ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Who do you say I am?

Isaiah 50:4-9
James 2:14-18
Mark 8:27-35

Shattering preconceptions, disappointing popular expectations, shocking the orthodox, he came. He brought to the cross those who loved but could not accept him, and in its shadow they began to learn the answer to his question, “Who do you say I am?” (Mark). In the mystery of innocent suffering endured for the sake of others, humanity glimpsed the loving kindness of God (Isaiah). For those so graciously and undeservedly blessed with salvation, the only worthy response is a living and a lived faith (James).

Isaiah 50:4-9

When Peter, in answer to Jesus’ question, proclaimed, “You are the messiah!” he did not have this text of Deutero-Isaiah in mind. In fact, it is doubtful that any of his contemporaries looked to the suffering servant songs in an effort to define and formulate their messianic hopes. Composed by the prophet who was himself a victim of the exile, the four songs (42:1-4, 49:1-7, 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12) were intended as a source of hope and consolation during the time of Israel’s national disgrace, to help Israel find sense and purpose in the suffering that threatened to overwhelm it. Named for their central figure, the servant songs painted for the people a portrait of one who did not in any way resemble the political, kingly and powerful warrior for whom the people had so long hoped and prayed. Rather, he appeared as even less than a man--not a leader but as one whose rights had been stripped from him. He was not hailed as king but was beaten and disgraced. He was not the subject of songs of praise but the object of jokes and scorn. In spite of his humiliation, the figure of the 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 too would be vindicated (Isaiah 42:1-2; 53:5, 10-12). But this “man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3) with buffeted face and plucked beard (Isaiah 50:5) was not the image that sprang to mind when Israel prayed for a deliverer.

In their original context, the songs were probably composed to help Israel see itself in the role of the servant. Through degradation and suffering, Israel could become for the rest of the world God’s message of liberation and salvation. Some scholars have proposed that the prophet himself understood his mission in terms of the Lord’s servant. Like the prophets who had preceded him, the author of the servant songs had a message to deliver which he had learned in docility from God himself. “The Lord opens my ear to hear ... and I have not rebelled” (50:4). But his message was not merely a verbal one comprised of rhetoric and oratory, however forceful. Rather the prophet’s life was to speak as loudly and as powerfully as his words. By enduring physical pain and abuse, by suffering human psychological and emotional persecution, he would become not only the vehicle but an integral aspect of the message itself. Through him Israel would be educated in the divine pedagogy of comfort and salvation. With the passing of Deutero-Isaiah and the end of the exile, the characteristics and vocation of the servant were associated with a future figure.

Significantly, Jesus did not fear to disappoint the popular messianic expectations of his contemporaries and identified himself and his mission with the sorrowful figure of humiliation and suffering, the Lord’s servant. Like the servant described in today’s first reading, Jesus’ life was one of radical obedience and conformity to God’s will. As with the servant, that obedience entailed undeserved suffering and the humiliation reserved for the most despicable criminals.

James 2:14-18

Contrary to the opinion that heated up various theological controversies, James was not refuting the Pauline doctrine of salvation by faith. Rather, the late first century author of the letter of James geared his admonitions and exhortations toward those who had misconstrued the thought of Paul, the result of which was an aberration of the truth, viz., antinomianism. Paul, like James, advocated a living and active faith which, because it had become integral to the believer’s life, was manifested in ethical and moral behavior. Antinomianism sprang from a misconception of faith as a matter of the mind alone, i.e., 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 believers in James’ church whose faith had deteriorated into this shallow condition. These were those whose faith he pronounced “dead” (lifeless: v. 17).

The very heart of the letter and the précis for all of James’ thought is today’s second reading, especially v. 18. Dibelius thought it to be the most inscrutable text in all of the New Testament. Because of it, Martin Luther wanted the letter of James removed from the canon of Christian scriptures. Cast in the style of the Stoic diatribe, James’ polemic against faith without works or without its external expression is powerful1Y and poignantly illustrated. To wish a needy person well and then to neglect the real needs of that person, the fulfillment of which would contribute to the person’s well-being, this is like one who says “I believe” and then does not live and act accordingly.

James’ example is not a situation found only in the first century. Many contemporary analogies spring to mind, e.g., to feel sorrow for the starving in Africa and to decry the condition of that continent’s racially oppressed... and then to do nothing. Such a faith is lifeless. In the words of James, “what good is it?”

Although the jury is still out over the author’s precise intention in v. 18, he seems to be producing a witness to further the argument he has just presented and to strengthen it. According to James, one who claims to have faith, but who does not corroborate that faith by living deeds has, in fact, no faith. And 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.

Finally, 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 (v. 14), i.e., from judgment. Like Matthew, James believed that, at the appearance of the Son of Man, judgment would be rendered, not on the basis of an intellectually perfect faith but on the basis of acts of faithfilled love and kindness. Those who had encountered the naked, the homeless, the hungry, the thirsty, the estranged and the imprisoned and had met their needs in faith and because of faith 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.

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 (Mark 1:22, 27). His reputation spread throughout Galilee, but he was wrongly perceived as the mysterious figure of Elijah (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 (Mark 3:6) witnessed Jesus’ works and heard his teaching and recognized in his radical ways a threat to their positions and prestige. In fear and resentment, these rejected him and plotted 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 punctuated the various moments of the Marcan gospel (4:13, 40-41; 6:37, 52; 7:18, 8:4; 9:6, 32; 10:35-40). Even Jesus’ own relatives did not perceive his true purpose or understand his method. Thinking him to be mad, they wanted to protect him from himself (Mark 3:21). Only the demons and evil spirits truly recognized Jesus and identified him: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” “I know who you are: the Holy One of God,” “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (Mark 1:25, 5:7).

But at Caesarea Philippi, the confusion as to Jesus’ identity was brought to a climax in the confession of Peter: “You are the messiah!” Thereafter, the evangelist devoted his gospel to the elucidation of that profound statement.

Some have downplayed the importance of Peter’s declaration, citing it as a post-resurrection awareness, born of Easter faith and anachronized into the ministry by the evangelist. But others (V. Taylor, J. Klausner, etc.) recognize the confession of Peter as historical. “To deny this,” claimed Klausner, “would make the whole history of Christianity incomprehensible. The story ought not to be interpreted as if no suspicion that Jesus might be the messiah had ever dawned on the minds of the disciples. Without some sense of his greatness, and a hope that in him ancient prophecies might be fulfilled, they were not likely to have forsaken all and followed him.”

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’ conception of it. This is obvious from today’s pericope which shows the apostle remonstrating with Jesus after Jesus had indicated that his messiahship was to be exercised in suffering and characterized by humiliation. Although the prediction of the passion (8:31-32) and those which would follow it (9:31, 10:33-34) were certainly reworked by the evangelist in the light of the post-resurrection faith, no doubt Jesus did bring to his messiahship an unpopular and unattractive notion. 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 (8:33), Jesus’ ideas were iconoclastic!

W. Harrington warns against exaggerating the triumphant and the confessional aspect (“You are the messiah”) of the pericope 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” (hypage opiso mou Satana) was reminiscent of the temptation scene wherein the tempter and his ideas of a popular, powerful messiah were cast aside (“hypage Satan” Matthew 4:10). That Jesus understood his role and his mission in terms of God’s standards (v. 33) is evident in v. 31 wherein he explained that the Son of Man had to or must suffer much, etc. Dei or “must” expressed the apologetic conviction of the first century believers and New Testament authors that all the sufferings Jesus endured--even the ignominy of the cross--were in accordance with the revealed will of God in the scriptures.

Closely linked to the revelation of Jesus as messiah and as one who would suffer is the invitation to discipleship. By summoning the crowds (v. 34), Jesus (and Mark) 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. In Jesus’ day the self-denial required of a disciple entailed the relinquishing of preconceived messianic ideas and an acceptance of a suffering savior. In Mark’s church of the 60s that self-denial included a recognition of the whole of christology--not only the wonder-working Jesus of the ministry and the risen Lord but also the seemingly defeated Jesus of Calvary. Today the conditions for discipleship are little changed. Renunciation of the selectively romanticized aspects of the person of Jesus, an indiscriminate, whole-hearted commitment to the contradiction of the cross, the counterculture quality of Christian living: all are part of the believer’s answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?”

1. The alleviation of suffering, especially innocent suffering, is a sacred duty (Isaiah).

2. It is far easier to talk about faith than to live it (James).

3. Part of Christian commitment is the daily evaluation and daily answering of Jesus’ question: Who do you say that I am? (Mark).

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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