21st Sunday in Ordinary time

Morag, the church gossip and self-appointed arbiter of the Church’s morals, kept sticking her nose into other members’ private business. The Church members were unappreciative of her activities, but feared her enough to maintain their silence. She made a mistake, however, when she accused Angus, a new member, of being an alcoholic after she saw his van parked in front of the town’s only bar one afternoon. She commented to others that everyone seeing it there would know what he was doing. When Angus, a man of few words, learnt of that, he didn’t explain, defend, or even deny; he said absolutely nothing. Later that evening, Angus quietly parked his van in front of Morag’s house… and left it there all night!

In today’s gospel Jesus asks his disciples a rather strange question: ‘Who do people say I am?’ On the face of it, it looks like he’s interested in people’s opinions of him and their comments about him. His disciples eagerly draw on what they have heard. In this particular passage, the reported gossips are of a pious kind: ‘Some say you’re John the Baptist, some [the prophet] Elijah or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’ But we know, from other parts of the gospel, that the reality was that many were highly critical of Jesus’ regular dealings with people they themselves regarded as ‘low-lifes’: prostitutes, cheats, collaborators, the religiously-irreverent, and so on. Many ‘decent people’ were appalled by Jesus’ apparent acceptance of such people with their unacceptable, immoral attitudes. The gossips were swirling around Jesus, and – as with gossips in general – they were mostly of a negative, even nasty, nature. Once, Jesus commented on them when he recalled those people’s opinions about John the Baptist and about himself: ‘John came, not eating like other people or drinking wine, and people say, ‘He has a demon inside him.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and people say, ‘Look at him! He eats too much and drinks too much wine. He’s a friend of tax collectors and other sinners.’ (Matthew 11:18-19). In other words, Jesus admits that it’s impossible to win everyone over. So, he concludes with a philosophical observation: ‘Wisdom is shown to be right by what it does.’

Let’s go back to that question Jesus asks of his disciples, ‘Who do people say I am?’ After listening to all the gossip they shared with him, he asks them another question: ‘But you, who do you say I am?’ This is a question that is much harder to answer. I imagine there must have been a prolonged silence; perhaps the disciples stared intently at their own sandals, racking their brains at the same time to find an answer that would hopefully please Jesus. Making up your own mind about things, events or people is a much, much harder job than simply being a conduit for someone else’s opinions. It’s much harder, because it requires real effort to discover the truth behind appearances that can be deceptive. It’s much harder, because it requires talking to people face-to-face instead of talking behind their backs. When you think about it, gossiping is a sign of cowardice.

Eventually Jesus gets an answer to his question from Simon Peter: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ A common perception is that Christ is a surname to the first name Jesus. In fact, it’s a Greek translation of the Hebrew term Messiah, a distinguished powerful figure sent by God to liberate His people. There were many, sometimes contradictory, concepts of what that liberation would ultimately mean. We know that up to Jesus’ crucifixion and a bit beyond, Jesus’ followers clung to a false, political concept. But, at this very moment, it’s important that Simon Peter recognises Jesus’ special status and the mission he’s driven by. In return, Jesus announces Peter’s participation in his mission, which is described concisely as ‘to find lost people and to save them.’ (Luke 19:9) This is the mission of the Church of which we are members, each and every one of us. The Church is a community of imperfect, flawed, sometimes broken, people called to support each other, to find strength in weakness, to make sense of things that seem to make no sense, to mature in every aspect of life; all that in Jesus’ name. The only person to whom Jesus has nothing to offer is the one who doesn’t recognise his or her own imperfection.

Photo by maxlkt