The gospel passage from this week is one of my favorite for considering how Jesus met and interacted with people where they were, including rival religious shrines. The passages from Mark, along with Proverbs and Psalms, all point to the importance of refusing worldly wisdom in favor of embracing God’s kingdom rule.
The Mark text gives us a good hint about what is about to take place by mentioned that Jesus went into the area surrounding Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27). In this area was the famous Gates of Hades where the Greek god Pan was worshiped in addition to Hades. There was a cave that gushed forth a spring. It was thought that this was a place where Greek gods and heroes could descend to the underworld and then return again. The rock face outside of the cliff was dominated with niches for idols, and pagan religious practices, including cultic prostitution and ritual bestiality, were common.
It is in the context of this center of pagan worship that Jesus asked his disciples questions. First he asked who people said he was. Some disciples answered that people thought Jesus was John the Baptist, Elijah or some other long-dead prophet returned to life. If this were true, Jesus going to a place that was a gateway to the underworld where spirits could come back might make some sense. Peter refused that line of thinking and called Jesus the messiah, the anointed one. Now a messiah who has been ritually anointed for service to God’s beloved community has no business around a pagan cultic center, and we should hear in Peter’s pronouncement a critique of their location. [See Matthew 16:13-20 for Peter telling Jesus that he was the son of the living God, and Jesus referencing the nearby Gates of Hades.]
Then Jesus told his disciples that he, like some of the Greek gods that people were worshiping at the Gates of Hades, would die and then come back to life after a time (Mark 8:31). This was too much for Peter, who took Jesus aside and rebuked him. We can just hear Peter: “Jesus, this is the most idolatrous of pagan practices! You are the anointed one who God sent to save Israel! You cannot possibly mean to join in or justify the sickening worship of dead and reborn gods! These people are committing disgusting sexual acts for false gods to prolong their lives and placate death. Don’t say that you too will die and then come back!”
Jesus told Peter that he was only thinking of human things and not the things of God. The humans engaged in the pagan worship at the Gates of Hades were trying to save their own lives by asking gods associated with the dead to let them live a few more years. Jesus would surrender his own life in order to raid the realm of the dead and save humans from death. The pagans hoped for benign neglect from their gods. Jesus offered to suffer personally in order to give away costly grace. It was a completely different paradigm.
Jesus then shouted to the crowd [apparently those worshiping the pagan gods, because we don’t have any other crowd mentioned], along with his disciples:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38)
Jesus offered a better way to those humans desperately trying to prolong their life by ritual prostitution and bestiality for the enjoyment of gods of death. Instead of trying to save your own life, lose it for Jesus and the sake of the good news. Then you will [truly] have life. What good is it if you get everything in the whole world, but by doing so, lose your life? Jesus’ call to lose your life so that you could save it may have sounded like foolishness, but I imagine that to some of those in the cultic center who were not completely sold on the idea of entertaining gods of death enough so that they would be spared for an undefined period, Jesus’ words were literally a Godsend.
Jesus as incarnate logos, just as Lady Wisdom from Proverbs 1, called out to those engaged in futile thinking and action:
How long will you who are simple love your simple ways?
How long will mockers delight in mockery
and fools hate knowledge?
Repent at my rebuke!
Then I will pour out my thoughts to you,
I will make known to you my teachings. (Proverbs 1:22-23)
We may see many of our friends, family and fellow citizens running after systems of power or idols who they think have the power to save. If only we/they debase ourselves or compromise a little bit, we’ll secure some temporary safety. This is not what Jesus says or wants. We are to flee from stupid, foolish, ungodly idolatry or trust in other powers for safety. In fact, I might go so far as to say that we need to be very careful of any institution or person offering us safety, lest it become for us an idol. Jesus did not promise safety. He promised that if we lose our lives for him and for his good news of God’s loving salvation for all people, then our lives will be saved.