Theme: Who do you say I am?
Today the conditions for discipleship are little changed. Renunciation seems to be selective for what one wishes to tackle; while whole-hearted commitment for Jesus seems optional. Now Jesus posses a pertinent question, who do you say I am? Scaring as it sounds; it serves us to find our place in this society. The truth remains that the world we live in is crooked. We are a generation that wastes more resources than majority of us use for survival. We spend more on one fancy cup of coffee than the coffee picker earns in a week to keep his family alive.
We seem to allow sin space to diminishing our determination. We twist our bodies out of shape to fit passing fashions; we cheat to attain worldly success; while we consume to fill the vacuum we create. If we are not careful, we shall end up trading our true self for an artificial useless self.
First reading: Isaiah 50:4-9
The suffering servant songs come as an effort to define and formulate messianic hopes. Composed by Isaiah who was himself a victim of the exile; these songs were intended to be a source of hope and consolation during the time of Israel’s national disgrace as suffering was overwhelming. This suffering servant whose rights had been stripped off is not hailed as king but beaten and disgraced thus becoming an object of jokes and scorn.
In spite of his humiliation, this suffering servant had been endowed with God’s own spirit and would, by his suffering, effect peace and healing for the people. In the end, he would be vindicated cf. Isaiah 42:1-2. This “man of sorrows” Isaiah 53:3 with buffeted face and plucked beard cf. Isaiah 50:5 was not the image that sprang to mind when Israel prayed for a deliverer. Yet by enduring physical pain and abuse, the suffering servant would become not only the vehicle but an integral aspect of the message itself. As time curved in, the characteristics and vocation of the suffering servant were associated with Jesus as he did not fear to disappoint the popular messianic expectations by identifying himself and his mission with the sorrowful icon of humiliation and suffering. Only in him would be radical obedience and conformity to God’s will. As believers, being obedient and doing God’s will has to be our life style.
Second reading: James 2:14-18
We begin by making it clear that James is not refuting the Pauline doctrine of salvation by faith. James geared his admonitions toward those who had misconstrued the thought of Paul, the result of which was an irregularity of the truth. Paul, like James, advocated a living and active faith which, because it had become integral to the believer’s life. Antinomianism sprang from a misconception of faith as a matter of the mind alone, meaning, a mere intellectual assent to specified doctrinal beliefs. From this basic tenet came the implication that, since such faith was sufficient unto itself, moral response and ethical behavior were of no real account. Evidently, there were some people in James’ community whose faith had deteriorated into this shallow condition to the extent of being pronounced ‘dead’. Thus, James’ polemic cry against faith without works serves as a warning for all of us. To wish a needy person well and then to neglect the real needs of that person would contribute to the person’s messy life.
James’ example is not a situation found only here but even now the insistence that faith must match with integral human development. True as before, faith without action is dead. To feel sorrow for the starving neighbor and then to do nothing is worse than keeping quite because for “what good is it?” James 2:14. To those who accused him of an exaggerated emphasis on deeds, James countered that his works were the obedient and faith-filled implementation of God’s revealed will in every aspect of life and were therefore faith-in-action. Interestingly and in close alignment with the thought of Matthew’s gospel, James warned that a lifeless or an unlived faith has no power to save from judgment James 2:14. On judgment day it would be acts of faith filled love and kindness that count. Those who had encountered the naked, the homeless, the hungry, the thirsty, the estranged and the imprisoned and had met their needs would receive the invitation, “Come... because in doing for these, you did it for me” Matthew 25:31-46. Such an active and vital faith will lead to eternal life, whereas the faith that has remained unspoken in deeds will lay fallow and lifeless forever.
Gospel: Mark 8:27-35
Integrally connected with all that preceded it as well as with all that would follow it, the episode at Caesarea Philippi was the theological turning point and literary center of Mark’s gospel. Up to that point, Jesus’ true identity had been shrouded in questions and confusion. Upon hearing him preach, the ordinary people knew he was exceptional and in possession of a unique authority, unlike any they had ever experienced, but they were unsure as to who Jesus really was cf. Mark 1:22, 27. His reputation spread throughout Galilee, but he was wrongly perceived as the mysterious figure of Elijah cf. Malachi 4:15 whom it was thought would herald the messiah. Others who had believed John to be messianic thought Jesus was the Baptizer revivified. Still others, recollecting the promise in Deuteronomy 18:15-18, thought Jesus to be the prophet like Moses.
The Pharisees, scribes and Herodians witnessed Jesus’ works and heard his teaching and recognized in his radical ways a threat to their positions and prestige cf. Mark 3:6. In fear and resentment, they began to plot against him. Jesus’ own disciples were filled with ambivalence toward him, hoping for a political messiah and confused by the image he conveyed to the people. Their lack of understanding, fear and doubt sadly punctuates various moments in Mark’s gospel cf. Mark 4:13-41; and 6:37. Even Jesus’ own relatives did not perceive his true purpose, leave alone understanding his method. Thinking him to be mad, they wanted to protect him from himself cf. Mark 3:21. Only the demons and evil spirits recognized and identified him: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” “I know who you are: the Holy One of God,” Mark 1:25.
At Caesarea Philippi, the confusion surrounding Jesus’ identity was brought to a climax in the confession of Peter: “You are the messiah!” Mark 8:29. Thereafter, Mark devoted his gospel to the clarification of that profound statement. Indeed the confession of Peter is historical. To deny this would make the whole history of Christianity incomprehensible. It must be admitted, however, that when Peter declared, ‘You are the messiah,’ his idea of what that title implied was not consonant with Jesus’ concept. This is obvious from today’s text which shows the apostle remonstrating with Jesus. Although the prediction of the passion and what would follow were reworked by Mark in the light of the post-resurrection faith; no doubt Jesus did bring to his messiahship an unpopular and unattractive notion cf. Mark 8:31-32. Instead of the political leader and powerful king of David’s lineage for whom the people hoped, Jesus turned to the shocking, almost pitiable figure of the sixth century servant songs. To all who thought and who judged by human standards, Jesus’ ideas were iconoclastic!
In fact it is better that we stay alert against exaggerating the triumphant and the confessional aspect of ‘You are the messiah’ to the detriment of the very difficult challenge to discipleship that is also part of the text. To do so would be to deserve the same rebuke Peter received. Jesus’ Get out of my sight Satan/hypage opiso mou Satana cf. Matthew 4:10. By summoning the crowds; Jesus made it clear that the call to follow in the shadow of the cross was not reserved for the Twelve but was a challenge extended to all believers cf. Mark 8: 34. The teaching is that the self-denial required of a disciple entails relinquishing preconceived messianic ideas and accepting of a suffering savior. From the very beginning, starting with its founder, Christianity warns us about the danger of saving our self. To be a disciple means to be disciplined by avoiding sin, by avoiding any occasion to sin and by controlling all inordinate desires since all these present the false self. To save our soul may have to cost of our senses.
Today we need the qualities of the suffering servant so as to watch out on the danger of becoming closed instead of being open persons. Our faith ought to be qualified by actions. It matters in life to know that Jesus is Lord. Love is a risk, but without it, life is barren. Like St Peter, let us love Jesus to the end even when our knowledge of him still needs to improved.