I’m no longer much of a TV watcher, but even so, I’ve watched enough to be deeply annoyed at the ads for Verizon that were prevalent a season or two ago. “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” The fellow with the Verizon jacket is wandering all over the place, and asking that question to make the point that Verizon’s service areas are everywhere. You get great reception even in the most unlikely places. It was an incredibly aggravating ad, but it taught us what they thought we needed to know about the service they were selling. And we, good students that we are, absorbed it so well that it became an icon of pop culture, the punch line to a thousand jokes. The words wouldn’t leave our brains, over and over, urgently “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” The pitchman made sure we understood what he was selling.
And Jesus’ words in today’s gospel have some of that same insistent urgency: “Who do they say I am? Who do you say I am? Can you hear me now?”
The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is a man in a hurry, with a mission of vital importance. You’ll notice, if you read through the whole gospel, that one of the words that most prominent in Mark’s account is immediately. Everything happens immediately. People move from one place to another immediately. 27 times, that word appears in this gospel account. And I wonder if we might paraphrase this man in a hurry, so that when he says “who do you say I am,” we recast it as “Can you hear me now?”
Because that’s what’s really going on in this story. Jesus is checking in with his disciples, his prize students, if you will, to see if they’ve finally figured out what he is trying to teach them. And it’s important that they get the message right, and quickly, because he knows he’s not going to be around to teach them face-to-face for long.
Remember that this passage comes after Jesus has performed a series of miracles. If the purpose of the miracles was not only to care for those he touched but to also show them his divinity, he certainly wants to check and see if people now understand what he’s really about. Yes, it’s a good thing that he is healing people. Yes, it’s a good thing that he teaches. But do they really get the whole message?
Thus the question: “Who do people say that I am?” “Can they hear me now?”
All good teachers check in regularly, after all, as they are teaching to make sure the students are following them.
And the first answer that he gets is somewhat disappointing. It seems the people think that he is John the Baptist, or Elijah, or some sort of prophet. But they haven’t connected the dots sufficiently to realize who he really is. So now the question becomes more insistent. Maybe the masses aren’t there yet, but maybe this band of twelve, the group who has walked with Jesus and witnessed all his miracles and teachings, maybe they understand. He asks the twelve: “Can YOU hear me now?” “Who do YOU say that I am?”
And Simon Peter, ever the overachieving eldest child, raises his hand and says “Master, master, I have the answer! You’re the Messiah!”
It’s the right answer, of course, but it is a dangerous one. He asks them to keep it to themselves, as if he has second thoughts about the word getting out. Maybe it’s a good thing that the crowd hasn’t understood.
Then he gathers his little band of the closest disciples around him to tell them what awaits. This teaching is hard. Being a disciple of Jesus will be hard. He predicts the enmity of the Pharisees and scribes, his torture, his death, and the resurrection three days later.
With that, his prize pupil, Peter, starts to rebuke him. And now Peter is no longer the hero, because Jesus scolds him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind on human things, not divine things.”
“Get behind me, Satan.” Talk about the teacher saying you gave the wrong answer! “Can you hear me now?” No, not really. It’s like a divine dope-slap. Somehow, Peter came close to understanding what Jesus was about – he was the student who probably memorized all the knots for fishermen’s nets, but didn’t know how to weigh the catch – he had the right word, but he didn’t really know deeply, viscerally, what that meant.
That’s the tough part of teaching, isn’t it? Testing to see if your students understand what you are teaching, and discovering that they’ve only got it half right. Jesus has a lesson to teach, and he continues. The work that they are to do is vitally important – it is about saving people’s souls. It is about something larger than that time and place. So if the disciples were hoping for an anointed one who was going to solve the problems that 1st Century Jews were experiencing with their Roman overlords, they were mistaken. They would be required – as we are required – to take up Jesus’ cross and follow him.
The idea of learning something difficult, quickly, is a frightening one. I was talking with some of my friends who are still in seminary, who are about to start Field Education, much as I did two years ago, and they’re terrified of doing something wrong. Moving in the wrong direction, saying something incorrect, inadvertently getting in the way of the priest during the Eucharist….when you do something new, and you’re not sure that you have had enough practice to fully understand what you’re supposed to do, it’s intimidating.
Our students, whose work of learning will be blessed today, may have some of the same feelings. They’re afraid of that verbal dope-slap, of making fools of themselves, of getting it wrong. But the remarkable thing is that even if they do err in some way, the teacher will most likely explain it again, and probably in more gentle words than “Get behind me, Satan!” And the teacher may have to explain it two or three more times still, just to make sure that all the students really get material. And each time the teacher explains it, she may say something that sounds a lot like “Can you hear me now?”
When we hear this story from the Gospel of Mark, the Messiah as a slightly impatient teacher who gets testy when his students don’t understand the message, it grates on us. We like the image of the warm, gentle Shepherd who goes out searching for us, who does all the work. But the take-away that Mark offers us is something different: the Lord who understands that his time with the disciples is short, and what they are supposed to do is very, very, very important, and there is not enough time to drill through the lessons as he might like, and as they might prefer. He says “Can you hear me now?” because of the urgency of the work ahead, because his disciples are the ones who will have to carry on when he is gone. And even though he is frustrated with the fact that they seem to be slow learners, here’s the important part – he keeps on teaching them, he keeps on reinforcing the message until he knows that they’ve got the knowledge they need. And that’s the good news for the disciples and the good news for us as well. Jesus doesn’t stop trying to get through to us, even when we are the slowest learners, even when we are feeling too tired to pay attention, too annoyed with his insistence to respond, too intimidated by the responsibility of being his disciple to even try.
“Can you hear me now?” He is asking us to do his work, in the world, in all we do. Whether we are in a classroom as a teacher or student, in an office, in a field, we can do his work in all we do. In the midst of our own uncertainty, he keeps saying “Can you hear me now” so we can pass that important question on, to those who haven’t heard the word, to those who have an empty place in their hearts that Jesus would gladly fill.
“Can you hear me now?” I think so. I hope so. I pray so.