Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 17, 2006 – Blessed Sacrament
The scene we have just heard represents a turning-point in St. Mark’s Gospel. The previous chapters have set out the ministry of Jesus, particularly his works of healing, and a sense of wonder has been growing as to the identity of this figure who heals the crippled, claims authority to forgive sins, commands sea and storm, opens blind eyes, and, as we heard last week, makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.
As today’s episode opens, Jesus and his disciples are on the road, a road that eventually will end in Jerusalem. The hinge-point of the Gospel comes when Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him. After they have run through the various opinions–John the Baptist or Elijah redivivus or one of the prophets returned–he turns to those who have been following him from the beginning: “Who do you say that I am?”
When Peter responds in their name: “You are the Messiah,” Jesus says nothing; in fact, he warns them to keep quiet about this. It becomes immediately clear, however, that Peter is somewhat like the blind man whose sight is restored in stages. Peter has confessed that Jesus is Messiah, but his idea of the Messiah has no room for the suffering and death that Jesus now begins to predict will be his fate. He remonstrates with Jesus, who has to turn and rebuke him as a Satan, an opponent, a stumbling-block, trying to deflect Jesus from a road that he knows is God’s will and his destiny. Jesus then repeats his prediction about what awaits him at the end of the road he and the disciples have begun to travel; he is confident of ultimate vindication by God.
The question Jesus asks–“Who do you say I am?”–he has addressed to every generation of Christians, and he asks it also in ours, that is, he asks it of us. For the last 150 years or so, historians have been offering their answers, but they have differed so as to give credit to what someone said a century ago: they are looking for Jesus as if staring down a deep well, and are unaware that what they see is a reflection of their own faces. We all can be tempted to make Jesus to our own image and likeness, to domesticate him to someone with whom we can be comfortable, who will not judge us, correct us, and, of course, not challenge us too much.
That is why it is important that the Gospels are read out to us every Sunday. They force us to confront Jesus as something, someone, “out there,” not a creature of our imaginations or desires; it is as if we were chancing upon him on one of the dusty roads of Palestine, perhaps the one he took that ended in Jerusalem. As we could not have controlled what he said then, so we do not control what we will hear in any Sunday’s Gospel reading. It may be that we hear some things we do not want to hear, find ourselves indicted by some of his words, called to an as yet unwelcome conversion, asked for a more than average commitment. It may be that we are made uncomfortable by some of his words, or by some of his deeds. I once asked my undergraduates if there were sayings of Jesus that they didn’t like, and after they had proposed several of them, I said, “All right, now you know which sayings are meant for you.”
In such moments we are where Peter was. His confident confession of faith–“You are the Messiah!”–is followed almost immediately by his refusal of a Messiah who would have to suffer. We will in a minute or two make our own confession of faith, and it will be worth some moments’ reflection as to whether we are allowing Jesus to be Jesus, letting him correct us or challenge us, and if we do so, then we may decide more self-consciously whether we wish to step out and follow him on the road he traveled for us and for our salvation, even though it leads to the cross.