Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee (The Maestà panel 6), Duccio di Buoninsegna, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy.
Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Mark 8:27.
Every now and then in almost all walks of life, it seems like a good idea to get some sort of evaluation on how we are doing. In fact, mayor Ed Koch of New York City was famously known to ride the subway or stand on street corners and ask anyone, “How’m I doin?” (https://www.economist.com/democracy-in-america/2013/02/02/how-am-i-doin). I’m sure he must have got an array of replies as New Yorkers are not known for their timidity. I remember an unsolicited review of my sermon a few years ago. Greeting the people as they left the church, an older lady came up and said to me, “Oh father, I love the way you speak; I could listen to it all day”. So I asked her if she liked what I had said. After some hesitation, she replied, “Oh I don’t know what you said, father, but it sounded beautiful” (I have a British accent…). I wonder if Jesus was in the Koch mood when he asked his followers how HE was doing? It is difficult to get the measure of oneself as seen through others’ eyes unless you are very well-known. Only if you ask directly of others, or if you are subjected to an annual review in your job are you likely to get any idea, or at least to see if one’s own self-evaluation is anything like how others see you. So Jesus, in a rather modern moment, asked this question of his followers.
The apostles were probably a little stunned by this demand on Jesus’ part. It is easy to imagine an awkward silence, some feet shuffling and all that, before the bravest could venture a reply. And look at the answers! Some said he was reported to be Elijah, one of the greatest of the prophets, others that he was perhaps another prophet, or even a resurrected John the Baptist. Had it stayed that way (that he was thought to be someone else), it would have meant that up to that point, Jesus had failed in his mission, his vocation, given to him at his baptism. At that time he was anointed by God’s Holy Spirit and became the Anointed One, or Messiah in Hebrew. Indeed, even his question holds a veiled clue to his identity: “Who do you say I am?” Remember God had revealed the sacred name Yahweh (I Am Who Am) to Moses at the famous burning bush scene. Jesus’ close use of the name in his question was almost certainly no coincidence. It was a second time he had asked the question, and a normal question would surely have been something like: “And what do you say?” But it wasn’t. That prompted Peter to give the astounding answer that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed of God. They all mean the same thing. He was the One the whole nation had been waiting for over the centuries of foreign, pagan, oppression. He was the embodiment of the prophecies concerning the One who would deliver them from oppression and slavery.
If you dispute that is what Peter meant, just consider the verses following his testimony. Jesus announced that this Christ was to suffer and be killed by the very leaders of their society rather than fulfill his apostles’ interpretation of Scripture. Even Peter tried to correct Jesus’ stunning revelation, only to be rebuffed with Jesus’ incredible words. “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do”. The disciples must have been utterly crushed, confused, agonized by those words, because they all thought that way, as did the entire Jewish community of the time! The Messiah was going to smash the Roman power to pieces, and re-establish the kingdom of David. Apparently not. And Jesus was the Messiah! Jesus then invited them all to take up this identical cross, meaning suffering and death, and follow him.
Recall that Jesus after his baptism immediately went into the desert for a long time. It was, I believe, to figure out what had happened to him. What did it mean to be the Messiah? What should he do to realize the prophecies made over the centuries about him? The Jewish people of the day had accepted all the “good bits” about the Messiah, that he would conquer his enemies, kings would bow down to him, etc., but had ignored the “bad bits”, one of which is today’s first reading. Here an innocent person would be subjected to terrible suffering for no good reason (…..”I gave my back to those who beat me”….). It was passages such as this that the Jews had not accepted as anything to do with the Messiah. They still do not, and still await his arrival. In fact, they say that the Isaiah passage in today’s reading refers to them as a people, and does not apply to the Messiah. Given the terrible events of the last century which afflicted the Jewish people, one can see their point. But look at what happened to Jesus! Exactly the same, which his followers did not understand and could not accept. Eventually when the dread events of Jesus’ Passion took place, it was because he refused absolutely to deny that he was the Messiah. He had to stand by his vocation, to be the Messiah, and identity, God’s Son, otherwise his whole mission would have foundered. The Resurrection set God’s seal on him, and his followers began to understand the Scriptures and their meaning.
The second reading brings us down to earth, with a blunt reminder of what we, Jesus’ followers, are supposed to be. Our suffering, if you want to call it that, involves following through on Jesus’ Golden Rule, to love God, neighbor and self. James spells it out clearly. We must help those less fortunate than us, no matter the cost. Look at the Lord, what he went through to make sure we knew that he meant what he said, and was prepared to die for it. Our faith was born from suffering, and our faith will help us bear anything this world throws at us, and it will. But the light will prevail.
The Maestà of Duccio, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy.
One of the greatest religious works of art the world affords. Our panel for today’s reflections is in the top row. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maestà_(Duccio)