Knowing the Right Answer is Not Enough

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Face it. We like it when people think highly of us. When one of your teachers has something nice to say about you on your report card, or you get a glowing performance evaluation, or the lady at the check-out compliments your choice of fabric softener, you will definitely want to tell someone. Okay, maybe not the fabric softener compliment, but we appreciate it when we are affirmed. We like it when people are impressed, especially if it’s something you actually achieved like complete a difficult project, or consume the whole chalupa, or graduate in a reasonable timeframe; and not just things that required little or no effort like the color of your eyes, or that it’s your birthday, or that your relatives are such nice people. When someone tells you sincerely that you’re a good listener, that you’re caring and considerate, and generous, and compassionate, and not just because they want something, it’s hard to stifle a smile, and a polite “Thank you for noticing,” because deep down inside, you’re throwing a party. Yay me!

But it’s not the same when it feels like someone is just fishing for a compliment. You like that? How did I do? You see what I did there? Did you notice how brilliant that move was? How can you not see that everything I do is a resounding success? And that I can be anything less than a genius? So tell me. Who do people say that I am?

Not where I was going. But getting back on track, it’s easy to think that Jesus may have been fishing for a compliment. But if you believe he was a pretty confident and secure individual, you might consider another probable motive, that the question was just the bait. He wasn’t trying to draw attention to himself. Instead, he was trying to make Peter and the rest of the apostles really think about their answer to his question, because their answer would tell more about them than it would about Jesus.

“But who do YOU say that I am?”[1] Now we already know the right answer, so it doesn’t require a lot of thinking on our part to just regurgitate an answer we know would please the one who asked the question. We can be sure the other apostles offered their answers along with Peter, but only Peter’s answer was recorded in the gospel. It’s a literary device meant to get to the point of the story quickly. But the dialogue between Jesus and Peter that followed tells a different story. After Jesus shared how he “must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days,” Peter’s reaction was swift, and Jesus called him “Satan” because he was “thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” I imagine Jesus threw him a strange look as if to say, “Suddenly, I have no idea who you are.”

Acknowledging that Jesus is the Christ carries with it many layers of meaning. The term Christ derives from the Greek Χριστός (Christós) meaning “the anointed one.” No. It was not Jesus’ last name. And his parents were not Mr. & Mrs. Christ. Now in the common understanding, it referred to the savior and redeemer the scriptures foretold would bring salvation to the children of Abraham. But some of Jesus’ contemporaries worked from a more political perspective and believed he would deliver them from the rule of Rome. Regardless, Jesus knew who he was, and that was all that really mattered.

Since we don’t really know what Peter understood the moment he confessed “You are the Christ,” Jesus had no reason to doubt they were on the same page, until they weren’t. So just because you have the right answer at the moment, and are able to fool everyone, there is no guarantee you truly grasp the implications of your answer. Lucky for us, we typically say and do so much more after to reveal the extent or lack of our understanding. And Jesus does not hesitate to clarify what he means so that we can arrive at still a better understanding.

Clearly Jesus’ identity as the Christ, “the anointed one,” had little to do with delivering Israel from Roman rule, or as James and John imagined, with sitting on a glorious throne where they could occupy seats of honor on his right and on his left. Rather, Jesus’ identity had more to do with a life of self-denial, and embracing the cross, and washing each other’s feet, and caring for his flock, and walking in obedience to the Father’s will. Lately it has come to light that through the centuries, some of Jesus’ most prominent and respected followers did not truly grasp his identity as the Christ, and the implications of that identity on their choices and their way of life. So Jesus would likely call them “Satan” as he did Peter, because they were “thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”[2] And what about us? Would we honestly escape his judgment?

St. James adds to this discussion by pointing out that our claim of a relationship with God through faith has tangible consequences in the way we speak and the way we treat our neighbor. “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them,‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is [this faith you claim]?”[3] Most of us are aware that this passage has often been dragged into the controversy concerning what brings about our salvation, whether it is faith or works. Now I am no theologian, so the nuances of the argument might elude me. But I was always under the impression that salvation is something that God does. So I don’t see how either makes sense. It’s like arguing which makes mom and dad love us more, that we tell them we love them, or that we bring home a good report card. The answer is neither. And I’m not even a parent. And if we claim to love our parents or God for that matter, our words and actions will reveal the extent or lack of that love we claim!

The conviction of the suffering servant in the book of Isaiah is heroic. He places his trust in God despite the treatment he gets from those who do not know or love him. We usually read this passage in the season of Lent alluding to Jesus’ own suffering and rejection by the religious and civic leaders. And we know that Jesus’ response to the arrogance of his opponents was not outrage and vengeance and devastation. “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced.”[4] This seeming act of cowardly surrender flies in the face of our sense of right and wrong. That sort of thinking was what made Peter rebuke Jesus when he suggested he would suffer and be rejected. And that sort of thinking earned Peter a rebuke from Jesus back, and Jesus calling him “Satan.”

God has no need our praise. Our heartfelt declarations add nothing to the worship offered by hosts of saints and angels before God’s eternal throne of majesty. But clearly, our profession of faith demands the proper attitudes and words and actions to support it. If we truly believe Jesus is the Christ, and we claim to be his disciples, the proof will be in the pudding, and by pudding, I mean in our choices and in our living.

Rolo B Castillo © 2018


[1]Mark 8: 29

[2]Mark 8: 33

[3]James 2: 15-16

[4]Isaiah 50: 7