Green’s focus on “willingness to be executed for treason…ahead of your own concerns.”  Even so, taking up one’s cross isn’t identical with receiving the death penalty!

What else could denying oneself and taking up one’s cross mean?  I’ve sometimes thought of it as the opposite of one’s ordinary expectations or desires.  It’s the rejection of the false self and discovery of the true self.  The apostle Paul speaks of this, although he uses language about things “above” and things “on earth.”  That’s often been misunderstood as denigration, or disparagement, of the body.  That’s not Christianity; that’s Plato!

In Colossians 3, the apostle says, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (vv. 2-4).  The “you” he refers to that has died is the false self.  It’s the self that identifies with our tiny ego.

Understand, it’s not that the ego is bad; it’s part of God’s good creation.  Still, our growth as humans will be stunted unless we identify with our “life [which] is hidden with Christ in God.”

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say we need to go looking for a cross.  Having a cross to bear is part of the package—it goes with being human.  Although, I imagine that some of us are provided with plenty of crosses!

So, what does it mean for each of us to be really human?  What does it mean for us as a community?  Those two, by necessity, go together.  We are called to be a people, not a collection of individuals.

I like the message of the art pictured here.  There is a great deal of commotion.  Things get twisted; things get screwed up.  People get confused.  When Jesus asks the disciples what people are calling him, they report well-meaning, if mistaken, answers.  Not everyone is so kind.  Jesus gets misrepresented; he gets slandered.

“If in doubt, love,” speaks to something that is the most difficult thing in the world to do.  Earlier I spoke of Jesus’ bringing the temptation out in the open—and making himself accountable.  If we don’t make ourselves accountable to love, we can’t be really human.  Sometimes we flat out just don’t want to do it.  But that’s a big part of denying ourselves and picking up our cross.

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