Archive | September, 2008

Who Do You Say That I Am?- Luke 9:1-22

9 Sep

Several classroom games are centered on the theme of identity. As a French immersion elementary pupil, I particularly enjoyed one such activity, the aptly-named ‘Qui suis-je?’ (‘Who am I?’) One member of the class at a time would be invited to choose, for example, a historical figure who was being studied. The rest of the class would be allowed a limited number of clues or questions to determine the identity of the randomly-picked person, following the all-important phrase to begin each turn: “Qui suis-je?” Another popular game in elementary school was “Seven Up”, wherein seven students would be selected to stand at the front of the classroom while the other children would lay their heads on their desks with their eyes covered and their thumbs out. The students at the front would then proceed to tag the thumb of one classmate each, then the seven people who were tagged were invited to identify who had touched their thumb. Those that guessed this correctly took the place of the students who had tagged them at the front of the room for the game’s next round.

Beyond popular recreation in school, our identity is important, even when individuals are associated with larger groups, such as ethnicity, nationality, ideology, or religion. According to Judaism and Christianity, each human being is created uniquely and bears the Divine image and likeness. (1) Names affirm both the distinctiveness of each person and our relatedness to each other. From the beginning, God entrusted humankind with the naming of all creatures. (2) While surnames assist in knowing one’s ancestry, given names vary with time and culture. Novel spellings of more common names appear as parents seek a greater degree of individuality for themselves and for their children. Also, Catholics often christen their infants after a saint, and the child may develop a devotion to his or her namesake.

In the Gospels, names are also important; they help to tell the recipient of the Good News who Jesus is and who His followers are. Even prior to his detail of Our Saviour’s birth, St. Luke provides us with a name for the unborn God-Man, in Gabriel’s  words to Mary: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a Son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.” (3) There, for the first time,  Luke refers to God as “the Most High”, a common Lucan designation for God, while emphasizing, particularly in combination with the frequent use of the title “Son of Man” in reference to prophetic Old Testament texts (4), the co-substantiality of Jesus with the Father and with the Holy Spirit. Jesus, a common name in first-century Palestine, derives from the Hebrew for ‘God saves’. Elizabeth, speaking to the Mother of God, was the first besides Mary to recognize that Jesus is equal in Divinity to the Father and to the Holy Spirit while also being fully human, the child of a human mother:

Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (5)

St. John the Baptist, himself the product of miraculous Divine intervention, shared in his mother’s awe by “[leaping] for joy” (6) at Jesus’ presence. The Visitation narrative then leads into the Magnificat with Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary, “who believed that what was spoken to [her] by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (7) In three successive verses- Elizabeth’s initial greeting, John’ leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, and the final blessing upon Mary by her host- the story of this encounter between Elizabeth, John, Mary, and Jesus includes three distinct messages that build the Christological framework of St. Luke’s Gospel. Firstly, Our Lord comes to those who are humble, like Elizabeth, who sees her own conception of John the Baptist as God’s means of beginning to remit the “disgrace” of sin in the world. (8) Secondly, God’s coming among us creates so much joy as to cause an unborn child to leap within the womb. Thirdly, that joyful response enables us to praise God and to strengthen each other in faith, just as we have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to be His witnesses (9), trusting in the Divine plan and purpose.

Confidence in God is critical toward our comprehension of the Gospel message. The four canonical Gospels, apart from all other books of the Bible, center on the earthly life of Jesus Christ.. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote at different times, for different audiences, and varied in their own amounts and fields of education. That gives each of the four evangelists’ works a distinctive Christology- defined as the study or essence of Christ, from the Greek ‘christos’ and ‘logos’. St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ life is primarily historical:

This history is first of all salvation history. God’s Divine plan for human salvation was accomplished during the period of Jesus, who through the events of His life fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies, and this salvation is now extended to all humanity in the period of the Church. (10)

In his opening address to Theophilus, St. Luke acknowledges that “many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us,” (11) and the author strives to set these events “in an orderly sequence.” (12) The Lucan Christology that begins especially with the Archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary followed by Elizabeth’s affirmation of Jesus’ Divinity- thus Jesus is the One to repair the disorderly rift between Heaven and earth, between angels and humankind, so that all “in Heaven, on earth, and under the earth” will “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (13)- intensifies and reaches a climax in Chapters 7 through 9 of Luke’s Gospel.

Immediately following the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus was revealed as a healer of the sick by His cure of the  centurion’s slave at Capernaum and as one with power even to raise the dead, first exemplified at Nain. From this town, so insignificant that it is mentioned only once in the Bible, news concerning Jesus’ identity spread rapidly: “‘A great prophet has arisen in our midst’ and ‘God has visited His people.’” (14) Meanwhile, the disciples of St. John the Baptist, gripped by despair at their leader’s imprisonment by Herod Antipas, were  not convinced that Jesus was the long-sought Messiah. They were sent to ask Jesus, “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?” (15) While Jesus was not rejected as he had been in Nazareth, (16) the public responded with indifference to the coming of the Kingdom announced by John’s challenging exhortation to repent and fulfilled by the joyful ministry of Christ. (17)

The concurrent upbeat sound of the flute and the sorrowful sound of the dirge being sung, both integral to the proclamation of our salvation, are frequently considered to interfere with one another. Thus, few tune in properly to the revelation of Jesus’ identity. The women in Luke’s account, from the sinner who tearfully begged Our Lord’s forgiveness in the home of Simon the Pharisee (18) to those who gave as much as they were able of their material wealth to support Jesus and His Apostles (19), were true hearers of the symphony of the Good News. Jesus taught in parables those who were slow or reluctant to be attentive to His message. The family of Christ- hearers and doers of word (20)- grew as Jesus instructed His people and performed miracles where those obsessed with ritual purity over service, with doubt over faith, and with death over life feared to tread.

Witnesses and servants of faith and of life must trust completely in God. As the ninth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel begins, this is precisely Jesus’ lesson for the Twelve. Until this point in the Gospel of Luke, they had been known as disciples. Jesus then sent His dozen men out to heal and to preach on their own. They were subsequently to become Apostles: (21)

He summoned the Twelve and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and He sent them to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor money, and let no one take a second tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there and leave from there. And as for those who do not welcome you, shake the dust from your feet in testimony against them.’ Then they set out and went from village to village proclaiming the Good News and curing diseases everywhere. (22)

Much success accompanied this first attempt at ministry by the Apostles, because Jesus’ orders gave their mission fundamental direction toward preaching and healing those afflicted both physically and spiritually. The Twelve were not to worry about those who would reject them; they were to proceed to the next town while the dwellings that repudiated Word of God would incur unfavourable judgment, symbolized by the act of shaking the dust from one’s feet in an unfriendly house. (23) Their teaching was also meant to be universal, making no distinction between Gentile and Jew, as St. Luke emphasizes by his inclusion of the word “everywhere” (24) to describe his intended audience.

In order to identify Jesus for the readers and hearers of his Gospel, Luke tells us both who the Twelve were and who they were to become. Jesus teaches those whom He has chosen in turn to instruct in His place- to build His Church- that dependence upon God in all things is paramount even bearing in mind the early accomplishments of His closest friends’ evangelization. The disciples’ transition to Apostleship will be complete only when they have experienced hardship and crisis and have risen from it with Christ always before them. As the disciples go forth to become Apostles, the orientation of the Lucan Gospel also changes toward Our Saviour’s final goal, Jerusalem, therefore the Cross, while the major themes of Jesus’ Galilean ministry are maintained. Robert J. Karris, O.F.M., explains in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary:

By means of the Cross Luke switches the focus by which one views the familiar themes of Jesus’ Galilean ministry: Jesus’ power over evil and His status as God’s Son, discipleship, opposition, and food. When these themes occur in 9:51 [to] 19:27, they are to be seen from the perspective of the Cross. (25)

Suffering, even unto death if necessary, must then be a part of the transition from disciple to Apostle- to one who is summoned, to paraphrase the lyrics of the hymn I have included with this article, to follow Jesus “and never be the same.” (26) The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church (27) has a mission that is by nature transformative, as it is Christ’s ‘way.’ (28) Christians are obligatorily changed by the presence of the Son of God. Through the Incarnation, God became like us, and He has redeemed us by His blood. Therefore, the restoration of humanity to the likeness of God takes on anthropological and historical dimensions in Jesus Christ. Pope John Paul II, in Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium, wrote:

Christ alone, through His humanity, reveals the totality of the mystery of man. Indeed, it is only possible to explore the deeper meaning of this mystery if we take as our starting point man’s creation in the image and likeness of God. Man cannot understand himself completely with reference to other visible creatures. The key to this self-understanding lies in contemplating the Divine Prototype, the Word made flesh, the eternal Son of the Father…The dignity proper to man…is based not simply on human nature, but even more on the fact that, in Jesus Christ, God truly became man. (29)

In the same work, John Paul II cited the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) from the second Vatican Council, which affirms again that, by becoming human, Jesus changed the definition of humanity while giving new meaning to our relationship with God, to our suffering, and to our hope by taking on our human form:

By His Incarnation, He, the Son of God, has in a certain way united Himself with each man. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart He loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things but sin. (30)

…As an innocent lamb He merited life for us by His blood, which He freely shed…The Christian is certainly bound by need and by duty to struggle with evil and to suffer death; but, as one who has been made a partner in the Paschal Mystery, and as one who has been configured to the death of Christ, he will go forward, strengthened by hope, to the Resurrection. (31)

While they were justifiably elated over their early triumphs in preaching and in healing, the Apostles still had much to learn, particularly about how to respond in times of crisis. Between the Last Supper and His agony in Gethsemane, Jesus would deliver instructions to the Twelve that would contradict His teachings to them prior to sending them abroad for the first time. The Apostles, interpreting the opposing messages literally, would be confused by the perceived incongruity between Jesus’ directives in times of adversity and in times of success. (32) However, they would eventually be converted to accept the Cross as an essential step on their faith journey.

To rise with Christ, the Apostles would need to die with Him- to give their lives and to rise above the ways of the perishable world. While the Twelve were buoyed by their initial achievements, they had not yet put their Master first. Our Lord loved those among whom He walked. He empathized with a people oppressed by foreign rule who had long waited for a Messiah. Many, though not all, first-century Palestinian Jews believed that the coming of that Messiah and of His forerunner had been proclaimed by the prophet Malachi:

Lo, I will send you Elijah the prophet,
Before the day of the LORD comes,
the great and terrible day,
To turn the hearts of the fathers to their children,
and the hearts of the children to their fathers. (33)

Jesus had taught that Malachi’s mention of Elijah’s second coming was a figurative reference to John the Baptist, who had declared that Jesus was already with His people to deliver them. (34) In Israel during Jesus’ time, that was a difficult claim to accept. Downtrodden under the Romans, Messianic Jews were anticipating a leader who would reinstate Israel’s political and religious sovereignty. As Fred Craddock remarks in his exegetical book on the Gospel of Luke, most Israelites of the period doubted that a Messiah could have come already while the nation was in such turmoil. (35)

Our Saviour, though, was no political nor military leader. Misunderstanding of who He was gave rise to numerous rumours. To Herod Antipas, the puppet king whose tenuous hold on power was at the mercy of the Romans, this gossip, especially of a religious nature, was no idle chatter. Any talk of a challenger to his authority was viewed as threatening. Herod, for the first time in Luke’s Gospel, is recorded to have shown interest in Jesus, as he echoed a question already asked  repeatedly concerning Jesus (36): “Who then is this about whom I hear such things?” (37) The king, who would be unsatisfied in his quest “to see” (38) Jesus until His trial, when Herod would still receive no answer as to Jesus’ identity, had heard all the false stories from his subjects as to who this miracle worker was. (39) The ‘poll’ results showed that the Christ was commonly believed to be John the Baptist “raised from the dead”, Elijah, or another of “the ancient prophets.” (40) The same public opinions would be conveyed by the Apostles after Jesus had asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (41)

Herod did not yet desire to kill Jesus; this intention would develop later. (42) Nevertheless, Herod likely considered the number of followers that Jesus was drawing to Himself to be intimidating. He had beheaded John the Baptist, (43) who is not named again in Luke’s Gospel beyond Chapter 9, thus Herod Antipas had another reason to fear retribution. In the meantime, the Apostles had returned from their first duty apart from Jesus. While they were greatly encouraged by their work, Our Lord reminded them of the necessity of silence and of solitary prayer, “[withdrawing] in private to… Bethsaida” (44), “the hometown of Peter, Andrew, and Philip” that the Gospels mention five times. (45)

Despite the goal of Jesus and of His Apostles of prayerful retreat, the multitudes did not allow them to rest. Jesus patiently “received” the vast number of people, “spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and He healed those who needed to be cured.” (46) The crowds are set in Luke as an interruption in the quiet and prayerful conversation between Jesus and the Twelve, but the Lord used this inconvenient intrusion of “about five thousand” (47) to instruct His Apostles anew on how to meet the material and spiritual needs of the people. From a secular perspective, the Twelve were aware of the requirements of the masses gathered before them. Luke’s Gospel informs us that it was late in the day; the enormous crowd needed food and then places to stay overnight. Bethsaida, a small fishing community, did not have enough supplies for so many people traveling such long distances. Thus the Apostles asked Jesus, “Dismiss the crowd so that they can go to the surrounding villages and farms and find lodging and provisions; for we are in a deserted place here.” (48)

St. Luke does not mean this passage to be a criticism of the Apostles, as though they were too self-absorbed to attend to the needs of the five thousand. The third Gospel does not include a large section of St. Mark’s account between the feeding of the five thousand and Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah that scolds the disciples for their hardness of heart while also condemning the Pharisees and elders that sought the adherence to religious tradition over charity and signs over the faith required to understand their purpose. (49) Jesus’ Apostles had considered the plight of the five thousand, but in human and not Godly terms. (50)

The five loaves and two fish are no longer to be regarded as too little to satisfy the hunger of so many, the Lord implies, but even this small amount of food is a gift from God to be offered back to Him; God multiplies our small contributions into great bounty for His own. Jesus thus ordered His Apostles, “Give them some food yourselves.” (51) The Twelve complied, and also organized the congregation into “groups of about fifty” (52). As in the parable of the talents, where the servants trade their master’s money for increased wealth, the Apostles were to gain greater responsibilities as recompense for their faithfulness. (53) Foreshadowing the institution of the Eucharist, (54) Jesus took “the five loaves and two fish, and looking up to Heaven, He said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. They all ate and were satisfied.” (55) In return, the Twelve would be entrusted with the government of the Church, united by Christ’s sacrifice of Himself on the Cross. While He strongly charged them not to speak of His upcoming suffering and death to those who would distort that message, Jesus predicted His final victory to the Twelve after St. Peter’s crucial recognition of His identity in spite of popular sentiment:

Then He said to them, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter said in reply, ‘The Messiah of God.’ He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone. He said, ‘The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.’ (56)

Our Messiah of God came to restore our unity with God, to bring us together like fragments of bread gathered  into baskets. Each Apostle became an equal trustee in fulfilling Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one” (57), as each of the Twelve received one basket of broken pieces, to be collected and offered back to Christ. In this symbolic reception of the totality of the Church, the Twelve truly began to understand who their Messiah was.

We pray for the grace to identify Christ in our world and in each other. Lord Jesus, we offer ourselves, Your Church, as a collection of broken pieces. In Your mercy may You, broken for us on the Cross, repair our sinful chaos and draw us into oneness in You as You send us forth to bear witness to Your Name.



The Summons hymn