By Father Jean-Pierre M. Ruiz
As Catholic schools throughout our diocese opened their doors last week to welcome students back after the summer break, I found myself praying in gratitude for the teachers whose seemingly endless energy and generosity contributed so much to my own education.
I still gratefully remember each of my teachers by name, and even some of the classroom antics that they endured for the sake of my classmates and myself. To that I should add a confession in the most understated of terms, hoping none of those educators will hold it against me all these years later.
Here goes: When I got to high school, math wasn’t my favorite subject, nor was it my strongest subject and that’s putting the best possible spin on it, with all due respect to the brave and determined souls who outdid themselves in the effort to teach me algebra, geometry, trigonometry and so on.
Arriving at the Solution
That being said, my favorite math problems were the ones where we had to “show the work,” the problems where getting the right answer was not nearly as important as showing how we had arrived at the solution. It’s not that getting the right solution to the problem didn’t matter, but how we went about the problem-solving process was a far better indicator of how well we had learned to do math.
It was with all that in mind that we turn to this Sunday’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus asks His disciples a strange question as they journeyed villages of Caesarea Philippi: “Who do people say that I am?”
They answer, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.”
This wasn’t a test, much less a public opinion poll, and the answers reported by the disciples suggest that people were doing their level best to figure out who Jesus was and what He was up to. They pored over the Scriptures, and in the light of God’s Word, they pondered the words and deeds of this enigmatic Nazarene who healed their sick, forgave their sins and taught with unparalleled wisdom.
The Teacher from Nazareth probes further, asking “But who do you say that I am?” At this point, when it might seem that a nervous silence would overcome the disciples, Peter blurts out, “You are the Christ.”
Yes, that’s the right answer, but Jesus goes on to unpack what it really meant to be God’s Anointed One – rejection and suffering and death. It’s in the book, the book of the prophet Isaiah, that is, that God’s Anointed explains: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.”
That’s not quite what Peter had in mind, so he took Jesus aside and tried to teach the Teacher a lesson. But Jesus wouldn’t have it, and rebukes Peter right back in the strongest possible terms: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Getting the answer right wasn’t the point of Jesus’ question to His closest followers. He teaches, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
Winning by Losing
Learning to think as God does, Jesus tells us, is a matter of embracing the strange and awesome logic of the cross. That’s adding by subtracting, winning by losing and it simply doesn’t make sense according to the ways and wisdom of this world.
St. Paul got the point, exclaiming, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14), as we hear in this Sunday’s verse before the Gospel.
Figuring out who Jesus is and what it means that He truly is God’s Anointed One isn’t just a problem to be solved or a question to be answered. It is a mystery that invites us to enter more and more deeply, an invitation to discipleship that calls us to turn away from the alluring this-worldly logic of self-interest and self-indulgence.
The letter of James asks bluntly, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?”
More Than the Right Words
Faith is not a matter of getting the answers right, not a matter of mere words alone. There has to be more. Just as directly, James insists, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
I can hear each of my math teachers’ voices echoing across the years: Don’t just give me the answer to the problem! You won’t get any credit unless you show the work!
According to the logic of the cross, it all adds up. It’s a lesson that every disciple needs to review each and every day, a lesson that the Teacher Himself taught not by words alone but by the testimony of his life-giving death.
Readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 50: 5-9A
Psalm 116: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
James 2: 14-18
Mark 8: 27-35
Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.