by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
If newspapers as we know them only date to the 17th Century, how did the earliest followers of Jesus find out what was going on? Had there been such thing as the Nazareth News, it wouldn’t have lasted because very few people of that era knew how to read. So how did the disciples stay on top of things? Simple: word of mouth has never gone out of style!
That’s what occurs to me as I reflect on Sunday’s Gospel reading. Jesus’ query, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” could just as easily have come from a 21st Century opinion pollster as it does from him. Puzzling as it may seem that Jesus referred to himself in the third person as “the Son of Man,” the disciples often heard Jesus use this title. On one occasion, when a would-be follower claimed, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus answered, “Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
The fact that literacy wasn’t widespread hardly means the disciples were unfamiliar with the Scriptures. That’s because word of mouth wasn’t just about the local news. It was also the way people handed on their sacred traditions as living word and living memory. When they heard “son of man,” the disciples knew this was how the heavenly voice addressed Ezekiel, emphasizing the prophet’s fragile mortality.
Taking the pulse of popular opinion, Jesus learned that some people thought he was “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” With the hindsight that faith offers, we might shake our heads at these wrong guesses. Giving credit where it is due, though, they recognized the continuity between Jesus and what God had accomplished in the ministry of the prophets.
No mere pollster and so much more than a prophet, Jesus pressed further: “But who do you say that I am?” Speaking up for himself and his companions, Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” For this he gets his very own beatitude: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”
Recognizing Jesus as God’s anointed Son wasn’t an insight at which this Galilean fisherman arrived by his own lights. It was a matter of divine revelation, but Jesus didn’t go into detail about what that meant. Prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel shared the dazzling visions they were privileged to receive. They and other prophets regularly prefaced their proclamations with “Thus says the Lord,” making it clear that the words they spoke were not of their own making, nor were their messages delivered on their own initiative.
Peter didn’t see the Lord God seated on the heavenly throne, nor did he hear the seraphim cry out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,” as Isaiah did, nor did he see the dry bones restored to life as Ezekiel did. Yet he did see the marvelous works of Jesus first-hand, even witnessing the healing of his own mother-in-law. Awe-inspiring as these miracles were, they didn’t tell the whole story. After all, those who identified Jesus as “one of the prophets” also saw what Jesus did.
What’s different about Peter is that he wasn’t a one-time witness to just a single miracle. Along with the others Jesus called to follow him, he spent every day in the presence of the One whom John’s Gospel calls the Word-made-flesh, the embodiment of God’s merciful love. With that great privilege came serious responsibility because the revelation Peter received wasn’t a private perk of discipleship. The apostle who left boat and nets behind to follow Jesus became the rock on which the Church’s faith was founded, entrusted with handing on what he received, the life-giving Gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God. That will always be good news!
Readings for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 22: 19-23
Psalm 138: 1-2, 2-3, 6, 8
Romans 11: 33-36
Matthew 16: 13-20
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.