‘You Are the Messiah’

The readings for Sunday, June 19, 2016, Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are Zechariah 12:10-11; 13:1; Galatians 3:26-29; and Luke 9:18-24.

Luke begins: “Once when Jesus was praying….” The “praying” is a Lucan touch. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus characteristically prays before important events or before a major decision. This tells us that Luke himself was a man of prayer. He instructs Christians to imitate Jesus in prayer. Luke will continue the emphasis on prayer in his Acts of Apostles.

It was time for Jesus to gather information from his disciples about how the people perceived him. He asks them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” First answer: John the Baptizer. Second answer: Elijah (9th century B.C. prophet). Third opinion: some ancient prophet had risen from the dead. Luke here repeats what he had already written earlier about Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee. Herod had the Baptizer executed. Luke writes in 9:7-8, “Herod…heard of all that was being done, and he was perplexed, because it was said that John had been raised from the dead; by some that Elijah had appeared; by others that one of the prophets of old had arisen. Herod said, ‘John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?’” Why does Luke here repeat Herod’s earlier question? Because the question, “Who is this…?” is about to be answered.

As far as we know, there was no popular expectation that the Baptizer would return from the dead, but Elijah is another matter. According to 2 Kings 2:11, this prophet had never died, but was wafted off to heaven in a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire. Since all human beings have to die, Elijah had to return someday and somewhere to die. As yet, no Elijah, although Luke 8:27 identifies John the Baptizer with the returned Elijah. Mark 9:13 and Matthew 17:12 do the same. Was there an expectation of the return from the dead of “one of the prophets of old?” There may be a hint of such a belief in 2 Maccabees 15:13-16.

The great moment is at hand — revelation of one identity of Jesus and the recognition of that identity by the leader of the apostolic group. Jesus no longer asks for the opinion of the crowds, but “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter speaks for the group, and by Luke’s time, for the whole Christian Community. “You are the Christ (Messiah) of God.” “Christ” and “Messiah” are the same title. The first is derived from Greek, the second from Hebrew. The meaning: “the anointed one,” an agent of God anointed by God to deliver the Jews from oppression, especially political and economic oppression which they were suffering under Roman occupation. This is the probable meaning in Luke’s context. He seems to want his readers and hearers to know that Simon Peter and his colleagues had this kind of understanding of the title “Messiah (Christ).” Otherwise, why would Luke have added that Jesus “rebuked them?”

Why would Jesus command them not to spread this information? Seems like a kind of publicity any political candidate would relish. Messiah (Christ) was too dangerous a title to have attached to oneself in Roman occupied Palestine. Revolts by would-be Messiahs were not uncommon even in the time of Jesus, and would become more common in the last third of the first Christian century. The title “Messiah” had overtones of Israelite/Jewish royalty. King David, who died about 961 B.C., was considered the apex of Israelite royalty. Prophets spoke of the rise of a new King David, for example, Jeremiah 30:9: Ezekiel 34:23-24.

The Lucan Jesus immediately corrects the false ideas about him being a political Messiah. Instead of dwelling on the title “Messiah,” he chooses the title Son of Man, (probably a safer title to suspicious Roman ears). Luke combines this title with prophetic oracles from Second Isaiah about a Servant of the Lord who suffers and dies for his people, whom God then exalts. Thus the first prediction of the Passion in the Gospel of Luke, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, but on the third day be raised.” As if that were not enough to curb the political ambitions of Peter and the disciples, (and of the future Church), Jesus makes his rebuke and correction very personal. What will happen to him can also happen to them. “If anyone wishes to follow me, let him take of his (own) cross daily and follow me.” In Jesus’ time and fifty years later this could mean actual crucifixion. Luke knows that this will not be the lot of every Christian. Therefore he gathers under the term “cross” the daily vexations, trials, troubles, and temptations Christian face in this life.