Opening the Word: That kind of king

There’s a moment of a plot called the “climax.” It’s the turning point of a story, where you know whether things are going to turn out good or bad. If you’re watching a comedy, you can expect good. If you’re watching a tragedy, especially one by Shakespeare, everyone will die.

Mark 8 is a climax. It’s the halfway point of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus has cast out demons and healed the sick. He has incarnated the reign of God in his very being.

But who is he? Is he the one, the last great king who will conquer the Romans and reinstate proper worship in the Temple?

“‘But who do you say that I am?’” (Mk 8:29). Peter answers, “‘You are the Christ.’”

As I tell my students, Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It’s his title. Jesus is the anointed one, the king who is the beloved son of God.

Peter is interpreting Jesus’ healings and exorcisms properly. The disciples have a king among them. You could almost imagine the disciples talking among themselves, preparing for the moment of coronation.

The Gospel of Mark, though, doesn’t let us stay with this climax for too long. Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone. This isn’t because Jesus is afraid of jealous rivals to the throne. Rather, Jesus knows that not everyone is ready to know what kind of king he’ll be.

But, he’s ready to tell his faithful band of disciples: “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days” (Mk 8:31). Jesus is to be the suffering servant described in the prophet Isaiah, the one who endures the worst that men can inflict and yet still is faithful to God.

Peter won’t have it. He rebukes Jesus. This isn’t what it means to be a king, he warns the king-to-be. A king conquers. A king wins. You’ll ruin the whole project, Peter cautions.

Jesus shuts Peter down, calling him Satan, and then clarifying, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mk 8:33).

Human beings think about the consolidation of power. They separate the world into winners and losers. And dying at the hands of one’s fellow citizens isn’t what a winner does.

Jesus corrects this faulty, human logic. He introduces us into the tragic comedy where the hero will suffer, will die and will rise again.

Thinking like God, as it turns out, means taking up one’s cross. It means losing our life, throwing it away, for the sake of love unto the end.

The book of James shows us how to belong to the kingdom of this foolish king. It’s not enough to have pious thoughts about belonging. We exercise our citizenship in this kingdom through clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.

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Like our Lord, we are to love unto the end. Incidentally, this means that Christians won’t always win. Catholics, in the U.S., are often too busy trying to establish their own political power that we forget what our Lord called us to.

We’re part of a tragi-comedy. In the end, love will win. Love will survive death.

But in the meantime, we must speak truth and love in the halls of power. We can lose and still win.

With so much scandal in the Church right now, we must return to the way of Christ. Emptying ourselves of power, taking up our cross and seeking to imitate that kind of king.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.