Feast of the chair of St Peter- Thursday, 1st week of Lent- Matthew 16: 13-19
The confession of Peter, “you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”, seems all too easy an answer, given the question if asked today, to you and me. But did Peter fully fathom what he answered? For Jesus says to Peter, ‘flesh and blood has not revealed it to you but my Father in heaven’. So did Peter get it right by himself or was he just prompted by God? Did he fully understand who the Messiah was ?
How do we know when God is speaking to us? How can we be sure that the voices we hear in our head are not simply the chatter of our minds reflecting our own wishes; mere ‘flesh and blood’ responses? How did Peter know what to say when the other disciples got the answer so wrong?
To understand the word ‘Messiah’ as being uniquely attributed only to Jesus would be as fallacious as to understand that Jesus was the only one crucified in history; yet many Christians believe so. Crucifixion was perhaps the most brutal public execution carried out by the Romans and Jesus was one of the thousands put to death in this fashion. The same understanding must be applied to the meaning of the word Messiah; it would be sentimental to insist that this word must exclusively apply itself to Jesus.
In time, this word Messiah has crystalized in the mind of the modern Christian to be attributed exclusively to Christ, though we would use it loosely to describe a person who comes to our aid in time of great need. First century Judaism understood ‘mashiah’ meaning ‘anointed one’, to be anyone; from prophet, to warrior or king.
There was no clarity in the first century mind that the Messiah was to be exclusively understood as the Son of God, and perhaps that was also the cause for confusion in the minds of the Pharisees. Perhaps for the Jews, the Messiah was to be another Judge or someone like King David.
Marilyn Salmon, a professor of the New Testament, in explaining this point says, “Peter identifies Jesus as Messiah, but the meaning of that role has yet to be revealed. It is one thing to perceive a messianic vocation. It is another matter to know precisely how the vocation will evolve, since that vocation is lived out in human history.”
So what then is Marilyn Salmon suggesting? Simply this, that while Peter perceives Jesus as the Messiah and answers correctly, it is a matter of time before he discerns entirely the role of the Messiah. Remember, immediately after this profession, Jesus predicts His suffering and passion, much to the shock and alarm of Peter who declares that this can never happen. Jesus had to rebuke him as ‘satan’! Peter perceived the messianic vocation, but had not understood how it was to be lived. He had a lot to discern.
For us too, who profess Jesus as Christ, and perhaps as an un-reflected creedal formula, may not fully understand the words we say. For us too, Jesus may end up being some wonder working itinerant preacher who did ‘good’. This is perhaps the collateral damage of being born a Christian by convention. It is only in personal prayer before the Lord, through personal discernment that we see Him for who He really is, the Son of God. Then conviction sets in, then we have clarity that the voice in our head is not ‘flesh and blood’ but Our God in heaven revealing His will to us.
It’s worth revisiting the question that Jesus put to the twelve, ‘who do YOU say I am?’
Fr Warner D’Souza
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