Who Do You Say I Am?
Homily for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 23, 2020
An ancient story is told about a Japanese tea master who was a traveling companion of one of the greatest samurai on a journey to a distant city. The samurai was honored not only for his courage and skill but also for his wisdom and understanding. His reputation was held in high esteem, and he was honored even in the distant city.
The tea master was in awe of the samurai, seeing the respect paid him. And so, while the samurai was asleep the tea master snuck into his room, took his armor and put it on. He then went about the city, where the people greatly honored him, and he felt it was possible for him really to be a samurai.
At this time, however, another samurai was living in the region. He had a reputation for being a bully and for being cruel and dangerous. He heard of the wise samurai’s arrival and went out to find him. The cruel samurai quickly found the other samurai, not realizing that it was only the tea master, and challenged him to a duel.
Ashamed and horrified, the tea master returned, took off his armor, woke the sleeping wise samurai and explained what he had done. The wise and understanding samurai forgave the tea master but told him sternly that he would have to meet the challenge. The wise samurai then asked the tea master to prepare a proper tea ceremony while he thought of a way to defeat the cruel samurai. He was deeply moved by the profound skill and attention of the tea master. He then told the tea master that he would face the cruel samurai, not as a samurai, but rather as a tea master.
So the next day at the appointed time the two men met for the challenge. The cruel samurai appeared in his armor, which made him very frightening. The tea master, on the other hand, came dressed in his ceremonial robes, and at once began a tea ceremony. The cruel samurai laughed at the sight, but soon observed the skill, concentration and discipline of the master of the tea ceremony. He thought, “If he prepares a simple tea ceremony with such skill and precision, how great a swordsman he must be!” The cruel samurai, thoroughly scared, prostrated himself on the ground, removed his sword, and begged forgiveness and mercy for his arrogance. The tea master forgave him and quickly left the city. He then thanked the wise samurai for helping him to know and to accept who he was.
Today’s gospel reading has to do with the identity of Jesus and how he was perceived by others, especially his closest followers. When asked who his disciples thought he was, Peter quickly gave the correct answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus commends Peter for his insight and states that Peter’s knowledge was based on a revelation from heaven. Immediately following this passage, Jesus goes on to reveal that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly there at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and to be put to death, and raised up on the third day.” At this, Peter tries to correct Jesus, saying, “May you be spared, Master! God forbid that any such thing ever happen to you!” Jesus then accuses Peter of being a satan, trying to make him trip and fall because he was “not judging by God’s standard’s but man’s” (see Matthew 16:21-23).
Peter’s problem was that he could not accept the idea of a Messiah who would be ridiculed, tortured, and be put to death like a common criminal. Instead, he expected Jesus to, as it were, put on the armor of a samurai, and do battle against the forces of evil, most notably the occupying Roman army. To Peter and the others, it must have seemed that Jesus was going to do battle against evil, sin and death, not with the sword of a noble samurai, but with a tea service!
How ironic, then, that at the crucifixion of Jesus, the Roman centurion remarks, “Clearly this was the Son of God!” This centurion, like the bully samurai, saw the noble, self-sacrificing manner of Jesus death, and surrendered to the beauty and the power that he saw. Jesus approached his death, not with the weapons of destruction and violence, but with the armor of love and compassion. And in the end he disarmed not just the centurion, but the power of evil, sin, and even death itself.
After many fits and starts, Peter came to know who Jesus was, and thus, who he himself was. He understood the wisdom of Jesus that God’s kingdom would not come by means of violence: “Put back your sword where it belongs. Those who use the sword are sooner or later destroyed by it” (Matthew 26:52).
The question posed to Peter and the others, is now placed before us. “Who do you say that I am?” The answer we give cannot be merely theoretical. As Peter found out, there are consequences. Jesus teaches, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and begin to follow in my footsteps. Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would a person show if he were to gain the whole world and destroy himself in the process?” (Matthew 16:24-26)
Throughout his ministry Jesus showed himself to be a servant leader. He taught that he had come, not to be served, but to serve. At the Last Supper he washed the feet of his disciples and taught them to follow his example. From the start of his ministry as Pope and successor of Peter, our Holy Father Francis has surprised the world on numerous occasions. Each Holy Thursday, for example, rather than washing the feet of twelve priests in a glorious setting at the Vatican, he has gone to youth detention centers and to prisons to wash feet. His first journey as Pope was to Lampedusa, a small island between Sicily and Africa, the point to which many refugees fleeing violence in their home countries would come, hoping for safety and a better life for their families. Unfortunately, many have died in the attempt. The Holy Father has repeatedly modeled the path of humble service, often going to the world’s poorest and most dangerous places in the hope of calling the world’s attention to those who are in most need. Like Jesus, he goes out to the peripheries, confronting evil and sin, not with an army, but with the power of love and compassion. And like Peter, he continually responds to who Jesus is by the power of his example, and not with mere words.
Like Peter, we may get an A+ for knowing the answer to his question, “Who do you say that I am?” You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. But the deeper implications of the question remain. If Jesus is our Messiah, our Lord and Savior, do we follow his example of self-sacrificing love and non-violent compassion, or do we place our trust in power, prestige and domination, like the cruel samurai?