Proclaiming deliverance to a people yet unborn (Psalm 22.31)

I am (sometimes!) grateful for the discipline of having to write this blog piece fairly regularly, because the need to reflect on the lectionary readings, encourages me to see connections that I might not otherwise have spotted. That is the case here when my exploration of the lectionary Gospel passage Mark 8.31-38, led me into discovering interesting connections with Genesis 17.1-7,15,16; Psalm 22.23-31 and Romans 4.13-25. I would however be very grateful to hear from laity and clergy who might be interested in ‘offering’ a contribution for a week. One feature that ideally should be reflected (and I have to confess, is not really reflected in this posting), is to link specifically with our context in the Diocese in Europe.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

The Whalton Christ

I don’t often begin a reflection on the weekly lectionary readings by starting with the selected psalm – but on this occasion I want to do that, because I believe it offers a ‘clue’ to the interpretation of the other selected readings, and especially to this week’s Gospel, Mark 8.31-38.

The Psalm chosen is Psalm 22.22-31. We are much more familiar with the first two-thirds of this psalm, than we are with this, its latter part. The first two-thirds of the psalm constitute probably the most well-known ‘psalm of lament’ in the Psalter, beginning with the powerful evocation, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, which according to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew was a cry echoed by Jesus as he hung on the cross. This final third – which is hardly alluded in the New Testament – is an ever expanding hymn of praise. The ‘switch’ between the two ‘modes’ which comes in the middle of verse 21, initially appears startling and unexpected, although in fact if you look closely at the text of the psalm the ‘way’ is prepared for this shift.

It is fascinating to follow the flow of the psalm as a whole. It begins with an almost absolute sense of desolation on the part of the psalmist -who feels deserted both by God, and other human beings. It seems as though we are alone in a long dark tunnel, in which the only pin-prick of light at the end is the fact that the psalmist feels able to address God as ‘my’ God. On this fragile, but personal, relationship the rest of the psalm will depend and will unfold. It is interesting to see how the phrases ‘my God’, ‘far’, ‘helping’ which are introduced in verses 1 and 2, then reappear first in verses 10 and 11 and then again in verses 19 and 20. With each of these reappearances the language subtly shifts so that God and the palmist draw closer to each other. I explored Psalm 22 in more detail in a blog posting for last Good Friday (you can find it under ‘Discipleship in Difficult Days 7’ – it forms part of

But in terms of our reflection this week, what I find immensely powerful is how the absolute isolation of the beginning of the Psalm so contrasts with the increasing numbers of fellow human beings whom the psalmist,  beginning with verse 22, calls upon to share in the ever-widening circles of praise. Just take a look: the apparently low-key ‘brothers and sisters’ (verse 22), ‘congregation’ (verse 22), begins to widen out to ‘you who fear the Lord’ (verse 23), ‘offspring (literally ‘seed’) of Jacob’ (verse 23) ‘offspring (seed) of Israel’ (verse 24), ‘great congregation’ (verse 25),  and eventually includes ‘all the ends of the earth’ (verse 27), ‘all the families of the nations’ (verse 27) ‘all who sleep in the earth’ (verse 29), ‘posterity’/ ‘a people yet unborn’ (verse 30-31).

The psalm is truly the song of the one become the many. Indeed to pick up an image from the psalm those many are the ‘seed’ (verses 23-4) of the lonely singer.

That sense of one spiralling into many is also clearly present in both the week’s Old Testament reading and linked Epistle. Genesis 17.1-7,15,16 focuses on the ‘multitude’ of ‘offspring’ (seed) that will spring up from the apparently childless Abraham and Sarah (see verses 4, 5, 6, 16). The theme is reiterated in Romans 4.13-25 which recalls the title given to Abraham of ‘father of many nations’ (verse18). In this passage too, the word used for ‘descendants’ (verse 13, 16), is literally the Greek word for ‘seed’.

This movement of the one into the many is I think an important clue to the interpretation of our Gospel passage, Mark 8.31-38. It comes immediately after Peter’s ‘confession of faith’, his realization that Jesus is the Messiah (verse 29). That discovery seems to prompt Jesus into further teaching – not about triumph, but about suffering.  It also involves a harsh exchange between Jesus and Peter in which the word ‘rebuke’ (Greek epitimao) appears twice, first spoken by Peter to Jesus and then thrown back at Peter by Jesus. It is important to realise just how ‘loaded’ a word ‘rebuke’ is – it is used elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus rebukes the demons who cause illness (Mark 1.25), or the demonic forces of the storm (Mark 4.39). Jesus’ sharp use of this in his exchange with Peter at this point, perhaps ‘hints’ at the temptation that must have dogged him throughout his ministry – to seek a messiahship that did  not involve him in personal and painful suffering, a temptation which of course he finally and conclusively rejected in Gethsemane (Mark 14.36).

But what is also important, is that when Jesus refers to this suffering, he does not in fact say ‘the Messiah must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…’. Given that the ‘discovery’ that Peter has just made is of Jesus’ Messiahship – this is intriguing. Rather Jesus says that ‘the Son of Man*’ must suffer… The question ‘Who is this Son of Man?’ has been around a long time in Christian history – since John 12.34 in fact! Of course in some senses the answer is clearly (or at least partially) ‘Jesus’, but then the question really becomes, ‘What exactly does this title mean, and why does Jesus use it at this point?’

I am certain (along with many others who study and teach the Bible!) that the vision in Daniel 7.13 of ‘the one like a son of man’ who suffers and then is glorified is part of the picture. Jesus is identifying himself with this trajectory of suffering and persecution, which will eventually be transcended by glory. But I don’t think that this is the whole of the story. In Hebrew idiom the phrase ‘son of…’ is a way of saying ‘member of the group of’. This can be seen, for example, in a ‘traditional’ translation of Psalm 8.4:‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him, the son of man that thou madest him’. The parallelism of Hebrew poetry here makes clear that ‘son of man’ is more or less synonymous with ‘man’ or perhaps with ‘humanity’.

This is I think therefore the ‘clue’ to the use of the phrase Son of Man in Mark 8.31. In switching from the word ‘Messiah’ to ‘Son of Man’ at this point Jesus is suggesting that the role of suffering followed by glory is not a role simply to be played by him alone. Potentially it involves others – first of course his immediate disciples but eventually all humanity. They – we! – are being offered the challenge, responsibility and privilege of becoming part of the ‘Son of Man’. It was of course a challenge and role that in the first instance none of Jesus’ disciples were willing to accept, as Jesus’ ‘aloneness’ on the cross marked out the first Good Friday. Yet correspondingly Jesus’ willingness to play the role of ‘Son of Man’ is the starting-point of a process that will mean that he will have many ‘offspring’ or ‘seed’ (to recall the expression used in this week’s other lectionary readings). There is of course the clear suggestion that Jesus’ suffering will also mean that his followers are called to ‘take up their cross’ (Mark 8.34)in the second half of this week’s Gospel passage.

I find it interesting that the letters of Paul do not use the expression ‘Son of Man’. I think however that Paul’s phrase ‘Body of Christ’ (which in turn does not appear in the Gospels) functions as Paul’s equivalent of the Gospel expression ‘Son of Man’. And just as we are potentially (or actually?) the Body of Christ, so we are also the ‘Son of Man’. As with Psalm 22 – the lonely one has indeed become the many.

There is a wonderful pictoral depiction of this in the Whalton Christ – which I have used as the illustration for this week’s blog and draw on often to illustrate my vision of ‘the Body of Christ’. This is a picture of the face of Christ created through the use of many photographs of people and scenes of the village of Whalton in Northumberland. It was created as a millennium project. I gather from something I have read recently that the new Archbishop of York appreciates the Whalton Christ as well – so I am in good company!

One final point – which explains the title for this week’s blog. There are several good theological reasons for Christians to care passionately about creation and the environment.  I explored some of them in a couple of blog postings a few weeks ago. But one additional reason is that our loyalty and commitment to ‘the Body of Christ’ requires us to care about the welfare and ‘good’ of generations who come after us. The Christian understanding of ‘the Body of Christ’ is that it transcends and draws together space and time. We need to care for our world not least so that Christ’s deliverance is proclaimed and enjoyed by a people yet unborn. (Psalm 22.29-31)

The Whalton Christ, detail

The asterisk * above is intended as an acknowledgement that I am uncomfortable with the gender specific language that is implied in words and phrases like ‘man’ and ‘son of man’. Some modern translations seek to get round the issue by using words like ‘mortals’ – but that would not work precisely for the point I am seeking to make here.

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