They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10:32-34)
Today’s gospel text is about as short a reading as you’ll find in the lectionary: a three-verse snippet from Mark’s account of Jesus’s final journey to Jerusalem. But it’s the end of a longer arc: for the third time in three chapters, Jesus tells his disciples of his coming death and resurrection.
This set of teachings started with Jesus asking his disciples who they say he is and Peter correctly answering, “You are the Messiah” (8:29). But as Jesus thrice makes clear for them just what’s in store for the savior promised by prophets, the disciples simply cannot understand what commentator Kimberly Clayton Richter calls “the full and discomforting connection between Jesus’ messiahship and their discipleship.”
• After Jesus’ first explanation, Peter tries to dress him down and is himself rebuked: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33).
• After the second, Mark simply records that the disciples, again, “did not understand what [Jesus] was saying and were afraid to ask him” (9:32).
• And after today’s foretelling of death and resurrection, the disciples show their lack of understanding in a different way. Two of them try to claim places of privilege in the coming glory that they don’t comprehend, which exposes the envy and resentment lingering within the group, as the other ten “began to be angry with James and John” (10:41).
Richter points out that Mark tries to underscore their inability to see what is coming by “bracketing the three passion predictions between two stories of Jesus healing a blind person” (8:22-26 and 10:46-52). Why are the disciples so blind to the vision Jesus is giving them?
It’s easy enough for me to understand their response. It would have been mine, surely.
First, even if they could truly comprehend the possibility of resurrection — and we’ve seen recently that it’s sometimes harder for God’s people to believe the best than the worst — it’s impossible for the disciples to believe that “messiahship” means that their teacher will suffer betrayal and death. How could the Son of Man, powerful enough to heal the sick and feed the thousands and walk on water itself, give himself over to the power of mere men? How could the Son God had just named “Beloved” (9:7) be abandoned to such humiliation and agony? What kind of a messiah was this?
But in asking that question, they were inadvertently asking themselves what kind of disciples they were.
For they don’t yet understand all the burdens that discipleship carries. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink,” Jesus asks James and John, “or be baptized with the the baptism that I am baptized with?” (10:38) Can any of the twelve accept that “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:44)? Of course not. After the second prediction, they had already admitted that they spent the rest of that day’s walk arguing amongst themselves over “who was the greatest.” (“Whoever wants to be first,” Jesus had already warned them, “must be last of all and servant of all,” 9:33-35).
Can they — can we? — accept that any who truly want to follow this messiah, to be his disciples, must “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34)? It’s hard enough to deny myself whatever conveniences and comforts are temporarily set aside for the sake of public health. Can I lose my very life for the sake of saving it?
However many times we come to Holy Week, I’m always taken aback at what our sin cost our Christ. But that betrayal and death has already happened, and it’s already been overcome in resurrection.
There’s no question of Jesus’ messiahship. All that’s left to be determined is the nature of our discipleship.