Who Do You Say That I Am?

Jesus-Face

The gospels record several very pointed,  poignant, and powerful questions that Jesus ingenuously asked of those around him. Consider Luke 18:8b—“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Or again, Luke 6:46—“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I tell you?” And from this Sunday’s lectionary gospel of Matthew, “Who do you say that I am?”

Good questions, all of them, designed (I suspect) to put us on the spot and keep us honest. Dangerous questions, all of them, because they unrelentingly cut to the existential core of our relationship with the divine—the self-disclosure of God in Jesus of Nazareth and our response to that disclosure.

The great Trappist spiritual writer Thomas Merton once remarked that we should never underestimate our ability to deceive ourselves. Taken seriously, Jesus’ questions cut through our self-serving self-deceptions and leave us wonderfully vulnerable to the transforming, enlivening presence and power of God.

Whoever takes these questions with great, existential seriousness will discover for her or himself exactly what the writer to the Hebrews was getting at when he declared: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).  Risky business, surfacing the thoughts and intentions of our hearts, letting the word of God—the questions of Jesus—do their work on us. Risky, perhaps painful, but finally deeply inspiriting and life giving.

Before asking the dangerous question, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked his followers the safe question, “Who do others say that I am?” Safe because to answer it required no conviction, no commitment, and no risk. All it requires to answer the safe question is a bit of curiosity, or perhaps cynicism.

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