Is 50:5-9; Jas 2:14-18; Mk 8:27-35
WHO DO YOU SAY I AM?
People easily form opinions about public personalities—such as state Presidents, government ministers, governors, Chancellors of universities, Bishops or even Parish priests. These opinions are sometimes good, others not so good. That was the case with Jesus. People were saying all sorts of things about him. In today’s gospel passage, we learn that he asked his disciples to tell him what people were saying about him. They were polite enough to tell him only good things: that he was John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. They did not tell him that some people were calling him other unflattering names like glutton, drunkard, friend of sinners, even Beelzebul, prince of devils.
1. “BUT YOU, WHO DO YOU SAY I AM?”
None of what people were saying really mattered to Jesus. What mattered to him was what his own disciples were saying about him. Jesus wanted their personal opinion because he yearned that they should understand that he was more than a great preacher, or even a prophet. For this reason, he posed the question: “But YOU, who do YOU say I am?” Simon gave the answer, and it was correct and straight to the point: “You are the Christ.” This response is the moment of insight that Jesus had been waiting for. Peter’s reply was accurate. Yet is was not as simple as it sounds. What Peter meant was that Jesus was the MESSIAH (the Hebrew for the Greek “CHRISTOS”, from where the English “Christ” comes). Nobody had ever said that about Jesus before. “Messiah” was a big thing with the Jews in those days.
What Peter says shows that he recognized that Jesus was the promised and anointed one of God! For centuries, maybe even millennia, the prophets had foretold his coming. Because the Jews had a long history of political oppression and domination by successive foreign powers, they easily drew the conclusion that the “Messiah” would be some kind of military commander, maybe a general or leader of a popular revolt. He would rout the enemies of Israel, and restore her glorious days as in the time of King David. He would free his people from bondage and oppression. The Messiah was the One whom all Israel had been waiting for. He was God himself who had come to save them. They believed that he was the One who would make Israel “great again” (Like Donald Trump of the USA).
2. “YOU ARE THE MESSIAH.”
Even though Peter professed faith in Jesus as the Messiah (Mk 8:29), it was a shock for him to learn that the Messiah would suffer, be rejected and be put to death. The idea of a militant Messiah going to war with Israel’s enemies was a purely human construct. God never said that. The prophets never did. In actual fact, what the prophets said was the very opposite. We find an example of that in today’s first reading. The first reading today from Isaiah (Is 50:4-9) is one of four beautiful prophecies about a mysterious figure who would bring salvation through his sufferings. Today we heard the third in the series of four of these prophecies. At the time of Jesus, no one would have made the connection between the SUFFERING SERVANT in this prophecy and the MESSIAH. It was unthinkable for them that the Messiah would suffer. The following words: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting”, reflect the suffering nature of the Messiah. Therefore, as we heard in the Gospel, Peter objected to Jesus having to suffer and die. For Peter, the Messiah was not meant to suffer. Oh no! Rather he was supposed to be inflicting suffering on the enemies of Israel. Jesus told him that he was thinking not as God but as humans do (Mark 8:33). It would take the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, after the first novena of prayer, for Peter to understand that the message of the first reading today was about Jesus the Messiah. It is only then the connection between the mystery-figure of Isaiah’s prophecies—who would bring salvation through his sufferings—and Christ could be seen.
3. “GET BEHIND ME, SATAN!”
After the Peter’s announcement that Jesus was the Messiah, and the affirming response of Jesus, the disciples were beginning to have “visions of grandeur dancing in their heads”. Jesus had to correct him very strongly, going so far as calling Peter “SATAN” (not the devil, of course, but a tempter). Jesus told him that the way he was thinking was not God’s way, but rather man’s.
This reminds us of the words of Isaiah 55, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9). Peter is only thinking of the here and now, while God is seeing the big picture. Here, we see the weakness of man! What the prophets said, or rather what God said through the prophets was that the Messiah would liberate Israel through his own personal suffering. “It was ordained that the Messiah should suffer and so enter into his glory”, as Jesus would later tell two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection (Lk 24:26). Jesus wants that we, like Peter and the other disciples, should get this fact into our heads!
4. JESUS TAKES TIME TO TEACH HIS DISCIPLES
Jesus, as always, sees the situation as a “teachable moment”. He does not pout or sulk. He does not withdraw from the disciples in anger and disappointment (perhaps like we would do). Instead, he sees this as a time to help the disciples to grow. He takes the time to teach them. He told them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days, rise again. Furthermore, he gives them some tough prescriptions: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (Mk 8:34-35). Anyone who wants to be his disciple would have to follow him along the same road of suffering. The cross is essential, not incidental, to Christian discipleship (Christianity). Take away the cross, and you do not have Christianity, the real, the authentic thing. What you are left with may be a clever imitation, but it is not the genuine product that Jesus handed down to his disciples. From this tough talking the following lessons can be drawn:
a) First, Jesus says we must turn from our selfish ways (deny ourselves). He summons us (his followers) to a new guiding principle for life. Instead of viewing life only from the perspective of “what’s in it for me?”, we are now to look at life from the perspective of how best to serve and honour the Lord. We are called to look at life in terms of what service will further the Kingdom of God.
b) Take up your cross! Next, Jesus gets more specific. Not only will He be taking up His cross, “the Son of Man must suffer greatly” (Mk 8:31). We must be willing to do the same. People talk about bearing a cross all the time but usually it is about superficial things. That is not what Jesus is talking about. He is saying we should come to Him willing to die if that is what God asks of us.
c) Follow me! The Lord is not merely giving us instruction; he is leading the way! By his suffering and death, he demonstrates what it means to love even at the cost of one’s life. He challenges us to love passionately, to give generously, and to forgive and extend mercy without reservation. We are to follow His example.
d) See the big picture! Jesus explains these hard teachings by expanding our view of things. He reminds us that we can gain the whole world but lose our soul. We could be pampered in this life and tormented for eternity. He asks a simple question: Is anything more important than your soul? Jesus reminds us that there will be a day of judgment when we will give an account for the choices that we have made in life. What we do now will matter forever.
e) There must be a connection between our faith and our deeds. Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, but when the crunch comes, he abandoned Jesus. When we compare ourselves to Peter and the other disciples, it is an embarrassment to us because we see that we react like them. It is easy for us to profess our faith in Jesus here every Sunday but how do we react when we have to take up our cross? How do we react when we need to witness to Jesus and show what a Christian would do in our circumstances? How do we react when temptation comes our way? In our Christian living, there must be a connection between our faith and our deeds, living our lives according to the faith that we profess here every Sunday. As we heard in our second reading from the Letter of St. James, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?… faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead…Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works” (Jas 2:14-18). The way we live shows the depth of our faith.
5. CERTAIN KEY TRUTHS TO REMEMBER
a) Christianity without the cross is worthless. Pope Francis said, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross 2018: “There is no Christianity without the Cross and there is not cross without Jesus Christ”. A Jesus that does not die, is not a Saviour! The sum of all our hopes must be that “Christ has died for us” (1Thess 5:10). Give up that doctrine, and we have no solid hope at all!
b) We can be absolutely right at moment and dead wrong the next. Peter’s failure teaches us that we dare not become proud of our “spiritual maturity”. It is fickle. We must continually remain teachable or we will end up like Peter, serving the purpose of Satan. Once you think you have got it figured out, you are most vulnerable.
c) The call to follow Christ is a serious and life-altering commitment. Being a follower of Christ is not like belonging to a club or organization. We do not “fit it into our schedules”. It is our way of living. It permeates every aspect of our daily living.
At some point in our Christian journey, one must stop saying what others say about the Christ. There comes a time when each of us must confess whom we think Jesus is for us. In the Gospel of John, Pilate asked Jesus, the prisoner before him, whether he was indeed the King of the Jews. Jesus retorted by asking whether Mr. Pilate was simply mouthing what others had said about him or whether he was speaking for himself. Our religion is not a matter of KNOWING ABOUT JESUS. It is one of KNOWING HIM personally. We pray for the grace to be able know JESUS in a most intimate and warm way, so that our whole life may be shaped and prompted by that knowledge.