Why did Jesus call himself, not “Messiah,” but “Son of Man”? Or in the translation I prefer: “The Human Being” or “The Human One.” I believe Jesus is saying, “Look to me as an example of what means to fully embrace the human experience, to make the most of your humanity, to be fully alive.” As the early church father Irenaeus would say more than a century later, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive!” We who seek to follow the way of Jesus are called not so much to believe doctrines about Jesus as to become a fully alive human beings as Jesus was.
The Truly Human One
The Rev. J. Carl Gregg
10 October 2010
Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland
Desmond Tutu — the Nobel peace prize winner and Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, South African — famously said in a 2008 speech that, “There’s nothing more radical, nothing more revolutionary, nothing more subversive against injustice and oppression than the Bible. If you want to keep people subjugated, the last thing you place in their hands is a Bible.”
This morning, we have reached the midpoint, chapter 8, in our study of Mark’s 16-chapter Gospel. And I hope that part of what you are experiencing through our chapter-by-chapter engagement with Mark is an increased familiarity with the Bible, in addition to a sense of empowerment to read and interpret the Bible for yourself. I believe that the archbishop is right that the Bible is radical, revolutionary, and subversive against injustice and oppression. And that the act of studying the Bible for yourself on your own terms is liberating.
This morning as we consider Mark 8, I want to focus on the center part of this central chapter in Mark’s Gospel. In the coming weeks, you will see that chapter 8 is a turning point in Mark’s Gospel. The tone and subject matter will shift dramatically in the second half. And arguably the most decisive hinge in this turning is the debate at Caesarea Philippi that follows Jesus’ question to his disciples, “Who you say that I am?”
Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” Curiously, Jesus’ response is to silence both Peter specifically and the disciples generally: “he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” Even more interesting to me, Jesus does not refer to himself as “Messiah.” Instead, in the next verse after silencing the disciples, Jesus refers to himself in the third person — not as “the Messiah” — but as “the Son of Man,” a name we’ve seen him call himself before earlier in Mark.
Mark’s Jesus will refer to himself in the third-person as “The Son of Man” many more times in the second-half of Mark’s Gospel; but, for now, I want to focus on Jesus’ response to Peter in Mark 8:31. After silencing the disciples, Jesus “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.” Peter had just used the word Messiah for Jesus, but instead of either commending Peter or using the term himself, Jesus silences Peter and uses a different word for himself: not Messiah, but “The Son of Man.” And I invite you to consider that one reason for this choice is that Jesus wants the disciples to understand him in a different way than they would hear the word Messiah.
I often heard growing up that Jesus was the messiah, but in a different way than was expected. The expectation, so I was told, was that the messiah would be a king like David was king. In part, being a king like David meant that the messiah would once again rule over a united and independent Israel. Being a king like David also meant that the messiah would use military might to enforce his will and would have all the political and social trappings of kingship like wealth.
But the word messiah has a much more complex history than this scenario of being in the image of King David allows. The Hebrew word “messiah” literally means “anointed one.” So, at the most basic level anyone who has been ritually anointed with holy oil is a messiah. And in Hebrew Bible, there are numerous examples of high priests or kings being referred to as messiahs because they literally were “anointed ones” — that is, they had been anointed with holy oil as part of the ritual of entering their office of high priest or of monarch. To name only a few of many examples, in Leviticus 4:3, the priest is called the “anointed priest” or the “messiah priest.” In 1 Samuel 24:6 and in 2 Samuel 1:14, Saul and David respectively are called “the Lord’s anointed” or “the Lord’s messiah.” In Isaiah 45:1, the Persian King Cyrus is even called a “messiah” or “anointed one” because of his role in ending the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews. At the time of Jesus the word messiah was in the slow process of changing in meaning from this former, more general definition, to a more specific meaning associated with a figure like King David, who would once again rule over an independent and united country of Israel that would no longer be under the control of a foreign empire like Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, or Rome. When we hear the word messiah today, we do not usually pause to consider the complex history of the word. In contrast, at the time of Jesus, the meaning of the word messiah was not so clear.
For all these reasons, Jesus’ choice to refer to himself as “Son of Man” and not “Messiah” intrigues me. As with the title “Messiah,” the title “Son of Man,” has a long and complex history of meaning. Scholars report that the phrase, “Son of man” occurs 108 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Interestingly, 93 of these 108 times occur in the book of Ezekiel.
Scholars have increasingly found the translation of this title as “Son of man” to be unhelpful. Some have suggested “Son of Adam” or “Son of Humanity,” but I favor the more universal translation “The Human Being,” “The Human One,” or “The Truly Human One.” In other words, when Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of man,” he is saying, “Look to me as an example of what means to fully embrace to the human experience,” to make the most of your humanity, to be fully alive. As the early church father Irenaeus would say more than a century later, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive!”
And one of the most important invitations I hear from Jesus’ reference to himself as the “Truly Human One” is that we who seek to follow the way of Jesus are called not so much to believe doctrines about Jesus as to become a fully alive human being like Jesus was.
Mark tells us that in teaching his disciples about being the “Son of Man” or the “Truly Human One” that:
[Jesus] said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But 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.
My understand here is that Jesus rebukes Peter for espousing beliefs that we are “merely human” instead of seeing that God calls us to be fully alive, to live abundant lives to be “Truly Human Ones” as Jesus showed us, in part, how to be.
Importantly, this whole passage is a recapitulation of the Parable of the Sower from back in Mark chapter 4.
When Jesus speaks of himself as the “Son of Man” instead of the “Messiah,” he is speaking, as with the parable, to those with “ears to hear.” So, when Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan,” we are invited to hear an echo of the Parable of the Sower: “
These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.
Returning to Mark 8, Jesus “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. For 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.” Can you hear the echo to the Parable of the Sower?
And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.
Jesus is warning us that it is easy to follow him in theory — at first, in the short run, with joy — but then to fall away in the long run when the true sacrifices and crosses appear.
And Jesus’ teaching continues, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Do you have ears to hear the third echo?
And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.
The “thorns” are the “lure of wealth.” Indeed: “What will it profit you to gain the whole world, but lose your soul?”
But the final part of the Parable of the Sower gives us hope:
these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.
Do you have eyes to see and ears to hear Jesus’ own name for himself as the Son of Man, the Son of Adam, the Human Being, the Truly Human One? Will we be rebuked like Peter for espousing beliefs that are “merely human”? Or will answer Jesus’ question — “Who do you say that I am?” — not only with our mouths, but with our lives: by living an abundant life, becoming fully alive, living into God’s call for us to be the “Truly Human One” that Jesus showed us how to be?
1 For the source of the Tutu quote, see Jennifer Riley, “Nothing More Radical Than Bible in Injustice Fight” in The Christian Post (September 8, 2008). Available at http://www.christianpost.com/article/20080908/nothing-more-radical-than-bible-in-injustice-fight-says-tutu/.
2 Jesus has previously referred to himself as “The Son of Man” in Mark 2:10, “‘But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic—” and in Mark 2:28,”so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
3 For more on the development of the word Messiah, see “The Meaning of Christ = Messiah” in Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible), 1104-1107. The matter is further complicated because in Greek, the Hebrew word messiah is translated as “Christ,” reminding us that Christ is not Jesus’ last name. Instead, Christ is a title. In other words, Jesus of Nazareth was sometimes called by the title Jesus the Christ, which was eventually shortened to Jesus Christ.
4 For an accessible study of the title “Son of Man,” see Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man. The statistics of this phrases’ occurrence are from Wink 17. Of particular interest is “Appendix 3: Ezekiel’s Influence on Jesus” (Wink 267-269).
5 Ched Myers, Binding the Strongman, 244-245.