ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year C

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

A Question of Identity

ZECHARIAH 12:10-11
LUKE 9:18-24

As part of an experiment for a sociology seminar, a student spent an afternoon at a local mall asking the same questions to several dozen passersby. “Who are you? How would you identify yourself?” The answers were as varied as the respondents. Some identified themselves by their role in their family: “I’m a grandfather”... “I am a wife and mother.” Others did so in terms of their occupation: “I’m a sales clerk”... “I work at the music shop”... “I teach at the community college.” Some identified themselves along ethnic or racial lines: “I’m an Afro-American”... “I’m a third generation Italian American.” A few simply offered their age and/or gender as a means of identification: “a forty-three year old man”... “I’m seventeen!” A few people offered character traits: “I’m an honest, hard-working individual.” Some described themselves in terms of their feelings or physical condition: “I’m happy”. . . “I’m exhausted.” Several, thinking that a political poll was being conducted, responded as regards their chosen party: “a Democrat”... “I’m Republican.” Still others claimed their city or state of residence as a means of identification: “A life-long New Yorker”... “I’m from Texas.” A few respondents answered the student’s question by designating their religious affiliation. “Christian”... “Baptist”... “I’m an agnostic”..., and one person simply rattled off his Social Security number.

Obviously, there are a myriad ways of offering information as who we are; however, in today’s gospel, Jesus presents his would-be disciples with a uniquely important means of self-identification.

To initiate the process, Jesus first posed questions concerning his own identity, “Who do the crowds say I am?” Then from a more personal frame of reference he asked his disciples, “But you, who do you say I am?” Peter’s response, “the Messiah of God” was indeed insightful but not complete. By so identifying Jesus, Peter was, in effect, hanging Judaism’s centuries-old messianic hopes on Jesus. The Messiah or anointed one had long been anticipated as a royal descendant of the Davidic dynasty with might and prowess sufficient enough to restore the nation to the prestige and power it had known under David. That Peter qualified his response, the Messiah of God, indicated that he regarded Jesus as an authentic figure and not simply another of so many messianic pretenders.

Jesus, however, also qualified the character of his messiahship. His tenure would not be spent in military maneuvers, in order to force his foes into submission. Rather, Jesus’ messianic mission would know only the maneuvers of service; his dedication to his own would cause him to endure great personal suffering and even death in order to free his brothers and sisters from their submission to sin and evil. Having thus identified himself as their messiah, Jesus then indicated that those who chose to become identified as his followers would share a similar suffering. Like their leader, the disciples would become familiar with self denial and rejection. Like him, they would experience the contradiction of the cross and, through death, find life. In other words, the disciples of Jesus are to find their own personal identities only in reference to him.

Today, the Jesus of Luke’s gospel continues to pose the question that has challenged believers since the thirties C.E. Who do you say I am? The answer to that question leads to another... Will you be my disciple and similarly identify yourself with me, in suffering, death and then in resurrection?

ZECHARIAH 12:10-11

Since Zechariah first described the tragic figure in today’s first reading, the prophet’s readers have attempted, albeit without success, to identify him. Because Zechariah’s description of the one “whom they have thrust through” (v. 10) stirs up memories of the Isaian suffering servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) and seems to anticipate the Johannine Jesus’ being pierced by a lance as the crowds looked on (John 19:37), the early Christians readily characterized this as a piece of messianic prophecy. However the author’s intent and original meaning of this passage remains uncertain.

Given the tenuous times in which he lived, Zechariah’s description of the pierced one could have been applicable to any one of several people who were martyred and mourned. As Mary Margaret Pazdan (“Zechariah,” The Collegeville Bible Commentary, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 1989) has explained, the possibilities could include any representative of God; a collective of people such as the martyrs of Judah in the Maccabean era, a historical figure who had been murdered, e.g. Josiah, Onias III, or Simon Maccabeus; a charismatic figure cast out by the religious authorities; the good shepherd of Zechariah 11.

A consensus of scholars have agreed that the book attributed to Zechariah is actually the work of at least two anonymous authors. The literary, theological and stylistic differences between Zechariah 1-8 and 9-14 are substantial enough to assign them to two distinct prophets, writing at different periods in post-exilic Judah. Chapters 12-14, with their foray into the world of apocalyptic have led to the conclusion that these represent the work of yet a third author. James T. Cleland (“Zechariah”, The Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press, Nashville: 1956) has said these chapters “enter into the realm of the phantasmagoria of religious hopes based upon a fighting faith. The content of the vision is a combination of current events, unfulfilled prophecies and enthusiastic imagining, all of which constitute a ‘pep talk’ to the faithful and a nightmare to the sober expositor.”

Although the central figure (pierced one) defies certain identification, the meaning of the reminder of this short text is more readily discernible. Due to an outpouring of the spirit upon the people, the community would experience a change of heart. Prompted by God and supported by grace, the repentant would acknowledge the evil they had done and turn back to God with prayers and petitions. With regret and compunction they shall mourn for their sins.

To illustrate the integrity of their mourning, the author of Zechariah referenced several incidents in Hebrew tradition. The “only son” recalled Abraham’s sorrow at the thought of sacrificing Isaac (Genesis 22:2), while the grieving over a first-born was reminiscent of: the Egyptians mourning their first born children (Exodus 12:15-22); David’s sadness at the loss of his first-born son (2 Samuel 12:15-23); and for Absalom (2 Samuel 18:33). The mention of Hadadrimmon (Hadad and Rimmon were ancient near eastern weather gods) may have referenced the rites of lamentation associated with these gods. The plain of Megiddo recalled the tragic deaths of Ahaziah (2 Kings 9:27) and Josiah (2 Kings 23:29), kings of Judah.

Reginald Fuller (Preaching the New Lectionary, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 1996) has suggested that Christians, who associate Zechariah’s figure with Jesus and his redemptive death for sinners might understand the mourning herein described as the remorse which will, at the last judgment, overtake all those who have rejected Christ on earth. In any event, Zechariah’s pierced one commands our attention, and, along with today’s gospel provides an apt framework within which to examine ourselves as regards our identity with our suffering, serving Savior, Jesus.


Prior to Jesus’ saving death, membership in, and therefore identification with the people of God had been defined in terms of nationality, legal observance, heritage and tradition. All law-abiding, circumcised descendants of Abraham were regarded as the heirs apparent of God’s promises and blessings. However, with the advent of Jesus and by virtue of his saving death on the cross, the requisites for membership and the means of identifying the people of God were redefined. Exploded were the barriers that had previously separated people from God and one another; enlarged were the parameters which were to embrace and draw all believers together toward God.

Earlier in his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul had set forth the reason for the redefining of the membership and identity of the new people of God, viz., the justification of humankind by Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:22-25). “What Jews of old sought to achieve in God’s sight by observing the deeds of the law, Christ Jesus by his death and resurrection brought about for all sinners, Jews and Greeks alike” (Joseph A. Fitzmyer, According to Paul, Paulist Press, New York: 1993). Sinners, for their part, are called to appropriate the unmerited gift of justification by faith. Paul would have his readers learn that justification no longer depends on what we do or on who we are but on who we have become and who we shall continue to become in Christ Jesus. Paul celebrates the realities of who we have become in today’s second reading.

Sons and daughters of God by faith, believers have also become, by faith, the spiritual descendants of Abraham and heirs of all that was promised. In verse 27, Paul affirmed baptism as the sacramental expression of faith; it is the rite whereby each believer is publicly committed to Christ and willingly accepts to work out his/her identity in reference to Christ. The phrase, “baptized into Christ” signifies the dual incorporation of the believer into the body of Christ which is the church and into the saving mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

By identifying the baptized as those who have been clothed with Christ, Paul may have been alluding to the practice of clothing catechumens with white upon their emergence from the baptismal pool. The great apostle to the gentiles may also have been referring to a ritual prevalent in the Greek mystery religions whereby the newly initiated clothed themselves in robes similar to those worn by the god of the cult. Paul may also have been drawing upon the tradition in which he had been raised wherein “clothing oneself” meant to embrace a particular moral quality or disposition (Job 29:14; 2 Chronicles 6:41). Clothed with Christ, believers are to make his moral qualities and dispositions their own.

Today Paul reaches out across the centuries to speak to contemporary society. Given the penchant of some of us for designer labels and name brand clothing, his words may offer a pointed and necessary challenge. Shall we allow ourselves to be identified by means of an elitist but transient fashion trend or shall we clothe ourselves with Christ and be identified by our enduring and grace-filled union with him?

LUKE 9:18-24

Careful readers of the synoptic gospels will notice that Luke’s narrative of Peter’s confession and the conditions of discipleship differs slightly, but very significantly, from those of his fellow evangelists (see Mark *:27-35; Matthew 16:13-25). In issuing the challenge to his disciples that they deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him, the Lucan Jesus added the words kath’hemeran, which mean daily or each day. (v. 23). Just as Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” requires a daily decision and a daily response and just as our response to that question requires a daily recommitment to Christ and a daily willingness to be identified as his disciple, so also will the suffering which discipleship necessarily entails require a daily acceptance. As Luke Timothy Johnson (The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 1991) has explained, Luke understands discipleship as something more than a momentary decision or surviving an occasional testing. By his use of the present tense (whoever wishes. . . must deny... take up... and follow) and by adding the words each day, Luke moves the challenge of Jesus in the direction of a Christian spirituality. In other words, the self-denial and acceptance of the cross which are integral to discipleship are not seasonal or part-time exercises but a way of life.

Jesus’ second challenge, concerning the losing of one’s life in order to save it, confronts believers with the paradox which is Christian commitment. Believers are called, by virtue of their identity with Christ, to lose themselves in the service of others. William Barclay (“The Gospel of Luke, The Daily Study Bible, the St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh: 1975) suggested that discipleship requires that life be spent and not hoarded. In order to do so, believers must live in contradiction of those worldly standards which ask of life: “How much can I get? What is the safe thing to do? What is the bare minimum I can do to get by?” Disciples of Jesus, who are willing to lose their lives in his service must ask other questions: How much can I give? What is the right thing to do? What is the maximum I can offer?

Notice also that Jesus directed the daily challenge of self-denial taking up the cross, and losing one’s life for his sake to all (v. 23). For those who think the rigors of discipleship might possibly be met, but only for a time, and only by a few stalwart individuals with strength and stamina sufficient for the task, today’s gospel offers a corrective. Discipleship is not an individual achievement; it is the grace-driven response of a believer to the person of Jesus. Discipleship is prompted by the question, “Who do you say I am?” and becomes possible only through a daily effort at becoming more and more identified with the Lord who continues to pose that question to us.

[NOTE TO USERS: This archive is available for use without charge, but it remains the property of the author and under copyright with Celebrations Publications. Users are permitted to print individual Sunday commentaries for pastoral use, but are prohibited from downloading or copying files or printing any portion of this for sale or distribution.]

e-mail the Celebration editor at patmarrin@aol.com

Copyright © 2000 Celebration Publications

Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company
Celebration Publications
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111