“Who do the people say the Son of Man is?”
In reflecting on this very famous passage that is set for today’s gospel, I wouldn’t usually focus on Jesus’ question – much more on the disciples’ answers. But if you think about it, the question itself is quite intriguing. So my question is… why did Jesus ask the question?
The first possibility is that he is looking for affirmation. A thinly disguised version of, “Do you think people like me?” Well, that phrase sounds uncomfortably like me, but not at all like Jesus. Jesus turns to one source only for the affirmation and approval that every human being needs – his Father/Mother in heaven. He has already resisted human adulation in the temptations in the wilderness, because he knows all such approval is empty. God alone is the ground of our self-esteem, and to God alone Jesus turns.
Another possibility is that the question is for the sake of the disciples, and Jesus doesn’t himself need the answer. Rather like in John’s gospel, where we are told (about the loaves and fishes), “This he said to test them. He himself knew what he would do…” Jesus is perhaps coaxing the answer of faith that Peter and the disciples need to blurt out – so that their inner uncertainty (“Who is this, that even the wind and waves obey him?”) becomes true conviction. I don’t doubt that the episode was a steep and good learning curve for the disciples, but if that was Jesus’s main intention, why did he ask what other people say first? Why not just the second question? And if Jesus was looking for that big step of faith, he was pretty much disappointed; because until his resurrection, none of the disciples, Peter included, really got a handle on who Jesus is at all.
One final possibility (you know my sermons, so you know this is the one I’m rooting for!) is that Jesus is looking for a sign. If we go way back to Holy Week, you may remember the phrase, “Now the hour has come.” Jesus says it in response to some Greek people wanting to talk to him. This is the sign that the good news is, “going viral” and the events of the Passion are in motion. In the same way, Jesus is “testing the water” at this point. Has the message got through? Are people recognising God’s hand at work? Do the people of Israel see the fulfilment of all the prophecy and all their expectations? Jesus needs to know if people “get it”.
And the answer is … a resounding, “No.”
Disappointed? Deflated? Crestfallen? You’d think so wouldn’t you? But no, Jesus just keeps looking. Where is the faith, the clarity of vision, the foundation, the rock, on which he can build the new understanding of God, the new community of faith, the “New Testament”?
No recognition in Israel of what kind of Messiah God would send to them. No understanding of the teaching about the kingdom. No glorious completion of the “special relationship” between God and the Chosen People, the Old Testament. The only thing that is available is this impulsive, unreasoned, emotional and distinctly wobbly outburst from Peter.
And it’s enough.
The whole structure of the community of faith that we call the church, can be built on this shaky foundation.
That one tiny spark of faith, that one stirring of the soul that Peter is able to articulate, that one moment of clear-sightedness, is enough.
Thank goodness for that.