Rev. Joseph Keating
24th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)
“Who do people say that I am?” In today’s Gospel, Jesus puts this question to St. Peter. By this time in his ministry, Jesus had become well-known around Judea. This Jesus had driven out demons, made the lame walk, made the deaf hear, and made the mute speak. He was becoming a bit of a celebrity. Certainly, his closest disciples knew this, and they became sort of an entourage for Jesus as he journeyed here and there. They knew the gossip and the scuttlebutt that was being whispered among the people. We can just imagine what they might have overheard at the local watering hole.
“Say, have you heard of this Jesus guy? The one from Nazareth?”
“Yeah, I did. He seems to be the real deal. Heard he’s been healing people left and right. Anyone who can do that has got to be some kind of prophet.”
“That’s exactly what I thought! Nobody’s done anything like that since Elijah. I thought all those stories about Elijah were just tall tales or a fables, until miracles and stuff started happening right here in Galilee. Now I wonder if there’s a connection.”
“What are you saying? You think Jesus might be, like, Elijah reincarnated?”
“I’m just saying! Anything’s possible.”
“Well, I’m not so sure. I heard he was baptizing folks in the Jordan River and preaching about the king having an affair with his own sister-in-law.”
“No, you’re thinking of that other guy, John. That’s his cousin.”
“Oh right. Well, he’s definitely some kind of prophet. Have you heard this guy speak? I have to say, I like what he’s been saying. Maybe he’ll be the one to finally turn this country around. I been thinking, if only we could shake off these foreign governors…”
“Shh! You can’t talk like that! They’ll turn you in for treason!”
“I’m serious. The prophets said that a Messiah would come to free us from these foreigners and bring back the rightful king. Then we’ll finally be a great kingdom again.”
“I don’t know… that’s not how I read the prophets.”
“Oh, trust me. He’s going to lead the next rebellion.”
That’s probably how it went. St. Peter and the Apostles overhear all of this, and think, maybe they’ve got a point. And so, when Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Christ.” But this answer, at least in Mark’s gospel, is ambiguous.
The word “christ” means messiah, or “anointed one.” In biblical times, there were many anointed ones. Priests, prophets, and kings were anointed to carry out God’s will in their specific roles. And there was a subset of Jewish society—not all of Jewish society, but some—who held that a messiah would come and free the Jews from foreign emperors by leading an armed rebellion. Now, if Peter were to start spreading the news that Jesus is the Christ—the Messiah—then many would take it to mean that he is going to lead the rebel army against the Roman Empire. This is probably why Jesus warned Peter not to tell anyone that he is the Christ. He didn’t need every belligerent Jew gathering around him to start a war rally.
But on the other hand, we know, by our faith, that Jesus really is the Christ. Not in a militaristic sense, but in the role of the Great High Priest, the Ultimate Prophet, and King of Kings. We know him as the Son of God and Son of Man. We know him as Lord.
Yet, even for people of faith, these questions are posed to us, too, in a similar way that it was posed to the Apostles back then: Who do people say that Jesus is? Who do you say that Jesus is? Once we have heard about Jesus, we must give an answer to these questions. We cannot sit on the fence or avoid the question, although so many of our family, friends, and neighbors try to avoid it. Who is Jesus?
We might as well answer as if Jesus had just asked us today, “Who do people say that I am?” The answer we would give might sound like, “Well, Jesus, some say you’re a great moral teacher, others say you’re a really nice guy. Still others say that your followers completely made you up.” Of course, in Texas, we are far too polite to say anything that would hurt Jesus’ feelings, but this is, at least, an honest answer. So, let’s see how these answers stack up.
To these alternatives, we must point out that no one wants to die for a really nice guy, or even a teacher we really admire. But that’s exactly what the Apostles did. Jesus’ Apostles were all martyred, except for St. John. How many of us would go to a horrific, torturous death just to maintain the lie that we had all made up together? Especially when we are thousands of miles apart from one another? Imagine you’re St. Thomas the Apostle in India, or St. James in Spain, and you’re about to be killed for preaching about Jesus. If it was all made up, who would ever find out if you just dropped the act to save your own skin? You’re thousands of miles from the others. All they had to do was drop the act. But no, they didn’t. Because it wasn’t made up.
Also, we must point out that Jesus himself didn’t claim to be merely a teacher. He showed himself to be the Son of God. So, was he really the Son of God? This question gets us to the famous “trilemma” of the English author C.S. Lewis, who said that Jesus is either Lord, a liar, or a lunatic. If Jesus really is the Son of God, then he must be Lord of our lives. But if he’s not the Son of God, then he must be purposefully deceiving us, or he’s a crazy person who thinks he’s the Son of God.
Take whatever set of alternatives you like, you still have to answer the question: “Who do you say that I am?” And you must answer it. You cannot ignore the questions. Because to choose not to answer the question is, in fact, to file away a decision in your mind. Even if you refuse to say it, you either explain Jesus away, or you acknowledge that he is Lord.
So many people in our society live as if Jesus was a liar/deceiver. They may assume that Jesus was like a sort of psychiatrist who was ahead of his time. Demons aren’t real, they’re just mental disorders. And the feeding of the five thousand was really just Jesus inspiring them to share with each other. And causing the lame to walk was just an allegory about being personally motivated. The whole Son of God thing was just a cleverly devised lie, to get people to improve their own lives. And they file him away under “liar.”
Or maybe Jesus wasn’t a liar, but a lunatic. Maybe he had deep psychological issues himself, and he thought he was the Son of God. That doesn’t explain away the miracles, but it certainly explains why the local leaders kept rejecting him and plotting to kill him. He was gaining a following, and he was a nuisance to the world order, so it’s no wonder they crucified the crazy man. And they file him away under “lunatic.”
Or maybe Jesus wasn’t a liar or a lunatic. What if he wasn’t just a moral teacher or a nice guy? What if the stories are true? That he is the Son of God? Well, then he is worthy of our worship and worthy of our obedience. We owe it to him, because, after all, we did not create ourselves. He created us.
Now, if we can acknowledge all of that, then we can either respond in thanksgiving and humility, OR we can say, “Wow, great! I’m alive! And I’ve got living to do! See ya, God! Wait, what’s that? You wrote some commandments? God, you know I never read the instructions! I’m gonna do it my way. I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do.” And this is how we begin to make ourselves into our own gods. We fall victim to our pride. Pride kills thanksgiving. It kills obedience. It kills faith. It kills charity. And it is particularly difficult to escape, because pride also traps us into thinking that we haven’t done anything wrong. And so, we refuse to say we’re sorry. This is why pride is such a deadly sin.
If Jesus is Lord, then we must decide whether we are going to follow him. And following him means carrying a cross, just as he did. And that means suffering. This brings us to Jesus’ rebuke of Peter. Peter says that doesn’t want Jesus to suffer and die, but really, Peter himself doesn’t want to suffer and die. And he knows that following Jesus is going to lead him to the same fate. Peter wants the glory, but not the cross. He wants it his way. He wants a comfortable religion, a religion on his terms.
Jesus rebukes him, and says, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” If we say we are Christians, we must get behind Jesus, not out in front of him. If we say that we’re Catholics, we must get behind our Church leaders, even when they make mistakes, because God has given them to us to follow. We must not make the same mistake as Peter, thinking that we know better than those who have been given the responsibility of leadership. Get behind Jesus. Drop the chains of pride, and take up your cross. Because you can’t carry both at the same time.
The answer to Jesus’ question—Who do you say that I am—will have real implications for how we follow him. If we claim Jesus as our Lord, then we will quickly realize that he must be Lord of all the things in our lives: our marriages, our sports, our work, our leisure time, our friendships, our politics, our sexuality, our finances, our education. And we will know whether he truly is the Lord of our lives to the extent that we give him control over these things.
And so, for the disciple of Jesus Christ, the question today may sound like this, for example: “Is Jesus the Lord of my marriage? Is Jesus the Lord of my leisure? Is he the Lord of my career? Or have I made myself the lord of these things? Am I following Jesus, or am I out in front, trying to lead him?”
We who wish to be Jesus’ disciples must accept our shortcomings, weaknesses, and sufferings, and embrace humility and obedience. We must guard against pride and stop making excuses for ourselves. We must not place ourselves, or anyone else, before Jesus.
In other words, we must take up our crosses, deny ourselves, and follow him.