Thursday, 6th Week in ordinary time – Year 2 – Title right, meaning wrong! -Mark 8: 27-33
The Gospel of today tells us that Jesus is near Caesarea Philippi, a very Roman setting and once the limit of ancient Israel’s northward extension. Here he pops the question which almost seems like a public and personal opinion poll: “Who do people say that I am?” It seemed like such a casual question, almost like Jesus was asking for some feedback, “Oh, by the way, who do people say I am?” I think it takes a lot of guts to ask for such feedback. Imagine a priest announcing one Sunday morning that he is going to conduct an anonymous survey of what the congregants thinks of him or even worse if they think him to be a boring preacher.
So why does Jesus want to discuss his reputation, here at this borderland of Caesarea Philippi? Interestingly, Jesus asked this question twice in this text but with different focus groups. He wanted to know first who people thought he was and then who his disciples thought he was. Was Jesus having an identity crisis mid-way through the Gospel of Mark? And I would not be wrong to think that because the stories leading up to this episode repeatedly emphasize the disciples’ ignorance and hardness of heart. In chapter 4 they ask: “who is this?” In Chapter 6 they mistake Jesus for a ghost.
The fact that we hang around with someone does not mean that we know them. Initial attraction, for most people, either to a cause or a person is based on perception and while we should not judge a book by its cover that’s often the case. So let’s make one thing clear, Our Lord is not asking for self-affirmation from the public because he plans to stand for the post of High Priest, he knew who he was but he also knew that this fact may not have been obvious to the rest of Israel, as was the case.
To Jesus’ question, we are told that the people offer John, Elijah, or one of the prophets as responses to Jesus’ question. They seem to have given sensible answers considering that John had just been executed and also their belief that it would be Elijah’s arrival that would usher in the Messiah. And then comes Peter calling Jesus ‘the Christ’. The word Christ has not appeared since the Gospel’s opening verse. So, Peter’s claim, “You are the Christ,” is an astounding statement. Also, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus hasn’t done anything that looks particularly “Christ”-like. So, how did Peter make this claim?
Peter did answer correctly but did he understand what he had said? We now know that Peter did not understand the meaning of what he said because he goes on to rebuke Jesus when Christs’ understanding of what the Messiah is contradicts Peters understanding. Peter had got the title right but the meaning wrong. The title “Messiah” in Hebrew or “Christ” in Greek was associated in Jewish tradition with an anointed king, a royal figure from the line of David expected to come and free Israel from their Gentile oppressors, purify the people, and restore Israel’s independence and glory. Hence, Peter’s declaration could best be translated as “I think you’re the one who will purify our society, reestablish Israel’s supremacy among the nations, and usher in a new era of peace and holiness. I’m expecting big things from you.”
Nothing in Jesus’ career up to now has given any indication of claims to royalty or political ambitions. So far Jesus has made no claim to be the Messiah, and he certainly has shown no sign of taking on the Romans. Perhaps Peter hoped that when they go to Jerusalem, Jesus would finally take on this messianic role. Perhaps that is why Jesus tells his disciples to tell no one about him, because he knows that they are still so very far from understanding what he is all about.
In the face of Peter’s confession, Jesus had to recast who “the Christ” is and what the Christ will do. Jesus won’t wield power over others; instead, powerful and cynical people will have their way with him. He sets the record straight for his disciples and perhaps even for us. Today’s text will be the first of multiple times (three to be precise) that he will speak of his impending suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. He also — finally! — starts to tell his disciples and others just what he wants from them. Already he has beckoned some to follow him. He had also appointed apostles (3:13-19a), but now he describes what following means: it is self-denial and cross-bearing. Now we see where this road of discipleship will lead: in losing one’s life, and ironically thus to save it. Following Jesus will also make a particular kind of statement for the disciple, since crosses figure in the equation. Discipleship is going to get messy.
Perhaps Peter’s expectations from Jesus were not so very different from what we want in a Saviour. We want someone who is strong and powerful, someone who will rescue us from our troubles and defeat our enemies. Too often in popular evangelism, Jesus is presented in this way — as a kind of superhero who solves every problem for us, as a guarantor of prosperity and success. Nothing could be further from what Jesus has in mind. IF we wish to be his disciples then it’s high time many of us drop our wish list of what Christianity should be and follow what Christ meant it to be.