Title right, meaning wrong! – 24th Sunday in ordinary time – Mark 8:27-35
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 emphasise 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 some one 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 lets 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 give 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.”