by Father Mike Stubbs
“Surgeon General’s Warning: Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and may complicate pregnancy.”
This warning on cigarette package appears in fine print, barely noticeable. It is easy to ignore. Similarly, it is easy to ignore the stewardess as she explains the safety procedures and emergency exits before a commercial airliner takes off on its flight. Many of the passengers have heard it so often, they do not bother to glance up.
It is easy to ignore a warning. That is why Jesus makes a special effort to engage the attention of his audience in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mk 8:27-35. He wishes to warn them about the heavy demands of discipleship. If they are to follow him, it will not be easy. He wants them to know what they are getting into.
On other occasions, Jesus has veiled his words with mystery. When he told the crowds his parables, they often did not understand. When the disciples complain about the baffling nature of his parables, Jesus answers: “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you. But to those outside everything comes in parables, so that ‘they may look and see but not perceive, and hear and listen but not understand, in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven'” (Mk 4:11-12). Jesus appears to be deliberately hiding things.
Similarly, whenever the subject of Jesus’ identity as Messiah has entered into the discussion, Jesus has skirted the issue. He directed the disciples toward secrecy. That is the case in Sunday’s Gospel reading when the topic comes up. “Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.”
On the other hand, Jesus takes a completely different approach immediately after saying this. He reveals another important aspect of his identity with uncharacteristic openness: “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. He spoke this openly.”
Jesus does not restrict this newfound openness to his disciples. He extends it also to the crowds: “He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.’”
Notice that Jesus’ instruction on discipleship is linked to his own identity as the suffering servant of God. Just as Jesus must suffer and die, his disciples must also share in the cross. The announcement about Jesus’ eventual suffering and death allows that instruction. Otherwise, it would make no sense. The proclamation about his own suffering and death naturally leads to what will be required of the disciples.
Jesus makes three predictions of his passion in Mark’s Gospel. We hear the first of those on Sunday. Each prediction is accompanied by an instruction on discipleship. Those instructions seek to make clear what is involved in following Jesus. They are warnings — not meant to discourage us, but to fully inform us about the commitment we are making as disciples of Jesus Christ.