One of the several stylistic elements that distinguishes scripture from contemporary writing – say from a contemporary novel – is that almost nothing in it is superfluous to what we might call the core message of a given passage. The authors of scripture, in other words, typically don’t provide us with information in order to create ambience or in order to help us envision a character or a location. Today’s Gospel, for instance, does not begin by telling us about the weather – it doesn’t explain that it is raining or that the sun is shining – nor does it begin by telling us that Jesus is wearing a hat or about that Peter was having problems with his accountant. Everything that Matthew tells us is focused on helping us to understand this conversation between Jesus and his disciples.
Thus, when Matthew tells us that this conversation takes place in Caesarea Philippi, we are invited to pay attention. This is not an incidental detail. Rather, it is a major clue to unpacking this story.
What does Jesus bring his disciples here in order to talk to him?
In Jesus’ time, Caesarea Philippi was the local headquarters of the Roman Forces in Israel – it was the command centre, if you like, of the occupation. This is the place from which the orders went forth that set taxes, that established law, that determined where soldiers would patrol, that specified where the crucifixes would be built and who would hang from them.
In other words, Caesarea Philippi is both the symbolic and the actual location from which Jesus and friends’ freedom is curtailed, from which so much of their suffering emanates. It is here in this place of injustice and fear and hurt, that Jesus asks the disciples:
Who do people say that the Son of Man is?
“The Son of Man” being one of the ways that Jesus refers to himself. It is a title that we could translate as “The Human One.”
Peter doesn’t hesitate:
Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.
In other words, the consensus among the people who have encountered Jesus is that he is a big deal – that his voice and his actions are in continuity with the most important and holiest people in Israel’s history. Indeed, in some way that we can’t entirely understand from a 21st-Centutry perspective, Jesus is John the Baptist and Elijah and Jeremiah.
But then Jesus ramps up the stakes.
he says to Peter
do you say that I am?
And Peter answers:
You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Is it possible for the answer to a question to be simultaneously inspiring and obvious? This is the response that we hope people will give when we ask them who Jesus is. We are delighted when people give this response. But it also the answer that we expect. There is nothing unexpected about it.
But back in the First Century, Peter’s response was unexpected and indeed dangerous, especially at Caesarea Philippi.
That’s because, in Jesus’ time, there was competition for titles like “Messiah” and “Son of God.” And the person who competed hardest for those titles was the one whose soldiers waited inside Caesarea Philippi’s walls: the Emperor.
There isn’t really a contemporary American analogy for this conversation. Maybe we could imagine Jesus and Peter standing outside of the White House, and Peter answering Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” by saying, “You are the President.” But I don’t think that gets at the danger. Although many Americans may not like or respect a given President, most of us are pretty confident that we can question the authority or even mock the President without someone coming to kill us the next day. And identifying someone as President who manifestly is not the President would probably not be so much dangerous as it would be silly.
What makes Peter’s answer even more dangerous and even more subversive and – let’s go further – even more foolish than it might otherwise be is the one to whom he assigns these titles. It would be one thing if Jesus were the leader of an army, of a group of rebels, if he were the kind of conquering hero whom the disciples sometimes want or expect him to be. It may be a risk to find the rebel leader and declare him to be the leader of the country. But at least when you do that you have a fighting chance.
But Jesus doesn’t have an army to back him up. He is totally unarmed. He has faced Satan unarmed, he has faced the religious authorities unarmed, he has faced the angry crowds unarmed. He will face Pilate unarmed. The Son of Man, the Human One, has no worldly power and, in particular, no violence to back up the title that Peter assigns to him.
And maybe that’s why, even if we don’t have an analogous location in which to set it in contemporary America, this story is still is dangerous or scandalous or foolish, even today. In many ways, the story of Christendom has been the effort to recast Jesus – a peasant from a defeated land – as someone who has worldly power, who is aligned with worldly power, who blesses worldly power.
Beginning with Constantine’s decision to make Christianity the official religion of Empire and extending up until the present day (while the Episcopal church’s influence in Washington has diminished markedly from a century or even half a century ago – a diminishment that is probably good for our souls – one of the first things that a new President still does is to go to an inaugural service at the National Cathedral), we’ve worked hard to recast Jesus – the one who asks, Who will it be? Me or thing King? – as someone who backs the King up.
In this understanding of God, Jesus is the one who blesses wealth and status and power. The Prosperity Gospel is a particularly extreme version of that theology: if you’re rich, it’s because you’re in God’s good books. But virtually all of us participate to some extent. Every time we look at our bank account or our real estate holdings or even our health and say, “I’ve been really blessed,” we’re engaging in Prosperity Gospel theology.
Maybe, therefore, there is a contemporary location in which we could set this conversation that would retain some of its scandal. Maybe we could ramp up the stakes a little by moving the conversation to Lloyd Centre or the outside of a bank. In this culture that assigns so much of our value as human beings to how much money we have and how much stuff we can buy – in a culture whose religion in many ways is consumerism – we would meet Jesus there and listen as he asks: Who do you say that I am? Or to put that question a little differently, to put it the way that Jesus himself puts it to the rich young man: Who or what is most important to you? Is it these things in these stores, is it the numbers in your bank account? If you have to give up your money and your stuff or me, which would it be?
That might start to get us a little closer to the original danger of this conversation.
Some of you are familiar with the work of art known as Homeless Jesus. Designed and crafted by the Toronto-based artist, Timothy Schmalz, Homeless Jesus is a bronze statue that depicts what is pretty clearly Jesus Christ sleeping on a park bench. Schmalz first installed Homeless Jesus in his hometown and he his since installed other casts across the world.
A number of folks find Schmalz’s sculpture offensive or even insulting to Jesus. Which is intriguing because, if you think about it, Homeless Jesus is remarkably orthodox.
Maybe we are offended because we sense that he Schmalz gets it right.
Jesus is the one who says: Just as you have done to the least of these, so you have done to me. He is the one who says: Blessed are the poor. He is the Human One who stands, unarmed, outside of the headquarters of the brutal occupying powers and tells Peter that he’s got it right when Peter says that he is the Messiah, the Son of God.
If Schmalz is right about Jesus – if Jesus himself is telling us the truth about who is – then part of discipleship involves answering a question. It is a question that is posed, perhaps, by a man wearing a hoodie, a man whose fingernails are stained with dirt, a man whose cone of body odour is almost paralysing. A man who is without power or status.
This is the man who slips off the park bench and asks you and me:
Who do you say that I am?