“Who do you say that I am?”
Those are the words presented in this Sunday’s lectionary from Mark 8: 27-38. Jesus is with his disciples when he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” When they answer that people are calling him John the Baptist, Elijah, or a great prophet, Jesus queries further and asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” The emphasis is on the word you.”
Whenever one interprets Scripture, it is important to recognize one’s own personal context. As I come to this scripture, I know two things about my context:
- I recognize that I am writing for my particular readership that is comprised of people who are committed to the Presbyterian Church and people who are not associated with institutional religion but who do think of themselves as being spiritual or faithful to the tradition of Jesus, and;
- That I am writing within a context where all of us (religious and spiritual alike) are unified by our struggle to stay mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy in this time of tremendous disorientation and disruption.
One of my non-Presbyterian, spiritually-centered readers reminded me that this decision to “go back” to Scripture was probably more of a going forward as “one never enters the same river twice,” as he put it (you can see that he looks at life through a spiritual lens). He is right. In this “return” to Scripture I cannot but help to read it with new eyes because I am not the same person I was yesterday, one year ago, or ten years ago.
That became obvious to me as I wrestled with this particular scripture text. I immediately recognized that Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am” had at least two very different readings. For Christians, we often assume that this text is about seeing if the disciples see “the real Jesus.” Do they understand that Jesus is not just some run of the mill prophet, but actually the long-awaited Messiah?
But I don’t think that is the only way that this text needs to be understood. In fact, it was recognizing that my readership is much broader than the church-going audience that opened me up to. It is just as likely that Jesus was asking, “How do you perceive me? What is the lens through which you look at people and at life?”
The fact of the matter is that many different people perceived Jesus in many different ways. In this text, the disciples explain to Jesus that some people see him as John the Baptist. Others see him as the return of Elijah. Still others consider him a great prophet. We also know from other texts that some saw him as a rebel. Still others as a political threat. And others as one who was demon-possessed.
Could it be that what Jesus is really asking is, “When you look at someone do you see them as an object of your desires? Do you see them as a threat to your status quo? Or do you see the face of God and the spark of divinity in that person?” What if this text is not about Jesus needing the disciples’ affirmation about his identity, but is about Jesus posing to the disciples and all of us the question, “What is the lens through which you look at life?”
This is a particularly tough time for all of us right now. Hundreds of thousands of people have died from COVID. Many people are reporting increased mental health challenges. The climate seems to be acting up and acting out in ways that are destroying communities through fire, heat, floods and hurricanes. And to top it all off we Americans are in an apparent pissing match over individual liberties and the common good.
I will admit that the lens through which I look at life these days is often through a protective, security first lens. I hear the news and I see threats to my personal and our community existence. I see the disruption in our lives and I grieve a status quo normalcy that I once took for granted. I watch the vitriol in our communities and I start placing all people in us and them categories. In other words, when Jesus seems to ask, “How do you perceive life,” I know that I am guilty of looking at life through the lens of threats and barriers rather than through the lens of some divine unfolding.
Honestly, I know that I can’t get there yet. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to dismiss the pain and grief and anger of this time for some dismissive, Polyannish, it-is-God’s-will, throw away line. Yet, I do want something that softens my eyes and gives me a lens where every person and every event is no longer seen as just another threat in time when crisis has been built on top of crisis. I do want something that helps me believe that there is an unseen goodness at work among us in this time of soulful tearing. I do want something that relieves me of the PTSD-like symptoms where my body and mind almost expect more trauma on a day to day basis.
Jesus lived in a world where some people saw him as a threat, others as a rebel, still others as demon-possessed. The disciples revealed that some saw him as John the Baptist, Ezekiel and a great prophet. But Jesus said to those closest to him, “That’s all well and good. But, how do YOU see me? What is the lens through which you look at life?” The most faithful answered, “We see God at work in you. We see the face of God.”
Can we look at life right now the way the disciples looked at Jesus?
It feels like a stretch.
But I am willing to try.
How about you?
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades