Who Do You Say That I Am?

Twentieth-First Sunday -A

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples two questions about how people understand his identity. There is a progression in this passage, initially starting with a nonpersonal response and proceeding to an intimate response from Peter acknowledging Jesus as Christ.  Flesh and bones did not reveal Jesus as the Messiah; only the gift of the heavenly Father provided Peter with the means for such an answer.

To fully appreciate the meaning of the questions Jesus asked his disciples about who he is, the specific wording he uses is of the utmost importance. Jesus asks, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Embedded in this simple question of only ten words, it becomes the backdrop for an enhanced meaning of Peter’s profession of faith and his subsequent coronation of the head of the early church.

“Who do people,” asks Jesus to his disciples. The question is rather academic and objective, like asking why people call Elvis Presley the king. At this point, the disciples are not required to give a personal answer; in other words, Jesus is not asking them to share their opinions but rather relay what they may have heard from others.

In the last part of the question, Jesus uses the title of Son of Man. He did not say Son of David or Son of God. The title Son of Man has historical significance. The prophet Ezekiel is mentioned in the Old Testament as the son of man 99 times, referring to his humanity or humanity in general. The Son of Man title depicting Jesus does the same thing. Jesus has human and divine natures, and his humanness born of the Virgin Mary is first noticed by those he interacted with.  Even his disciples found it hard to imagine and believe he was God and man. Many recognized Jesus as a man of God but not God himself, so they thought he may have been John the Baptist or one of the prophets, Elijah or Jeremiah. Regardless, the world at this time saw him as a human being and not God.

Then, Jesus ups the ante by asking his disciples a personal and theological question. Specifically, “But who do you say that I am?”  Within the question is the answer only Peter picked up on, “I Am.” When Moses was called and commissioned by God, he said the Israelites were asking what the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob be called.  God said in response. “I Am who I Am,” and then, “This is my name forever; this is my title for all generations.”

By using the words “I Am.” Jesus points to the part of his identity that is divine. The second question is no longer about his outward appearance as a human being but challenges the disciples to see past the outward appearance and discern he is the Son of God. All the disciples failed except Peter. Having been with Jesus in a personal relationship with him for years, only Peter was open to working with the Spirit and thus open to the heavenly Father in his own life.   

For every Christian, the question of who Jesus is is not only asked of the first disciples but also of us. The road of faith demands an answer, and the answer, like Peter, will determine how well we work with the Holy Spirit in revealing the truth that lies beyond the surface.  The question of who Jesus is asked of all humanity. Some regard Jesus as nothing more than a myth or a historical figure resembling the prophets of old. Others will say he is like a genie who can grant a wish if the prayer is sufficient. Then, some finally acknowledge his divinity as a last resort to control things they cannot, specifically about life and death.

The faithful, however, can use this question as a barometer for their faith life by determining how intimate I am with Christ and how strong our relationship is.  St. John Paul II said it best when he wrote, “We all know this moment in which it is no longer sufficient to speak about Jesus by repeating what others have said. You must say what you think, and not quote an opinion. You must bear witness, feel committed by the witness you have borne and carry this commitment to its extreme consequences. The best friends, followers and apostles of Christ have always been those who heard within them one day a definite, inescapable question, before which all others become secondary and derivative. For you, who am I?”

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