"Who do you say that I am?"
The events we the church remember this day ask us this question because they present one answer to this question. We already know the end of the week's story -- the man welcomed with wild cheering by the crowds will in a few days be executed as a criminal among criminals.
But this day, such an end is not in sight -- except to him. Covering a person's path is a sign of great esteem, widely practiced in the ancient near East and still a part of our mentality, as in "roll out the red carpet" from the custom of royalty. Joshua, who led the people into the Promised Land as the Lawgiver Moses could not, whose name is with the name Jesus a variant of the same name, was given the same triumphal accord. Here, perhaps, was the Messiah! Here, perhaps, was the triumphal entry into Jerusalem of the Messiah predicted by Zechariah, to whom our Gospel account, Matthew, refers! How does the wild joy of seeing the king come turn to a criminal's execution? It is not because Jesus turns out not to be Messiah, but because Messiah turns out to be not the Messiah we want.
Does not Zechariah speak of the removal of chariots and war horses from Jerusalem, breaking battle bows, with a reign of peace from the Jordan throughout the Earth? Let us not congratulate ourselves that thinking of the Messiah in the political and social terms of removing the Roman occupation from the land was the failing of the Jews of Jesus' place and time, something that Jew or Gentile in more elightened times, oh, say us in our time, would never do. It wasn't a reaction to the Romans. The mainstream of the entire Prophetic tradition, from the Prophets themselves to the atmoshpere in which the Apostles were raised to our own time, is that Messiah is a man, not God, not a God-Man, who will usher in a lasting era of universal peace here in this world, not a world to come, in which the light of the true God first given to a nation called out from the nations will extend to all nations -- nothing about sin, forgiveness, justification!
Is that not the Messiah we all want -- Jew and Gentile alike, then as now? A Messiah in earthly terms, one who will straighten out the mess of things here on earth, with no reference to the mess being of our making, allowing us to live long and prosper right here, who asks not repentance and conversion but simply to do good works like he did, who is about giving us a purpose to drive our lives rather than giving us the sacrifice that takes away our sin, whose religion is about not what he has done but what would we do as he did? And do we not, Jew and Gentile alike, then as now, turn away from him when he turns out to be not the Messiah we wanted?
Jews typically do not believe Jesus is Messiah not because they fail to see how Jesus fulfills the Messianic prophecy, but because they do not see the Messianic prophecy as pointing to anything like Jesus. This was a persistent problem even for the Apostles. Gentiles do not believe Jesus is the Messiah not because they fail to see how Jesus fulfills the Messianic prophecy, in fact many of them say he does, but because they too find the Messianic prophecy to be a matter of a good man showing us the way to live as good people, to become better people, and find in Jesus such a man.
In the Hellenistic, which is to say Greek based, culture that surrounded Jesus' time and place, many religions existed featuring gods who had miraculous births, worked miracles, acted on behalf of man, entered the city, died and rose again, and whose followers partook of rites of bathing and eating and sacrifices, called mysteries, which the Romans termed sacraments. The Greek Dionysus, whom the Romans appropriated as Bacchus, the Persian Mithra and the Egyptian Osiris are the best examples among many others.
Is this Jesus too? Is he simply another failed Jewish Messiah, whose followers, when what will happen after Messiah comes didn't happen after he came, recast Messiah in the Hellenistic terms surrounding them to fit him so they could continue to say he was Messiah after all and obscuring his true value as a moral teacher? Is he simply another Hellenistic mystery cult figure, perpetuated by those who derived power from presiding over the mysteries, obscuring the real Jesus and his true value as a moral teacher?
"Who do you say that I am?" was not Jesus' first question. That was "Who do men say that I am?" And indeed, who do we say that he is -- one of the great prophets of Hebrew Scripture come back, one of the great moral teachers in human history over whom, as with other great teachers, has been laid religious fables by those who claim to follow him but in fact falsify the historical person for a figure of faith, but in any case, a teacher, a model, an example. Would we not cover the path of such a figure with palms, since that is the saviour we want? And would we not be just as mistaken as those who covered his path thinking here was deliverance from the Roman oppression and the era of peace? And on finding out that is not who he is, would we not shout as well, Away with him!
That is still who men say he is. Who do you say that I am? Simon answered, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus told him flesh and blood had not revealed this to him, but his Father who is in heaven. Flesh and blood, that is, human wisdom, never reveals this unto us because it is beyond all human wisdom and contradicts all human wisdom. Therefore it cannot be arrived at by human wisdom nor chosen by human decision, but is the gift of the God and only the gift of God. Human abilities even with Law and Prophecy and Writings from God could not grasp it; human wisdom apart from revelation constructs bits and pieces of it around mere fable characters who cannot deliver. Either way the natural knowledge of God written in every human heart strives for something it senses is there but cannot discern, and which can only be given by the gift of God.
The Sanhedrin had it exactly right. Jesus was not executed because he said he was the Messiah. One can claim that, and simply be wrong or right. The Messiah is a great man, but a man. He was executed because he said he was God. One cannot claim that without blaspheming God -- unless it is true. We'll take a Messiah who is a great man, we'll lay palms to cover his path, we'll rejoice that what we want is at hand -- and when it turns out instead he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed to be raised again on the third day, well, it shall not be unto the Messiah we want, and thus we become an offence to him, Satan, savouring the things of Man rather than God.
Men say all kinds of things about who Jesus is. Things for which we will joyfully lay palms to cover his path, or at least accord him a place in the gallery of the great teachers and moral figures. And then he asks each of us, Who do YOU say that I am?
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