by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Along the way Jesus asked the disciples: “Who do you say I am?” Peter said to him in reply: “You are the Christ…” Mark 8, 27-35

Today’s first two readings from Isaiah (Is 50, 5-9) and the Letter of James (Jas 2, 14-18) prepare us for the full impact of the gospel reading, which invites us to depth what it really means to have faith in Jesus. The reading from Isaiah makes it clear that faith in God will not protect us from being dragged by others into legal proceedings or from being brutalised by people intent on using physical violence to get from us what they want. Then James follows up by stating, without any shadow of doubt, that faith in God is meaningless unless it involves kindness, compassion and practical outreach to others in need: “If one of the brothers or sisters is in need of clothes and hasn’t enough food to live on, and one of you says to them: ‘I wish you well; keep yourself warm and eat plenty’, without giving them the bare necessities of life, then what good is that? Faith is like that: If good works don’t go with it, it is quite dead.’” (James 2, 15-17) Then, in the gospel, we hear Jesus ask his disciples not only what others are saying about him, but, also, what they, too, think of him.

In comparison with the other Gospels, Mark’s is very short, and chapter 8 marks the mid-way point of the story of Jesus’ ministry. As a way of trying to assess for himself just how his ministry is progressing, Jesus puts to his disciples two questions that challenge them and, at the same time, expose his own personal vulnerability: “What are people saying about me?” and “Who do you say I am?” The first of these questions is the easier to answer, and, while the responses are varied, there is a certain consistency about them. People generally think that Jesus is John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the other prophets, that he is interested in the things of God, cares about the poor, and is intent on working with love and compassion to promote justice and mercy for all.

Then, in an effort to nudge the disciples to come to know their own minds, to take responsibility for how they think and feel, and to put into words their own faith in him, Jesus directs this question to them: “And who do you say I am?”. The question is barely out of his mouth when Peter, answering for all of them, volunteers a response that looks to be right on target: “You are the Messiah, the Christ of God!” Now, “Messiah” was a term that denoted peace and justice for all and the presence of God in solidarity with people. It represented the fulfilment of humanity’s best hopes. However, it is important to note that, at the time of Jesus, there were conflicting views about what the Messiah would look like when he finally came. The general view was that he would be a restorationist – in the sense of restoring the Temple to its former magnificence and centrality in Jewish worship, and also in restoring Israel’s political and economic status along with its reputation as a powerful nation to be reckoned with and respected. Of course, that included ridding Israel of its Roman occupiers. Yet, even though Jesus had tried to ground them in lesser expectations, the disciples were not free of ambitions to personal fame, status and power. So, when he proceeded to make it clear to them that he anticipated a future marked by rejection, persecution and execution, Peter would have none of it. He even took Jesus aside to argue that such expectations were totally foreign to a proper understanding of messiahship. For his trouble, Peter was reprimanded by Jesus as a Satan, an obstacle on the path that Jesus would travel. The implication, of course, is that by maintaining such an attitude, Peter would end up stopping others from coming to know who Jesus really is – one who will measure the worth of humankind on what it does in practice to bring relief, compassion and justice to the poor.

Simone Weil, the noted 20th century French philosopher and mystic, observed how difficult it is to grow into knowing who Jesus really is. We sometimes find ourselves struggling to know who we are, let alone others. Even more difficult, then, it is to know Jesus. In 1950 Simone Weil published a book entitled Attente de Dieu. It was re-translated and published in English in 2012 as Awaiting God. In it she writes: “It is hard to sift through our lives to the actual truth of the person of Jesus.” Our experience confirms that. Yet, we know that Jesus reflects something of God, and that we, in our turn, reflect something of the goodness and love of Jesus. Yet, who exactly that Jesus is can be quite elusive.

Today’s gospel asks us if we are prepared to fall in behind Jesus. And if we say “yes” to that, then we really have to know the identity of the one we commit to following. We have to ask ourselves if we are following anyone other than ourselves, if we are following a Jesus we have modelled in our own likeness. The acid test is as simple as this: Does the faith we claim to profess reveal genuinely good news to the poor, the marginalised and the needy? If we care to think about the life of Jesus, we will discover that confrontation of injustice was no more popular in first-century Palestine than it is today in the so-called developed world. Jesus did not get into trouble because of the challenges he put to the people who came to sit at his feet. But he did rattle the cages of systems and institutions when he shook the foundations of well-established religious institutions and their customs and traditions. He did unsettle the authority and civil order put in place by Roman occupying forces and their puppets. He did threaten the rigid interpretation of the Law, offered by the religious authorities of his day.

To challenge any system or institution whose standards, protocols and practices are at odds with the Gospel is to court danger. Those who control wealth and power are not interested in having less so that the poor can have access to health, education, freedom and what is needed to sustain their lives and allow them to claim a place they can call “home”. Yet to advocate on their behalf is to risk the cross.

Back in 2006, the Jesuit magazine, America carried an article entitled “A Thief in the Night”. In it, Valerie Schultz described how her young, adult daughter had been held-up and robbed at gunpoint in a parking lot. At the time, Valerie and her husband were volunteers in a prison, doing what they could to reach out to prisoners. The incident caused Valerie and her husband to have second thoughts about returning to their prison ministry. On reflection, however, Valerie was able to write: “I believe that we have been called to visit the imprisoned…And it is not complicated, unless I make it that way. Jesus did not say: ‘When I was in prison you made excuses for me, you condoned my crimes, you sprang me by smuggling in a fake ID.’ What he did say was: ‘I was in prison and you visited me.’ To visit: that’s all he’s asking. But by treating inmates as fellow human beings, by focussing on rehabilitation and amends, by bringing Christ to the hearts and minds of those who are so often unloved and seemingly unreachable, of those who lack the freedom and privilege I take for granted, perhaps future crimes will be averted and future victims spared.”
“Who do you say I am?” How will you and I answer that now?