A Provocation: Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost: August 27, 2017: Matthew 16:13-20

Matthew 16:13-20
16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

16:15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

16:17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

16:20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus ask the question he asks?
  • Why do people give the answers that they do?  Why John the Baptist?  Why Elijah?  Why Jeremiah?

Some Longer Reflections:

A simple question: what does it mean that Peter says that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God?”

The easy answers suppose that this is an identification question, and that Peter gets it right because God revealed it to him.  The easy answers suppose that Peter is commended for passing the ID quiz.  Yay, Peter.

The more complicated answers are more interesting.  And more important.

“Messiah” is not an identity.  It is not even an office.

“Messiah” is an analytic, a diagnosis, a considered judgment on the state of the Creation and on a particular moment in time.  To say that Jesus is the messiah is, first of all, to confess that the world is upside down.  If it were not, there would be no need for a messiah, for an agent anointed to turn the world right-side-up, which is what a messiah does.  By the time Jesus was born, the Jewish people had been without an anointed king for several centuries.  By the time Jesus was born, what had originally been a simple hope for a return to the monarchy and the independence that had existed before the Babylonian Exile had gathered to it all the hopes and prayers of people who saw injustice and pain, disease and abuse, and refused to believe that God had intended this to be the proper state of the universe.  By the time Jesus was born, “messiah” was a protest against a world out of whack.

Such a protest is easy to understand if you focus on obvious injustices, if you look (in Matthew’s story) only at Herod’s genocidal attack with which the story begins.  That is too easy, and easy understandings of “messiah” are, in fact, evidence of deep MIS-understandings.  To confess that the world is upside down is, then and now, to confess that the basic structures of life are wrong and need to be rebuilt.  “Messiah” calls for a basic change, not just some tinkering around the edges.

If you want to feel the impact of Peter’s confession, read (slowly and carefully) some of what is currently being written about the matter of white privilege.  Don’t argue, don’t resist, don’t refute.  Just read, slowly and carefully, and reflect.

“Messiah” does not preserve privilege, nor does “messiah” make everyone privileged.  Such fantasies are economically impossible; they are idle imaginings founded on a desire to be free from responsibility for each other, free from connection and community.  Cain hoped for such freedom, and you know how that turned out.  Abel paid with his life.  “Messiah” creates community and connection, and fosters responsibility amongst the members of Creation.

A classic description of “sin” names it as the condition of being “curved in on oneself,” being concerned first with how all things affect me.  This description suggests that we are properly created to be concerned first with each other, with the health of the entire Creation.

That means that a reaction to discussions about “white privilege” that worry first about how I might be dis-advantaged by such discussions reveals itself as a sign of how the world is broken, upside-down.

Reflect on this.  Analyze it.  When Peter says that Jesus is “Messiah,” he is confessing that the basic structures of privilege and access to resources that govern the world are broken.  This is the sort of confession that will need to be revealed by God, and given as a gift.

This gift has a second characteristic, as well.  Peter’s confession not only means that the world is upside-down.  For Peter to tie the word, messiah, to Jesus, Peter has to believe that it is possible to turn the world right-side-up.  He is saying that the person standing in front of him is the one actively engaged in making that happen.  This insight into the significance of the present moment is also a gift from God, and separates Peter’s analysis of the need for change from mere complaining, simple despair.  Peter is confessing that hope is possible.  Anytime this happens, God has given us a gift.

But the most important moment in Peter’s confession comes when he calls Jesus the messiah who is the child of the “living God.”

This way of speaking of God means two things simultaneously.

First it means that God is the “God of life.”  This is the right way to translate the Hebrew phrase behind this confession in the Greek Testament.  That means that Peter is confessing that, no matter how privilege is presently structured, God working on the side of life, of justice and equity.  In actual fact, this means that God must be the God of resurrection, because nothing less will be required if the world is to be turned right-side-up.  Too many radical reactions to the brokenness of the world contribute only reactive violence, and thus advocate that we all jump into the meat-grinder together.  Only death comes out of following that advice.  To confess that God is God of resurrection is to dare to hope that life is possible, and that hope is not simply a pleasant illusion.

And Peter’s confession also means that he expects that God is lively and active in the present moment.  God is not, according to Peter, a sentimental vestige of a past world in which people believed in such beings.  God is not a static symbol for generalized hopefulness.  God is an actual, active participant in human history.  Peter is claiming that God is working to bring life into a world that has been regulated by death.

Jesus says that his Father in heaven has revealed this to Peter.

This vigorous hope and expectation is the foundation stone for Christian faithfulness.

That is worth thinking about, especially these days.

But what I don’t know is why Jesus commands them NOT to tell any of this to anyone.  The easy answers are not satisfactory.  Reflect.




2 thoughts on “A Provocation: Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost: August 27, 2017: Matthew 16:13-20

  1. Thank you so much for this. I’m preaching the Sunday after this when Peter rebukes Jesus and his proclamation of his upcoming death, and the extremity of Jesus reaction makes so much more sense with your insight to this passage. Peter has identified Jesus as the Messiah – the one who will flip the upside down world the right way up – but then tries to deny the ultimate action that will accomplish that. His human hypocrisy of faith not being reflected in his works is highlighted, and naturally Jesus is mad and calls him out on it.


  2. Reblogged this on provokingthegospel and commented:

    A Provocation from three years ago.

    “A classic description of “sin” names it as the condition of being “curved in on oneself,” being concerned first with how all things affect me. ”

    This is worth consideration in the midst of ongoing wrangles about white privilege.


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