When the Gospel is Me
It was last Sunday. We were attending Mass in a strange town, and the Gospel was taken from St. Matthew (16:13-20). Christ asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” It is a passage Catholics typically remember because it ends with a powerful ecclesiastical statement: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
Strangely, the homily was presented as a point-by-point exposition of this text, but it was really about something else entirely. The priest preferred to “get into Jesus” from his human side. What Our Lord was essentially concerned with in this passage, he said, was to ask his disciples, “How am I doing?” After all, “he had to figure things out as he went along,” and so he asked them a question which was prompted by a very human anxiety. Like Christ, Peter was also very aware of his own inadequacies, but he had been strengthened immeasurably by the fact that Christ had compassion on him in spite of his faults. According to our homilist, Peter recognized Jesus as “the Son of the living God” because of His compassion toward Peter. Our Lord in turn found encouragement in Peter’s answer (and in the mutual compassion which engendered it). Hence the Church was built on the “rock of compassion” and the primary mission of each Christian is to be compassionate.
I have no quarrel, of course, with compassion. It is indeed an important Christian characteristic, a wonderful ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, to suffer along with the other, to forge bonds of solidarity in our common struggle toward goodness and truth. No, I have no problem with compassion at all, except that this gospel passage has nothing whatsoever to say about it. As any schoolboy knows, this passage is about Christian faith--about the proper understanding of who Jesus is that comes only through faith: “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
The entire Christian tradition, beginning with the Fathers of the Church, interprets this passage as an exposition of the importance of Faith in the very constitution of the Church. The passage gives us Peter's expression of faith, Christ's affirmation of that faith (and of its source), and Christ's promise to build the Church on Peter as the bastion (rock) of faith: “The powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18-19). In another passage, Jesus makes this even more explicit: "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren" (Lk 22:31). But clearly this particular homilist wanted to talk about compassion; apparently compassion is his particular thing. So he simply forced the text to say what he wanted it to say. He might as well have proclaimed, “The Gospel is me.”
While we’re on the subject, perhaps a word is in order about this notion that Christ was uncertain or insecure and had to make it all up as he went along. All Catholics need to remember that Christ’s two natures (human and divine) are joined in one divine Person. In other words, considered as a person, Jesus is God. When we refer to Jesus by the personal pronoun “He”, we are referring to a divine Person, that is, to God the Son, who took on a human nature. When we say that “He” was uncertain or anxious or confused, we mean that God was uncertain or anxious or confused. Which is to say that we mean nonsense.
Jesus Christ was not a human person; he was a divine Person with a human nature. As a result, even in his human nature He beheld the beatific vision at all times. While through His human nature He could experience new things, grow after the human fashion, and even suffer and die, that human nature was at all times a component of a divine Person, a “He” who perfectly understood His mission, who knew what He was about. Thus the Gospels frequently refer to Our Lord’s knowledge of Himself, His mission, the future, and the thoughts and dispositions of others, but they never portray Him as bewildered, uncertain or out of His depth.
Because He never was. The first task of the Christian is to put his faith in this unconfused Christ who is God. We are called to respond to Jesus' Gospel, not our own. Everything else, including compassion, follows from that.
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