Progressive reflections on the lectionary #5

Mark 8: 31-38

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #5

Part of the genius of ‘Mark’ and/or the later translators of his work is the superbly quotable nature of of some of his passages, including this one. “Get behind me, Satan” or, if you prefer, “Get thee behind me, Satan” is such a great phrase. It bleeds through to culture in every moment we are faced with a big temptation.

The Satan of Biblical tradition is a complex character, he starts out in the oldest books as one of God’s ‘court’ - a divinely appointed accuser, or prosecutor. The name ‘Satan’ means ‘adversary’. By the time we get to the New Testament, and the gospels are thought by some to be among the last of the New Testament books to have been written, the Satan has taken on a different role, or persona, to that of his early appearances.

As we have already seen, in ‘Mark’s account, Jesus’ story is presented as a cosmic drama. Conflicts with real enemies - occupying powers or religious authorities - are presented in terms of stark, supernatural, drama. Scribes and soldiers become ‘demons’ to be cast out and driven away in the messianic mission. Mark, and the other gospel writers, combine what we might understand as biography with eye-catching apocalyptic imagery to convey the powerful importance of the events taking place. The writing style is perhaps best called ‘kerygmatic’ - it is a kind of proclamation.

And it’s a tough task, after all, the key issue they have to grapple with, ultimately, is Jesus' crucifixion. How can a promised Messiah have been put to death with such ignominy? How should a herald proclaim this sort of news? The answer is by framing the whole story in vivid apocalyptic terms so that it is clearly more than mere biography.

By using cosmic, apocalyptic, imagery we begin to see that there is a major cosmic drama being played out - a cast of angels, demons, and even dead people are employed to demonstrate that this is a much bigger story than it may initially seem.

‘We are in a cosmic war,’ argues ‘Mark’ and the other gospel writers. A cosmic war is one where earthly struggles are best understood as demonstrative of a meta-conflict between good and evil.

In this passage Peter is roped in to the same dramatic imagery. For a moment he is the one who embodies the conflict between Jesus’ mission and his earthly adversaries (Satans). The battle is not just with soldiers and lawyers, it’s with his closest friends who are trying to steer him in a different direction. Judas will soon try to provoke conflict by setting up a collision between Jesus and the authorities, but here Peter takes it upon himself to try and prevent Jesus from walking into a trap.

“Get behind me, Satan,” is an iconic piece of phrasing - and in a way exemplifies the way that ‘Mark’ seeks to demonstrate that Jesus’ earthly conflicts are also spiritual.

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Image: Ilya Repin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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