James 3:1-12 | Mark 8:27-33
Who is he?
By this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has become quite a public figure. You can’t go around for three years, preaching in the synagogues, healing the sick and the blind, feeding crowds of thousands, without people starting to talk. He’s probably quite the subject of gossip, the sort of person that everyone has an opinion about. But of course the nature of gossip is that the only person that we don’t hear about is ourselves.
So, Jesus asks… who do people say that I am.
And having made something last week of the fact that Jesus seemed to need to learn a lesson from the Syrian woman, here we seem to see something of the same again – Jesus seems to need to ask his disciples – because no one in the crowds is saying it to his face. Of course it might be a rhetorical device on Jesus’ part, but it feels to me like a genuine effort by Jesus to “take the temperature” of the crowds, to get a sense of what from his words has been heard, what conclusions the crowds are drawing from his teaching, his healing, his miracles.
And the answers are revealing. Who do people say he is? John the Baptist, or Elijah, or another of the prophets. And what do these people have in common? To answer that, we have to go back into the history of the people of Israel…
For from their very earliest days, there have been two great traditions within the Jewish faith, a pair of intertwined systems of belief that come to us in the phrase ‘the Law and the Prophets’.
And these two traditions, these two strands of understanding, each have, standing at their heads, a great figure from Jewish history. Indeed, in our very next passage in the gospel, Jesus will be seen meeting with these two giants of the Jewish faith, in the transfiguration, where Peter, James and John will see him speaking with Moses, the law giver, and Elijah, the figurehead of the prophets.
The Law, with its emphasis on purity, on observance of the rules, on keeping oneself apart from the sinful, unclean world, always lived in tension with the prophets, with their emphasis on justice, on compassion, on serving the poor and being a blessing to the world. Not to say that they were in contradiction with one another – for the prophets also spoke out against those who failed to keep the law – but they clearly emphasized different aspects of what it meant to be a faithful follower of the creator God, what it meant to keep to the Torah, the living law that encapsulated what it meant to be a good Jew.
By the time of Jesus these two traditions expressed themselves in two systems of life and worship. The law was the focus of the scribes and the priests, those who saw the Temple as the heart of their faith. The prophetic tradition lived on in the synagogues, in the teaching of those whose life of worship was removed from the Temple, at least on a day to day basis.
So what does this ancient history have to do with the gossip about Jesus? Simply this: the answers given, for who Jesus might be, all come from the same tradition. Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, others another of the prophets. They are all of the prophets.
And once you notice that, you see the pattern again and again in the gospels. Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath? – I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners. – The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Over and again, Jesus comes down on the side of justice, the side of compassion, on the side of humanity, over against the side of law and purity.
And Peter’s final declaration of faith – you are the Messiah – is confirmation of this pattern. Because Peter’s statement isn’t radically different from that of the people. Everyone has seen that Jesus stands in the tradition of the prophets, and in that tradition there was only one name greater than Elijah, and that is the Messiah. It was the prophets who declared that another great King, a King in the line of David, a King who would reign forever, would come; it was from the words of the prophets that the expectation of Messiah had arisen. In declaring Jesus as the Messiah, Peter isn’t so much contradicting the judgment, the guesses, of the people, as he is going beyond them; naming Jesus not just as a prophet, one sent by God, but as the one sent by God.
Out of these two great strands of Jewish thought – the Law, with its regulations, its definitions of who is in and who is out, its strictures on what activities are clean and unclean – and the Prophets, with their demand for justice for the poor and the oppressed, for the fair treatment of slaves and widows and orphans and foreigners – Jesus is identified with the tradition of the prophets.
And it is unimaginably important that we, in the twenty first century, understand this. Because we too, in the Christian Church, have the same two traditions running through our history. We too have had great figures who wanted to emphasize that Christians are different from the heathen, that we should keep ourselves apart, that we should make sure that we live lives of purity – not smoking, not drinking, not going to clubs or playing cards, or a thousand other rules and regulations designed to ensure that the Christian remains unsullied by the sinful world. That is the tradition of the Jewish Law, carried over into the Christian Church.
And we have had great figures who argued that the role of the Church, and of Christians, is to stand in the prophetic tradition; to speak out for the powerless, to refuse to accept the status quo when that status quo is abusive of minorities, immigrants, women, children, the disabled. To say that the kingdom of God is at hand when the hungry are fed, the sick are cared for, the stranger made welcome. That is the tradition of the Jewish prophets, carried over into the Christian Church.
And when we find those two traditions in tension in our own lives, in our families, in our Churches; when the desire to keep ourselves holy gets in the way of our ability to reach out into the world; then let us remember that we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the one who spoke with sinners, who was embraced by prostitutes, who dined with drunkards. Everyone who met him saw Jesus as standing in the tradition of the prophets.
But perhaps in the end, for Jesus, there was no conflict between these traditions. The Law did not demand that Jesus keep himself apart from the world – indeed, it was his understanding of the Law, that drove him out amongst the poor, the needy, the sinful, the unclean. The Law that could be summed up as ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself’ did not allow Jesus to stay separate from a sinful world, but bade him go, get his hands dirty, share his life. The challenge of the prophets did not allow him the luxury of simply knowing that he was right, that he was ok with God, that he was good; it demanded that he set aside that luxury and take up instead the path of love, of radical hospitality, of self giving; the path that would lead him inexorably to the suffering that he began to teach – the suffering that Peter was so unwilling to hear of.
Love bade him go. Love bids us go. For love is the fulfilling of the law.