Gospel for the Twelfth Sunday (19 June 2016)
Gospel notes by Michael Whelan SM
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They answered, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”
He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:18-24 – NRSV)
Mark 8:27–29 is the source for this episode. For a similar account see Matthew 16:13–16.
Luke is unique in introducing this episode by saying Jesus was at prayer. Fitzmyer notes that Luke depicts “Jesus at prayer more often than any of the other evangelists, and then continues reference to it in the lives of the early Christians about whom he writes in Acts. He depicts Jesus often at prayer, because this is to become one of the ways in which the disciple is to follow him.” (Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), Yale University Press, 2008, 244.) Luke’s entire Gospel begins in the context of Jewish communal prayer – see 1:10; the prophetess Anna spends her days in prayer and fasting – 2:36-38; Luke alone, in introducing the Our Father, tells us that John the Baptist used to teach his disciples how to pray (11:1 – and in this same place, he is alone among the evangelists in having the disciples ask Jesus to teach them t prayer); major episodes in Jesus’ ministry are linked with prayer – his baptism (3:21), his choosing of the Twelve (6:12), his transfiguration (9:28), at the Last Supper (22:32), in the Mount of Olives (22:41 – where he adds the phrase “as usual”) and on the cross itself (23:46).
There is something strange about saying that Jesus is at prayer alone and his disciples are with him. Fitzmyer writes: “How could he then be praying alone? Luke tolerates this inconsistency in his redaction, because he seeks to enhance the occasion with the motif of Jesus’ prayer—and it is better that he should be at it alone”. (Fitzmyer, op cit, 774.)
“Luke has significantly shortened the episode by omitting not only the geographical location, but even Peter’s protest and Jesus’ rebuke of him. Again, the confession of Peter turns out to be no longer a climactic point in the gospel-story, as it is in Mark 8, nor is it a church-founding episode, as it is in Matthew 16 (with the addition of vv. 16b–19). Rather the scene functions as one of the important answers given in this chapter to Herod’s question (see 9:8).” (Fitzmyer, op cit, 771.)
When Jesus asks his disciples who do the crowds say he is, they say the same as Herod had already heard – see 9:8. “Now, however, he asks for the disciples’ own answer, and receives Peter’s word, spoken on behalf of all, that he is the Christ of God. The answer indicates what function or office the disciples believed that Jesus held in the light of his earlier teaching and activity. We are not told precisely what content they put into the notion, nor what it was about Jesus that led to this estimate of him: why, for example, did they feel that he fulfilled some other function than that of a prophet? What had they seen that the people had not seen? The answer would appear to lie in the way in which Jesus had revealed himself as the giver of life, especially in the raising of Jairus’s daughter, and perhaps as the provider of the messianic banquet in the feeding of the multitude, events which were revelatory only to the disciples. They also had the insight to see more deeply into the other events and teaching than the crowds, and to realise that the person who brought the blessings of the new age must be more than a prophet. The disciples also stand over against Herod, who was left in his perplexity.” (I H Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text, Paternoster Press, 1978, 363-364.)
“Peter’s confession has to be understood as an admission of what he at that time thought Jesus to be. Christos would have to be understood in the Jewish sense of an expected anointed agent sent by God in the Davidic, kingly or political tradition.” (Fitzmyer, op cit, 775.)
The disciples must not tell anyone. “Jesus does not deny that he is God’s anointed agent, but he forbids the disciples to use such language about him because of its political connotations. A further corrective is given to it in 9:22. Luke retains the command of silence from the Marcan source, where it is part of his messianic secret. It is retained precisely as the springboard for the first announcement of the passion.” (Ibid.)
“Who do the people say I am?” John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets, say the disciples. Jesus pushes the disciples to go beyond the public rumours and gossip. He is drawing them more deeply into the mystery of his being. So he is very personal: “Who do you say I am?”. Peter speaks on their behalf: “You are the Messiah of God”.
Has Peter given the final answer? Is that it? Is the disciples’ commitment complete? If we understand the Gospels to be retrospective accounts of the ministry and teaching of Jesus, we must not assume Peter’s response indicates that he and the disciples fully appreciate Jesus’ identity or the essential implications of the question at this point. Their understanding of who Jesus’ identity, is to be profoundly challenged and re-worked by the ugliness, shame and bitter disappointment of his passion and death. A further re-working is to come when they see the empty tomb and meet the Risen Lord himself.
It is probably fair to say that the disciples spent the rest of their lives growing into their response to and the implications of that question: “Who do you say I am?” St Paul summed it up nicely: “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
When two people meet and – as the saying goes – fall in love, do they really know each other at that point? Is it not true to expect that, assuming they commit themselves to that loving relationship, they will spend the rest of their lives getting to know each other? That is an essential part of the commitment, surely? A loving commitment is a departure more than an arrival. It is also as much a movement into not knowing as it is a movement into knowing.
Jesus’ question is directed to each of us and to the whole Church: “Who do you say I am?” If we are to respond well to this question, we should know that it is an invitation into a loving relationship, a new way of being. We are walking into a huge paradox here. St John of the Cross puts it succinctly: “To come to the knowledge you have not you must go by a way in which you know not. To come to the possession you have not you must go by a way in which you possess not. To come to be what you are not you must go by a way in which you are not.” (St John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk I:13, 11. Kieran Kavanaugh OCD and Otilio Rodriguez OCD translation.)