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Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 21, 2005

Readings: Isaiah 22:15, 19-23; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20


Jon Fuller, SJ


Today's passage from Matthew's gospel finds Jesus asking his disciples two seminal questions: Who do people say that the Son of Man is? Who do you say that I am?"


Over the many years that I've heard this story, I've imagined these two interrogatories as tests of the intelligence of the disciples and the crowd, as if they were contestants on Jeopardy working on the category of "God and Jesus."    Do they get the answer right?  Will they advance to the bonus round?


But the more I've reflected on this passage, it at least seems plausible to me that we could take a different look at this conversation, and perhaps see something more going on inside the mind of Jesus than simple fact-checking.  Perhaps what we are seeing in his questions is another manifestation of his humanity as he continues to grapple with who he is and what his life is about.  And I'd also like to suggest that the answers to these questions allow for an obvious third question to each of us: what difference does it make in our lives if Jesus is the Messiah?


In developing these thoughts, I'd invite us to stand back and place these questions in a larger context, examining to the extent possible how Jesus came to understand himself and his life's work.


We know precious little about his youth and early development. It is probably fair to presume that he had no consciousness of the way he was treated by the shepherds at his birth and by the subsequent visit of the Magi.    It is conceivable, however, that eventually there was some psychological impact on him from his family's flight to Egypt, and perhaps from eventually learning about the slaughter of the Innocents that took place, in a way because of him, while he was safely hidden in Egypt.  If we take the scriptures at face value, by the time he was 12, when he was left behind in Jerusalem for several days and was eventually found teaching elders in the temple, he seems to have had a fairly clear notion of the fact that rather than striving for a destiny of his own making, his life was about being sent on a mission on behalf of God.  Unlike an Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, or even Bill Clinton, who knew what they wanted to accomplish for themselves and what power they wanted to wield as the project of their lives, by his early adolescence Jesus seems to have understand himself as messenger, as ambassador, as one sent by God to accomplish something larger than himself.


But if it is true that Jesus knew he was sent on a divine mission, it is also clear that he was to carry out that mission as a human being, and that his own self-understanding would be shaped and formed by the events of his public life.  For example, just in last Sunday's gospel, in his encounter with the Canaanite woman, he absorbed new lessons about his mission from one member of the public who held him accountable, and even at this relatively late stage in his ministry he profoundly adjusted his own sense of what he was to be about, and precisely who he had come to serve.   During his ministry the poignantly human sides of Jesus become evident in his anger and rage when cleansing the temple, in his frustration with Peter who doesn't understand that Jesus must fulfill the predictions of the passion; in his tears of grief at the death of Lazarus; in his irritability with the disciples who cannot stay awake with him in the garden; and in his fear and grief and even despair as he anticipates his torture and crucifixion.


Given all of that, I can imagine it being possible that as Jesus is concluding his public ministry, this question about who people say he is may be a further expression of his humanity, a manifestation of his understandable need to ask whether all the energy he is putting into his life and work is being fruitful in the sense that people really understand what is going on and who he is. 


And what's the answer he gets about who people say he is?  Well, they at least put him in the category of being a spiritual rather than a political leader, suggesting that he is John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or another of the prophets.  But at least according to the disciples' reply, no one in the crowds suggests that he is someone in himself, let alone that he is the son of God.  The best he can get from the crowds is to be perceived as a reincarnation of someone who has gone before.  We have no idea what impact this had on Jesus, but given the other manifestations we have of his emotional responses to real life activity, and realizing that he knew the price he would pay for being faithful to his ministry, it would not be surprising for this answer of the crowds to have been somewhat depressing.


Then the second question comes: and Peter, who do you say that I am?  Peter responds that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God.  Peter "gets it" that Jesus is no Alexander the Great; he is not about pursuing a career or profession for his own goals, but rather is completely taken up by the role he has been given by God.  On hearing that Peter "gets it," that he understands Jesus' role with respect to the creator, that he is not on a mission of his own making but rather understands himself as a messenger from the godhead, Jesus takes the initiative to confer his authority upon Peter for the sake of that mission, anticipating that he will soon be taken from the scene. 


But what is the message in all of this for you and me?  If the central point of the questions Jesus raises is to highlight that his entire life is in service of the mission he has received from God, then the third question that would seem to naturally follow is, then: Who do you say that you are?  If you and I also acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah sent by God to redeem the world, how do we relate to this identity and mission?  Are our lives primarily like Alexander the Great or Bill Clinton, about professions and careers, in which we choose our goals and the discipline which will be the primary focus of our work, or do we see our careers and even our family lives as existing in the service of our vocation, that is, as being the means by which we accomplish the goals of the mission of Jesus and the Gospel: caring for and respecting ourselves and our neighbors, striving for Justice, building a community of peace?


Jesus' questions cause us to reflect on what the answers about him mean for our own lives.  Do we see ourselves and our lives in continuity with his, as connected in an ongoing and dynamic way as continuers of the vision?  None of us will have the central role of Peter in the continued ministry of Jesus, but our faith is that each of us does have an important role to play, and that these roles will only be possible to the extent that we can mirror the availability of Jesus to let our lives be lived in service of a vision far larger than ourselves.  Who do you say that you are?


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