Jesus was deep in prayer, “by himself,” as the Gospel reading says. Somehow the disciples were with him. Maybe they were whispering so as not to disturb him. All at once his prayer issued into questions. “Who do the crowds say I am?” Then, most crucially, “Who do you say that I am?”
This last was the hardest of questions. What was the situation that produced such a query?
Let us look. Jesus had sent the disciples out “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal,” remember (Lk 9:1-2)? On their own for the first time, they had gone from village to village, preaching the good news, insofar as they could. Now at last they were back and could tell him.
Who might this highly praised Jesus be? Apparently people had begun to speculate: an ancient prophet arisen—specifically the prophet Elijah—or maybe even John the Baptist!
Crowds had began to gather with Jesus and the apostles. In a remote place he fed these by turning a few loaves and fishes into enough food for five thousand people. Very impressive. Of course it heightened everyone’s curiosity. Understandably many were becoming star-struck.
Maybe this is why Jesus asked the apostles the difficult question we are looking at. Maybe it was time for them to advance in their faith. He did not want them to be just members of the multitude, seeking mainly to have wounds healed—something that resembled magic, even something that would free Israel from its Roman occupiers. So he asked,
Who do you say that I am?
Peter answered: “You are the Christ of God.”
This answer is the heart of the Gospel.
A giant insight. A milestone. Jesus must have been very pleased, even though our translation says immediately that “he scolded them” to keep it secret. But What did Peter’s statement imply? Did they now possess a complete insight into the Christ (the Messiah)?
Or was it merely a stepping stone?
Well, it was only a stepping stone. It enabled Jesus (“from that point forward,” as the Gospels of Matthew and Mark note) to unfold the surprising deeper layer of his identity. He told them,
The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised (Gospel).
This part of Jesus’ mission was unimaginable to the disciples. Later they would fight against it. It described a love so complete that it would go all the way to death for us. It was a revelation that would reveal Jesus to be “him whom they have pierced,” as the First Reading for Sunday describes him.
All of this shows you how important the question from today’s Gospel is. “Who do you say I am?” The First Reading passage was written five hundred years before Christ. Now, so many centuries later, he had come, the suffering servant, “the one who was to come,” the one who would gradually show us God’s identity, the one for whom our souls have been thirsting (Responsorial Psalm). He descended directly into our suffering and will stay with us all the way, not turning back, not forgetting to love us with his whole heart and soul.
See if you can locate your own answer! Who do you say he is?
John Foley, SJ
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