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The Politics of Scripture

Shattering Expectations

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Mark 8:31-38

Mark 8:31-38 is one of those passages that makes it hard for me to take sides. Do I side with Peter, the only disciple who had the guts to tell Jesus that Messiahs do not die on the cross? Do I side with Jesus, who snaps at Peter for holding him captive to his limited vision? (Also, was Jesus a little short tempered because he himself had just come to understand what being the Messiah really meant?) Or do I go and stand with the other disciples, and perhaps the onlooking crowd, and blink in sheer disbelief at what I am hearing? 

When my expectations shatter, I become as sharp-edged as the shambles of my fragile ego and glassy imagination. I do not take disappointment, even if that disappointment is supposedly for my own good, gracefully. So I must confess that despite volumes upon volumes of Biblical commentaries that would advise me differently, I side with Peter whose hopes were smashed. 

I side with him because my faith journey has taught me that the most profound transformation occurs precisely in the space of shattered expectations. When I have nothing of my own to hold on to, there is room to receive something I could not have imagined God could do.

Perhaps that is why one of my favorite musicals is “The Book of Mormon.” Yes, yes, it is controversial and irreverent and offensive. But it is also witty and insightful in a way that helps me see my own frivolity and limitations when it comes to my expectations of God and God’s ways in the world.

The story follows two young Mormon missionaries – a goody-two-shoes Elder Price, and an insecure but lovable Elder Cunningham – into a remote Ugandan village where poverty, AIDS, and the terror of a local warlord all reign. By the end of Act I, the audience finds the exemplary missionary Price crushed not just by the brutal reality of his assignment, but also, because God did not live up to his expectations. Even though Price had prayed and dreamt of being sent to Orlando ever since his childhood trip to Disneyland, he ended up in rural Uganda. 

In sharp contrast to Price’s trivial existential crisis, a young local girl, Nabulungi, fosters expectations of much-needed redemption of her own. Upon hearing the message preached by the missionaries, she creates her own vision of the earthly paradise promised by Americans: a land free of poverty and suffering. She sings,

I’ll bet the goat meat there is plentiful, and they have vitamin injections by the case
The warlords there are friendly, they help you cross the street
And there’s a Red Cross on every corner with all the flour you can eat!
Sal Tlay Ka Siti, the most perfect place on Earth
Where flies don’t bite your eyeballs and human life has worth
It isn’t a place of fairy tales, it’s as real as it can be

The lyrics, reflecting the controversial nature of the musical, combine every stereotype of “Africa” as a disaster zone. In my reading, though, they make fun more of Western stereotypes of the developing world rather than of actual poverty. Underneath these tropes I hear (perhaps because I choose to) a real need for deliverance and expectations of how her new-found God could lead the way to a better future. 

During the intermission, I could not help but think that I was somehow equal parts elder Price and Nabulungi. Much like Price, I, too, on occasion  throw hissy fits when life/God/universe does not take me to my equivalent of Disneyland. And then, I also plead with God for deliverance of human rights activists in Belarus or Nigeria, for a collective will to reduce environmental damage, or for tireless scientists and doctors at the frontlines of Covid 19. Then I fancy myself  a bit more like Nabulungi. 

Yet, even in my most daring expectations of how God will act, I am bound by my previous experiences, much like the characters in the musical. In constructing my visions of divine redemption, I want God to patch the holes of the present with the bricks of the past.

“The Book of Mormon” helps me see Mark 8:31-38 in a much more human light. It helps me feel the pain of shattered emotions, the fear of being disappointed by God, and the need for God to intervene, urgently.

Many scholars see the Gospel of Mark as a story in two acts, with the first part concluding right before this passage. This first part focuses on revealing who Jesus is through manifestations of God’s power in Jesus: acts of divine healing, miraculous feedings, casting out of demons, etc. At the end of the first half of the Gospel, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:29). Having witnessed this power, Peter, speaking for the Twelve, confesses, “You are the Messiah” (Mk 8:30). 

Prompted by this profession, Jesus immediately begins to teach the disciples that the Messiah, the Son of Man, “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mk 8:31). This initiates the second act of the Gospel, which reveals a God who chooses to redeem the world through the cross rather than a military coup.

It is not hard to see why Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him, since Jesus’s  reference to the Son of Man brings visions of kingship and everlasting dominion, rather than suffering and death. The prophet Daniel, whose writings Peter no doubt knew, draws a striking image of what the Son of Man is to do:

To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
    that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
    that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:14)

Amy Jill Levine, an eminent Jewish scholar of the New Testament, further elucidates what the disciples might have expected of the Messiah: “most Jews thought that the Messiah and the messianic age came together. The messianic age meant peace on earth and the end of war, death, disease, and poverty, the ingathering of the exiles, a general resurrection of the dead.”

These expectations were not merely frivolous visions of Disney World, and Peter’s rebuke is not just a fit thrown by a spoiled brat who doesn’t get their way. Peter’s quest for deliverance is actually far more similar to that of Nabulungi. To see Peter’s rebuke of Jesus as foolish, even though Jesus does admonish him quite strongly, would be to ignore the socio-political and economic context of Galilee. 

Another New Testament scholar, Ched Myers, paints a heart-wrenching picture of Galilean realities: the vast majority of the people – especially the rural poor – experienced increasing poverty and hopelessness. This was not just because of heavy Roman taxation, but was also due to exploitation by the local elites which was so severe that more than half of a farmer’s annual harvest would go towards various levies, taxes, and obligations. Quoting Sean Freyne, Myers concludes:

“The Galilean Jewish peasant[s] found [themselves] in the rather strange position that those very people to whom [they] felt bound by ties of national and religious loyalty … were in fact [their] social oppressors.”

By the time Jesus entered the stage, a number of revolutionaries, false messiahs, and other liberators had enflamed the hopes of the people, only to all die tragic deaths at the hands of the Roman empire. Theudas, Simon of Peraea, Athronges: these are all just a few of the names of these first century Jews who started in power and ended in death. 

Too many attempts to restore Israel according to the vision of the prophets had failed – and the disciples could not bear the idea of Jesus intentionally choosing the road of the cross for himself – and for them. No wonder then, that Peter does not take Jesus’ word well; I would not have, either. 

The disciples envisioned that the transformation of their circumstances is going to come as a result of a top-down political action. When God places the right people in charge of Israel, when the political powers and structures change, when the oppressors are gone, then each can “sit under their vine and fig tree.” 

Yet gilded memory, that most abundant stream that feeds the river of expectations, tends to gloss over inconvenient facts. 

While the Jewish people were waiting for a king like David and for the glory of Israel like that in the times of Solomon, they forgot that injustice and exploitation were also rampant then. They could not bear to remember that both David and Solomon took advantage of their own people. They preferred not to think of the heavy taxes and the royal splendor afforded at common people’s expense. 

That is why Jesus does not head for the throne but for the cross. He goes there to crucify any and all expectations of God’s power manifesting through human imperial regimes. 

The answer to the empire’s injustice is not another empire. Understanding the implications of any hierarchical language to describe God’s presence with God’s people on earth, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz proposes the language of God’s “kin-dom.” For that is what Jesus calls those who pick up their cross and follow him to become: kin. 

This kinship manifests as communities of radical care that echo Jesus’ example in the first eight chapters of the gospel. Like Jesus himself, these communities would heal the sick, feed the hungry, teach the illiterate, and include the outcast. They would continue the work of shattering expectations of how God acts for the world through their care. 

This kind of care remains both the greatest redemptive force and the greatest threat to the powers that be. Ashon Crawly, a Professor of Religious Studies at University of Virginia, has beautifully encapsulated this in a recent Facebook post:

Care is something white supremacist capitalist patriarchy cannot give nor withhold, even when it tries to privatize care as an industry that is primarily about making money and exploiting workers. care is not private property, it only exists when it is shared. care is the antithesis and alternative to white supremacy (…) it exceeds the logic of reactive response to practices of violence. it precedes the violence and political economy of extraction and exploitation. care, even if soft, ain’t easy. it takes courage. and conviction. and clarity.

Oh, and I would hate to spoil the show for those who have not seen “The Book of Mormon,” but suffice it to say that Myers, and Isasi-Diaz, and Crawly really know what they are talking about. The show affirms that we ARE redeemed in community through care, at least in part, but already here, on Earth. Go see for yourself (when you can, that is) – maybe your expectations will be shattered, too.  

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