Who are you? This is normally the first question we either ask a person or obtain an answer upon meeting someone for the first time. The Gospel reading for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time is Matthew 16:13-20—AKA the institution of the papacy. Jesus asks his apostles the following question, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13). Having performed many miracles and healings, along with teaching with great teaching authority from God, Jesus elicited a decisive reply from his apostles. Rumors were circulating about the identity of Jesus: Herod claimed he was really John the Baptist [see Matthew 14:1-2] others viewed him as a profound teacher [see Matthew 8:18]. Confusion existed over the uniqueness and purpose of Jesus’ mission during his time on earth.
Peter outlines the various rumors already circulating about in ancient Palestine: Jesus is a reincarnation of old prophets or even John the Baptist [who was beheaded back in Matthew 14!]. Instead of chastising the fisherman, Jesus continues to question: “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). I have heard this gospel reading dozens of times now. The problem I struggle with as I grow older is that discovering newness to a biblical passage occurs less and less as the years pass. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, I was able to find a new perspective on Matthew 16:13-20. Let me explain three ways I viewed this passage in a newer light.
1. Questioning is good: Skeptics gets a bad rap from supporters of religion. The word skeptic is defined as a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions. According to this definition, I most certainly am considered a skeptic at least when it comes to the first half of the definition. I question nearly everything. I ask probably at least a hundred questions a day- both at work and home. Sometimes I feel that people get irritated when I ask so many questions. Whether this belief is founded or not depends on the tone and manner upon which I query. People who genuinely are curious about truth and honestly strive to gain knowledge about the world should not feel guilty about questioning. “There are no such things are a dumb question,” I remember many of my elementary and high school teachers telling me and fellow students.
In other words, a moderate amount of skepticism is good and healthy. Without skepticism we venture to the other side of the spectrum of belief—naivety! Matthew 16:13:20 presents Jesus as a questioner. Twice he asks Peter about who he thinks Jesus really is. Peter’s claim is that Jesus is the Christ—the anointed One from God.
Now, this claim was not simple religious gullibility. Peter and the Apostles spent a lot of time with Jesus traveling from city to city hearing his teaching. Along with listening to his message, the disciples witnessed several miracles first hand. I realized that the evangelist does not have Jesus prod the disciples about his identity until almost midway through the gospel. Why is that? Should not Jesus’ identity be discussed sooner? Reflecting on this chapter in Matthew, I read the chapters leading up and I concluded that perhaps Jesus wanted to give his followers sufficient time for receiving evidence [i.e. witnessing his works, listening to his teaching] before he confronted them with such a loaded question.
2. Truth beyond Perspectives: An anonymous quote I discovered the other day states, “Never believe everything you hear. Because there are always three sides of a story. Yours, theirs and the truth.” Perspective is the ability to look at an event through the lens of another and understand that individual’s point of view. This does not necessarily mean that you have to agree with that perspective, but many situations involve several sides. Belief of Jesus is no different. Discussion about the most famous person in history continues today. People claim to know who he is, others suspend judgment, and still others outright reject the existence of Jesus.
Catholics believe that Jesus institutes the papacy in Matthew 16:17-19. Jesus gifts the early Church with a steadfast promise of clarity—in the office of the pope. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood* has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father,” Jesus states in Matthew 16:17. Peter and his successors are not honored by the Catholic Church because they were awesome people—remember Peter actually denied knowing Jesus three times before the Crucifixion! God made an interesting selection for the first leader of the Church after Jesus’ Ascension.
Catholics respect the authority of the pope because the Holy Spirit guided Peter [and his successors] and endowed him [and his successors] the gift of discernment and clarity on matters of faith and morals. The Holy Spirit helps the pope present such issues with clarity in confusing times. True, certain matters and events have varying perspectives. But the office of the papacy is guided by the Holy Spirit to allow the leader of the Church to being incapable of officially teaching erroneous things regarding faith and morality.
Light is composed of all visible colors in the electromagnetic spectrum. A prism is a tool to demonstrate this truth through refracting light into various wavelengths. In an analogous manner, the pope acts as a sort of theological prism upon which the unity of office is reflected in the diversity of individuals who hold that office. Over time, truth passed on to Peter from Christ is clarified and more clearly defined by future popes. Seen apart, each pope may seem to be teaching differently. However, when viewed through the prism of history and the office of the papacy, Catholic teaching is concentrated into a singular light of truth.
3. Who is Jesus to Me?: “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me,” Jesus urges his Apostles in Matthew 25:45. How often do I forget that humanity on the periphery— the impoverished, the infirmed, individuals filled with despair, etc—are people I am called to love and serve. As an American, I have grown accustomed to decent living conditions. I have a house, family, money to pay the bills, and adequate food. Of course, as a Catholic, I see Jesus most fully present in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and I do make time throughout the month to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Where I struggle and have an opportunity to improve in my spiritual life is to be more conscience to pray for people on the fringe of society. I need to see Jesus the beggar dwelling inside each of them.
Who are you? This question should be asked daily in our communication with God. He will reveal Himself but we need to be open to an unexpected answer. Faith and tradition tells us that Jesus is the Christ—the anointed Son of God and Savior of the World. Jesus is also the beggar, the impoverished one, the Suffering Servant—to borrower the evangelist Mark’s favorite title of Jesus. Let us embrace the fullness of Jesus both in his glory and his humility. In doing so, we grow in holiness and learn more about our true identity as well!