Jesus did not suffer from identity crisis, nor was he “image conscious,” as many of our politicians and movie stars are. When he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” he was not conducting a survey or a popularity poll. He knew well enough what people thought of him. It was his way of striking a conversation with his disciples. His real interest was in their answer to his second question, “Who do you say that I am?” Today’s gospel passage is part of the private instruction, which Jesus imparted to his disciples in order to reveal himself to them–and to them alone. Hence the injunction to strictly tell no one that he was the Christ.
What people were saying about Jesus was not bad at all; in fact it was very good. He was mistaken for great and holy people: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. (Of course, the apostles did not tell Jesus the negative things some people were saying about or against him; for instance, that he was out of his mind; that he was a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners; that he was possessed by Beelzebul, etc.). The people’s regard for Jesus, as told by the apostles, high as it was, ran short from reality: Jesus is much, much more than John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or any of the prophets.
Jesus then asked his apostles the same question: “Who do you say that I am?” Now it was Peter, inspired by the Spirit, who gave the right answer: “YOU ARE THE CHRIST, THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD.” Notice how, to the first question, all the apostles answered; but to the second, more personal question, only one did. It is always easier to talk about what others say and do than to talk about oneself.
Peter was richly rewarded for his right answer. This was definitely Peter’s finest moment: 1) He was praised and blessed by Jesus. 2) He was given a new name, signifying a new role or mission; before he was Simon, now he is Peter, meaning Rock—upon which Jesus will build his Church. 3) He was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, that is, the power to govern the Church and the authority to bind and to loose, namely, to declare what is right and what is wrong, what is allowed and what is forbidden. This is called the Magisterium of the Church, now exercised by the successor of Peter, in the spirit of service to the flock. Awesome powers given to a man—a simple fisherman at that! But then, the vigor of the Church comes, not from the strength or talent of Peter and his successors, but from Jesus’ firm promise: “The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”
Today, Jesus’ question is addressed to each one of us: “Who do you say that I am?” Who indeed is Jesus for me? What role does he play in my life, in my plans, in my decisions? What kind of relationship do I have with him? Do I relate to him as my Big Boss, my Lord, my King? Or do I rather relate with him as my Brother, my Friend, my Confidant?
The kind of answer we give to these questions is important; it may even determine the kind of spiritual life we live. If Jesus is for us an authority figure, then chances are that our Christian and spiritual life will be marked by respect, submission and fear. (One of the saddest things is to see very old people, who have been attending Mass and receiving the sacraments regularly for decades, being now tormented by the fear of hell.) However, if Jesus is my Brother, my Friend and my Confidant, then my spiritual life will be marked by joyful love. I will go to Mass, Sunday or no Sunday; obligation or no obligation. I will go even daily, if possible, because I enjoy being with my Brother and my Friend, talking and listening to him.