by Ellen Sims
GOSPEL READING Matthew 16: 13-20
13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
But What Do You Think?
I suggested last Sunday that perhaps Jesus actually learned from the people to whom he ministered. Today’s Gospel reading suggests Jesus also learned from his own disciples. Jesus’s question to Peter—“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”— just might have been a genuine question. As he and the disciples traveled into Caesarea Philippi, Jesus might have been curious about the scuttlebutt there. What WERE people in that district saying about him? He probably didn’t gather a 1stC. version of a focus group. He probably cared not if his approval ratings were down. He probably didn’t monitor the local pundits. But maybe Jesus really did want to know what other people thought.
His follow up question to Peter might likewise have been a very genuine one for which Jesus needed an answer. “But what do YOU think, Peter?” he adds. We’ve been led to believe this second question was a teaching question to help Peter figure out a great truth. Or a testing question to determine whether Peter, the prize student, deserved “the keys of the kingdom.” But it is possible Jesus might have earnestly wanted and needed to know how Peter viewed him.
You see, group orientation rather than individualism marked the 1st Century Mediterranean psychology. Cultural anthropologists tell us Jesus’s contemporaries depended on others to shape their identity. Psychologically speaking, Jesus and company learned their identity primarily through their group—far more than we do today—we, who emphasize individuality, finding one’s self, differentiating self from others, being responsible for one’s own actions, thinking of each person as a “unique sphere of feeling and knowing, of judging and acting” (Malina 62). Jesus lived in a culture in which one’s identity was forged in a group. Our modern Western notion of individualism did not exist. So it’s possible that Jesus needed Peter to tell him who he was.
And it’s possible that the emerging postmodern culture is taking some of the edge off our excessive individualism. One reason you and I gather here on Sundays is to say to one another—in the liturgy and songs and scriptures—“You are . . . a child of God. You are God’s own beloved. You are a follower of Jesus. You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth.” Here we tell each other who we are. I need to hear that from you—as thoroughly individualistic as I am. You need to hear that from me, as thoroughly 21st C. Western as you are. That’s a counter-cultural practice we engage in here.
But let me acknowledge that, though Jesus was a product of his culture, he also deviated from cultural norms and group think. After all, he certainly opposed the authorities and defied others’ expectations. In this dialogue Jesus wanted to know what the “others”—the larger culture—thought of him. And Peter reported to him that he was thought to be in the prophetic tradition of John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or another prophet. But Jesus also really seemed to want the individual’s answer. Tradition remembers Peter as identifying Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Is that answer itself a product of an individual or the tradition or some combination? Hard to say. It’s certainly a phrase jam-packed with many possible meanings. Though Jesus commends Peter, Jesus perhaps considers the answer incomplete and imperfect since he tells Peter at the close of that dialogue not to reveal his identity to anyone yet, perhaps implying Peter still doesn’t understand fully who Jesus is.
But Jesus’s immediate response to Peter is this: “Flesh and blood have not revealed my identity to you. God has revealed this to you.” In other words, human culture/Peter’s in-group/his tradition could not have produced that insight. Jesus is saying that only a personal, direct experience with God’s reality could have generated that kind of answer. Jesus affirms that our own answers matter to him–even if they’re incomplete and imperfect.
And so today, though we value the Christian traditions passed down to us and we can never be fully independent of our own culture, we are also called upon to decide for ourselves who Jesus is. When Jesus asks me the question, “Who do YOU say I am?” I take Jesus at face value here and trust he really does want to know what I think. The living scriptures continue to ask you what YOU think. It’s apparently important what individuals think—and that we can and should have different answers! I imagine Jesus guiding us toward more authentic answers by adding, “I want you to know what others out there say. But your answer should not stop there. Don’t parrot back a phrase from a creed or an answer from your catechism. Those are fine. But what do YOU think?” Twenty centuries later you and I are still being asked how we have EXPERIENCED the Christ event in our lives. You and I are being asked what others say about Jesus—how books and religious leaders and parents and friends and the Church define Jesus. But more importantly, we are invited to name who Jesus is for us out of our own lived experiences. I think our different answers matter to Jesus the Christ because his identity is literally still, by the power of the Spirit, being forged to this day.
Who do YOU say Jesus is? That answer does not have to be Peter’s. Maybe the process of answering is what’s important. Even the best of answers will simply lead to other questions. But it’s a question worth devoting ourselves to. It’s a question we continue to answer—both as a community of faith—and as individuals. If you can at least make a tentative start on that answer, you, too, become responsible for building up what Jesus thought of as the realm of God. Perhaps through our partial answers the very identity of Jesus is always being made.
Who do YOU say Jesus is?
Malina, Bruce. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology.
Third Edition. Louisville: Westminster Joh