Historical Culture Context
Attaching to Jesus
In the thirteenth century, Francis of Assisi had a vision of Jesus Christ hanging on the cross and Francis grasped the meaning of the Gospel passage: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mk 8:34 and parallels).
Shortly thereafter when his father summoned him before Bishop Guido of Assisi to renounce all claims to inheritance, Francis went even further and severed ties with his father. “Until now I called you my father, but from now on I can say without reservation, ‘Our Father who art in heaven’.”
What prompted the Italian Francis to interpret “denying oneself” as “denying one’s father and family?” The Mediterranean cultural understanding of “self” as a communal rather than an individualistic identity lay at the foundation of Francis’ mindset.
Taking Up the Cross
In the Synoptic “triple tradition” (Mk 8:34; Mt 16:24; Lk 9:23), Jesus’ statement is constructed in this way:
A - follow me;
B - deny oneself;
B' - take up your cross;
A' - follow me.
Phrases A and A' are identical or synonymous. So too are phrases B and B'. Therefore, to take up one’s cross means to deny oneself.
In the “double tradition” (Mt 10:34-38; Lk 14:25-27), taking up one’s cross is associated with denial of one’s family or kin. This cluster of matching passages informs the discerning reader that taking up one’s cross is equivalent to denying oneself (triple tradition) and to denying one’s family or kin group (double tradition).
Crosscultural specialists underscore the contrast between Western and Mediterranean notions of personality and the self. In Western culture, people develop a keen sense of individualism, self-reliance, independence from others, and personal competence.
In the Middle East, people are urged to focus primarily on the family and forge their identity according to the family. Simon Peter is known as son of Jonah; Jesus is the carpenter’s or Mary’s son. Middle Easterners depend upon the family for everything. Indeed, the rule is “take care of family first.” In modern Middle Eastern countries, a royal family exclusively hires relatives as government servants. People in these cultures always feel the need of forming a coalition to achieve anything. No one dares to dream of personal initiative.
A Western person who hears these biblical exhortations to take up one’s cross and deny one’s self generally initiates a personal and individual plan of asceticism and penitential behaviors. The Mediterranean person who hears these same exhortations, like Jesus’ immediate disciples and his medieval disciple Francis of Assisi, will sever ties with blood relatives but seek to join another group. Mediterranean people simply cannot exist without a group of one kind or another.
By leaving his family and village and travelling from place to place (Mk 1:38), Jesus effectively rejected the honor ascribed to him by birth (Mk 6:1-6). His teaching and healing activities and other behavior deviated from what his culture might expect from someone of his origins.
Summoning twelve followers (Mk 3:13-19), Jesus created a new fictive family group around himself. Then Jesus redefined the family by asserting, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mk 3:31-35). The questions Jesus poses to his followers in today’s Gospel (Mk 8:27-30) are an effort to learn his new honor status both among the general public and among his new kin. The answer (Messiah) reconfirms his status and authority to proclaim the reign of God.
Against this background, Jesus’ exhortation to sever ties with other groups and become loyally attached to him and his group is powerfully impressive.
Americans who belong to groups only so long as they are personally fulfilling will have to think twice.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University