< August 24, 2008 >

Commentary on Matthew 16:13-20


As they enter the area of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples two questions.

The first: "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And the second: "But who do you say that I am?" The disciples answer the first question by listing a few names from the past; John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jeremiah.  Peter answers the second question: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." We know this is the right answer, because the narrator told us this in the first sentence of Matthew's gospel story. Jesus confirms it by praising Peter's insight and bestowing upon him "the keys of the kingdom." But the answer is just the beginning.

Jesus' response to Peter indicates that his identity as Messiah is not obvious by way of human insight. This is worth noting since present day Christians may understandably take Peter's answer as apparent. We read backwards through the lens of historic creeds and well-developed christologies, and Christian faith confirms Peter's answer is the truth about Jesus. But according to Matthew, the answer is a matter of Peter's discernment of divine revelation and not obvious to "flesh and blood."

In first-century Judaism, there was no single understanding of "messiah." The Hebrew mashiah, from which we get the English "messiah," means "anointed." A messiah was one anointed by God for a special purpose. A messiah could be a prophet or a king, perhaps a warrior, or perhaps not.  The promise of the Kingdom of God may or may not have involved a messianic figure. Jews interpreted the messianic expectations of the scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) in relationship to historical context. Then, like now, faithful people interpreted the scriptures differently, and there were diverse understandings of how God's anointed one would act for Israel's sake. In the gospel narrative, Peter identifies Jesus as Messiah, but the meaning of that role has yet to be revealed. It is one thing to perceive a messianic vocation. It is another matter to know precisely how the vocation will evolve, since that vocation is lived out in human history.

The Gospel of Matthew was written shortly after the failed Jewish revolt against Rome. In the wake of the destruction of the Temple and devastation of Jerusalem, God's promises to Israel were at stake. Questions arose: Where do we see God in our midst? What is the future of the covenant relationship between God and Israel? The gospel writers represent voices from within this post-war formative period during the last two decades of the first century. This is the context in which the meaning of Jesus as Messiah was being worked out. In other words, the gospel story reflects a post-resurrection perspective.

Reading this story, as though a report of Jesus' messianic self-understanding and Peter's recognition of it, will miss preaching possibilities that arise when the text is read from the perspective of the gospel writer's context. For example, the disciple's response to Jesus' first question is worth considering. The disciples answer by naming people who are dead. John the Baptist, a contemporary of Jesus; Elijah, a harbinger of the messiah and of the role John the Baptist plays in the gospel stories; Jeremiah (a favorite in Matthew), or one of the prophets. Perhaps John represents the spirit of a movement that Herod could not kill despite John's beheading. Elijah represents the hope of divine activity for Israel's sake. The prophets delivered God's word with its creative power. The disciples' answer implies the perception that divine creative power is stirring that the imperial powers of Rome cannot kill.1  What that divine creativity looks like must be discerned as it unfolds.

The lectionary splits this story in the middle and assigns the parts to successive Sundays. The division is unfortunate as each part assumes knowledge of the other. Preachers may choose to preach on the whole story on one of the Sundays and choose a different lectionary appointment on another. It also would be possible preach two sermons on the whole narrative; there is more than one sermon in this one! Another option is to work with the lectionary division as I am doing here.

This Sunday's lection ends with Jesus' order to the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah. According to common wisdom, the so-called "Messianic Secret" originated with the author of Mark. Matthew and Luke often omit the admonition to secrecy where it occurs in Mark, but in this case they include it. There are several explanations concerning the secrecy motif, but one important observation is that the order to secrecy did not originate with Jesus. So here we consider the meaning of Jesus' admonition to secrecy within the story as the author of Matthew chooses to tell it.

The answer is just the beginning. Peter gives the right answer, but the meaning of Jesus' identity as messiah is not yet revealed. The answer to the first question connects God's creative power in the present to other moments in Israel's history. How it will unfold in the present time has yet to be discerned. Jesus' response to Peter confirms that the answer is not obvious to human sight. The stern order to secrecy implies that what the answer looks like in this time and place requires discernment.

This reading of the gospel narrative lends itself well to encouraging Christians in our own contexts to engage in this kind of discernment. Where do we see the creative movement of God stirring among us? Where do we see the work of the Kingdom that the imperial powers of our own day cannot destroy?  Where do we see the Messiah in the face of suffering? What does it mean, in concrete and specific terms, to proclaim the good news of Jesus the Messiah in our communities, our work, our nation, our world? The conviction that Jesus is Messiah is the place to begin. Then we consider in light of this conviction how we live in faith that our Messiah is present among us in these days.

1Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storytellers Commentary Year A (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2007) p. 202.