by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus said to his disciples: “But you, who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus replied: “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. And so. I now say to you: You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”  Matthew 16: 13-20.

Today’s gospel-reading complements and builds on the story of two Sundays ago (19th Sunday in Ordinary Time) in which Matthew described how Jesus came across the water to rescue his disciples who were battling a furious storm on the lake. After Jesus had rescued Peter from sinking beneath the waves and deposited him back in the boat, he stilled the wind and calmed the waters. Matthew concluded that story with a description of how the disciples reacted: to what Jesus had done: “The men in the boat bowed down before him and said: ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.”  (Matthew 14: 22-33)

In today’s gospel reading, we hear how Peter formally expressed the conclusion the disciples had reached concerning the identity of the man they had claimed as their leader. The opinion they expressed in the boat had not changed. When Jesus put to his close followers what was a very risky question, Peter replied without hesitation on behalf of the whole group: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  (Matthew 16: 17)

This also provides us with an insight into the care Matthew invested in shaping his Gospel. He understood that it took time for the disciples to come to the conclusion that the man who had invited them to throw in their lot with him was really the long-awaited Messiah. Coming to that conclusion took time and, very clearly was the result of ongoing discussion among themselves as they reflected on what they had seen Jesus do and on what they had heard him say and teach. And isn’t that how we come to know and appreciate the people who become our friends, associates and mentors? So, when it comes to knowing and appreciating Jesus, let’s not be too self-critical when we experience doubts and uncertainties. Our growth into knowing and appreciating Jesus takes time and the quality of our relationship with him fluctuates. The disciples had had the advantage of a direct, flesh and blood, relational experience with Jesus over what was, at most, a three-year period. And it took a considerable part of that time for them to reach the conclusion that Peter articulated on their behalf. We have not had the benefit of their direct experience. Our experience has been an intangible one based on the accounts of Jesus’ words and actions as they have been recorded in the Gospels and other commentaries, together with our own reflections and our sometimes vacillating faith experience. Moreover, that involves venturing into the life-enduring puzzle of how we can change and still remain the same person. But let’s not drift too far from today’s gospel-reading. Suffice it to say that Jesus was extremely patient with his disciples and is equally patient with us, if not more so.

The focus of today’s gospel-reading is provided by the two questions Jesus put to his disciples when they had gathered in a city that boasted shrines to a whole panoply of gods. The city of Caesarea Philippi, located close to the springs of Banias (springs which have flowed for thousands of years right up to the present day) had been built by Herod’s son Phillip, who had been placed in charge of the northern region of Palestine. Phillip named the city after himself and Caesar, ruler of Rome, who was given the status of a god. While there were temples to lots of gods in this city, it was especially well-known for its large temple dedicated to Pan, the shepherd-god. It was here in this “city of gods” that Jesus chose a very unusual way of involving those close to him to assist him in disclosing his identity.

Instead of putting to his disciples a simple, direct question such as: “Who do the people you meet up with think I am?”, Jesus framed a question in the third person, attributing to himself the title of “Son of Man” which he borrowed from the Hebrew scriptures. So, he put to his disciples the quaint question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” By attributing to himself that title, he was giving the disciples a hint of what he had come to discover about himself and his mission. After hearing from several of his friends the gossip they had picked up around the traps, he then framed a question that most people would never dream of asking: “But you, who do you say I am?” Fronted with that question, the group probably felt like running for cover. Fortunately, Peter, who was rarely short of a word, piped up with a response that would fit any catechism: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus was so impressed with what came out of Peter’s mouth that he concluded that it could only have been inspired by God. In essence, Jesus replied: “Simon, son of Jonah, God bless you! You didn’t learn that from a book or a teacher. It was God who disclosed to you the secret of who I really am.”

By answering as he did, Peter revealed that the disciples themselves had been engaged with one another discussing how they, too, had been puzzling over who Jesus really was and that they had eventually agreed that he was the Messiah, the Christ of God. By implication, Peter was also affirming that the identity of the disciples lay in their dedicating themselves to keeping the mission of Jesus alive. Jesus, in his turn, by giving Peter’s response the stamp of approval, acknowledged that he had the qualities needed to shape and lead the community that would be instrumental in perpetuating the message of God’s love, mercy and compassion for our world, and withstanding whatever forces of opposition and evil presented themselves. By implication, in choosing for leadership a man whose human frailty sometimes got in the way, Jesus also acknowledged a clear message in today’s second reading from Isaiah: that God’s power could rescue human leaders when their human frailty led them into error.

Furthermore, by bestowing the authority of “binding and loosing” on Peter and his successors, Jesus was disempowering the religious tyrants of his day, who had invented rules and regulations that were distortions of God’s Law and kept good people bound up by religious oppression in the shape of fundamentalism. Fresh in Jesus’ mind were the debates he had not long before had with scribes and Pharisees over senseless applications of laws to do with the Sabbath and purification laws.

Before we leave this gospel-reading, we might well ask ourselves why Jesus concluded this particular exchange with his disciples by giving them “strict orders not to tell anyone that he was the Christ” (the Messiah). The only explanation I can offer is that he knew full well that there would be political consequences for him if his true identity as Messiah were to be noised abroad. He was already a target for his own religious leaders who were intent on discrediting his teaching and on finding fault with almost everything he did. Were he to be publicly named as the Messiah, he knew he would be challenged to deny it. Silence or refusal to deny the truth would put his life at risk and he had not yet finished preparing his disciples for the challenges that lay ahead of them. So, his true identity was best kept secret.

Finally, let’s not forget that the risky question that Jesus put to his disciples near the springs of Banias, he also puts to us. What might be our answer as we also reflect on the circumstances in which we find ourselves in the Church community to which we belong and in the country in which we live and work? And how might our answer be translated into action? Those questions could well occupy us for at least another week.