24th Ordinary Sunday (Year B)
First Reading: Isaiah 50:5-9a Second Reading: James 2:14-18 Gospel Reading: Mark 8:27 35
"WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?"
When Christian Herter was governor of Massachusetts, he was running hard for a second term in office. One day, after a busy morning chasing votes (and no lunch) he arrived at a church barbecue. It was late afternoon and Herter was famished. As Herter moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman who was serving chicken. She put a piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line.
"Excuse me," Governor Herter said, "do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?
"Sorry," the woman told him. "I'm supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person."
"But I am starved," the governor said.
"Sorry," the woman said again. "Only one to a customer."
Governor Herter was a modest and unassuming man, but he decided that this time he would throw a little weight around. "Do you know who I am?" he said. "I am the governor of this state."
"And do you know who I am?" the woman answered. "I am the lady in-charge of the chicken. Move along, mister."
In the above story, the governor and the lady in-charge of the chicken, both try to exert their authority upon the other by revealing their identity of who they are by letting emphatically the question - "Do you know who I am?" In the Gospel Reading of today from St. Mark, Jesus asks his disciples the same very question as regards his identity: "Who do you say that I am?" but completely in a different context. For, he does not exert his authority upon them, but asks a simple and straightforward question trying to sincerely seek their opinion and find out whether they have been able to recognize him after living with him for quite a time. i.e. to inquire what the disciples have discovered so far as to 'who Jesus is' for them. On the first glance, this question of Jesus may appear quite simple, but in fact it is rather tricky as it directly knocks at the very ground of one's faith. Of course it is a personal question and so it demands a personal answer too.
Today we come to the high mark, a climax in Mark's Gospel. When we read the four Gospels, each Evangelist through his writing tells its readers 'who Jesus is' as he has experienced and discovered. Each of the four Gospels has therefore its own characteristic, its own way of presenting the message of Christ. So, who do the Gospel writers - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John say Jesus is? It is not as difficult to see that -
Matthew emphasizes Jesus as 'the Teacher, the Rabbi.' So, like Jesus we have to be teachers, and the best way to be a teacher is not by words, but by behavior, by the practice of virtue.
Mark highlights Jesus as 'the Suffering Messiah.' So, like Jesus we too are called to make sacrifices, to give generously - especially our time and talent - to other people, e.g. our families, colleagues in the workplace and friends.
Luke accentuates Jesus as 'the Savior of humankind' - Gentiles as well as Jews. In Luke Jesus is especially a friend of the poor, the handicapped, those relegated to the fringes of society. So, like Jesus we have to be healers, reconcilers and peace-makers - people who try to break down barriers that divide people.
John stresses Jesus as 'Noble, Majestic and Divine'. In John, Jesus is one with God. So, like Jesus we too have to have an intimacy with God, esp. through prayer.
Our Gospel passage of today is from St. Mark who in his Gospel (as we mentioned above) presents Jesus as 'the Suffering Messiah,' and it can quite clearly be seen in the reading itself. Jesus asks his disciples - "Who do the people say that I am?" and his disciples reply - "John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets." But Jesus is more interested in what his disciples themselves have to say. So, he asks them again - "But who do you say that I am?" Peter, speaking in the name of all, says _ " You are the Christ." This is Peter's confession of faith, and this is what the disciples gradually came to discover that 'Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Messiah.' Then quite unexpectedly comes the bucket of cold water! Jesus begins to tell them what being Messiah will mean for him - and for them. He will suffer greatly, will be rejected by the leaders of his own people, will be executed like a criminal and on the third day he will rise to life. This clearly comes as a real shock to the disciples. For them these make no sense whatever. This is not the Messiah they expected. Peter found it hard to accept. For him the Messiah would not, could not suffer. Judging by human standards, not God's - Peter's faith failed to accept God's will for the Messiah. Jesus then assures all his disciples that they too must suffer and exhorts them - 'to deny themselves, to take up their cross and to follow him.'
The First Reading, chosen to compliment the Gospel Reading of today is part of one of the "Suffering Servant" songs that Prophet Isaiah composed about the one who was to come. In this reading, the prophet describes the servant of God who will lead Israel back to God. The servant will suffer, but God will uphold him and will take care of him.
In the New Testament, these words take on a new meaning for us. The prophesy of Isaiah is fulfilled in Jesus. That is to say that Jesus is the suffering servant in Isaiah, the Messiah who was destined to suffer and so, enter into his glory. Jesus in fact had a very clear understanding of what Isaiah prophesied. He was to enter into the worst of human experience without resistance - to stand defenseless before the worst that humankind could throw at him. He was to endure suffering and death with only the assurance that the Lord would vindicate him and that, despite all that would happen to him, he would not be shamed. So, he was not afraid to enter into the songs of the Suffering Servant and to make them his own.
As followers of Jesus, we also have to face trials and suffering. We may not be asked to die for our faith, but we will be asked to live our faith with courage and full faithfulness. Again, "faith without good work is dead" - St. James says in the Second Reading of today. In his letter to the Christian believers he exhorts that our 'faith' has to be backed up by 'works,' practical behavior. That is to say, our way of life should correspond fully to the faith we profess. Our faith in Jesus should compel us to reach out compassionately to other people, to give our time, talent and yes, perhaps even some of our treasure to the people around us, especially the needy; else, we are just pretending, or even lying. What good is being deeply religious, if one does not reach out to a world in need?
In the rat race of life everyone is for the 'self' and there are few winners and many losers. To be a Christian disciple is not primarily to 'save my soul' or 'go to heaven,' but to enter fully into the mainstream of human living and human concerns, to become part of it through loving and sharing and building up with 'others.' It is not a matter of everyone for oneself, but each for the other, one for all and all for one - and then there will be all gainers and no losers.
Finally, as his followers, Jesus today is asking us, you and me, the same very question which he had asked his disciples about two millennium ago: "WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?" What does Jesus mean to us today? This is personal question regarding our faith in Jesus and answer has to come from each individual based upon his/her personal experience of Jesus. To truly know "who Jesus is," one has to fulfill the conditions of discipleship which Jesus himself has put forward, viz. 'to deny oneself, to carry one's daily cross and to follow him.' What are our images of Jesus, and what image or images do we reflect in our own lives? Does in our lives our belief and behaviour correspond? Or, are we just pretending to be a follower of Jesus, or lying?