“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks the disciples.
He springs this question on them like a teacher administering a pop quiz. We might imagine their shocked expressions and their thinking. “Darn! I didn’t do my homework last night! Just WHO is this guy?”
Today’s gospel story places us at mid-point in the pithy Gospel of Mark. For the past eight chapters, Jesus has preached, taught and healed in a whirlwind tour of both Jewish and Gentile territory. He has cast out unclean spirits, healed Peter’s mother-in-law, a leper and a paralyzed man. He has eaten with tax collectors and other sinners, defying Sabbath law.
He has stilled stormy seas, healed a demoniac, raised a little girl from the dead, stopped the flow of blood in a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years, and — oh, yes — fed a crowd of 20,000 people a lovely fish and crusty sourdough bread supper. Now that’s catering!
Last week, just before today’s snap question, Jesus heals the daughter of a very savvy gentile woman and then a man who was deaf and mute. His activities are so frenzied and his pronouncements about who’s embraced in God’s economy are so counter-cultural to the norms of the day that it leaves both his disciples and his adversaries’ heads swimming.
After his disciples have witnessed all he has done, he asks them, “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter hits the nail on the head. "You are the Messiah,” he says.
But suddenly there is a paradigm shift. As Jesus begins to explain that being the Messiah entails suffering, rejection and death, Peter becomes horrified. “That’s not the Messiah I want!’ he thinks. “Not the Messiah I signed up for when you said ‘follow me.’”
Peter vociferously voices his objections. He takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. But Jesus is having none of it. He is undeterred from what he knows his mission and message to be. He rebukes Peter and says, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
When Jesus rebukes Peter, he is harsh but also brutally honest. In that honesty Jesus is saying, “Peter, you were right when you answered my question, saying I am the Messiah. Now you’re wrong. I cannot be that Messiah you envision and want — that warrior king who will raise up an army to overthrow Roman oppression. That is not who I am. That expectation of messiah is only to add to the violence, misery, suffering and death that already plague the world. Frankly, that image of messiah is to be no Messiah at all. I can only be the Messiah that God the Father intends me to be — the one who proclaims good news to the poor, heals the broken-hearted, gives the blind new sight, breaks the bonds of those who are persecuted and proclaims God's favor to all God’s children. It is only this Messiah that will save and redeem the world and all its brokenness.”
Theology professor Micah D. Kiel says this about the exchange between Jesus and Peter. “[It is] about identity and expectations . . . it is important that we realize that these issues are not locked in the past. This was not only a problem for the disciples or those early Christians to whom Mark is writing. Mark profiles a deeper dynamic that spans the ages: how are human knowledge and expectations in tension with the aims of God? We know the way things are, how they are supposed to go. If we believe God is active and that Jesus is alive in the world, then the question posed to us is not whether we confess Jesus as the Messiah. That is the easy part. We know what the title is. The question becomes how do we misunderstand what the title means? How do our expectations not align with God’s?”
The image of two-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down in the sand of a Turkish beach is seared in my mind. Aylan has become the brutal, heart-rending image of the masses of refuges fleeing war-torn and economically devastated nations in the Middle East and Africa, seeking a safer and better life in the very prosperous nations of Northern and Western Europe. The desperate conditions these refugees have endured in their own troubled nations, and then at the hands of nefarious smugglers, are appalling and heart-rending.
This past week, we saw a significant change in how Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and England are dealing with the crisis pressing in on the EU’s southern borders and streaming north. These EU nations, and others, have in compassion, raised the number of people they will admit into their societies, especially those fleeing Syria. Even the United States has agreed to take 10,000 refugees into our embrace.
But the reality is, this is only a stopgap measure. And in some ways, it actually will exacerbate the refugee problem, as those people in nations torn by war, strife and hunger will be encouraged to undertake the treacherous journey for more prosperous shores, so that they and their children may also have a safer, better way of life. Who can blame them?
Which one of us would not do the same if we were in a similar predicament?
But not every person from countries rent by war, violence, famine, or despotic rulers can flee to a place that is that safer or wealthier. That is not possible, and even if it were would only add to the current chaos, fear and despair, both for the refuges and the host nations working to absorb them. While we must be compassionate and aid those who have fled, there is a greater task at hand. Compassion is not enough.
That greater task is to strive to alleviate the horrific situations in those places where people are desperate to flee from. We need to work to make those places habitable and economically secure for their native populations. Therein lies the crux of the problem. It is because they have NOT done that work, that the prosperous nations of the world find themselves facing this refuge crisis. And we face this problem because our expectations of how the world should work clearly do not align with how God expects the world to work.
Europe is overwhelmed with Middle Eastern and African refugees, and the United States is overwhelmed by Central American refugees, precisely because we have ignored the message of Jesus, the Messiah God has sent into the world for its’ salvation and redemption.
God created a world that overflows with abundance. In the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, the object lesson is that when people are hungry or in need, God has provided enough for all, with plenty left over. The world we live in is not one of scarcity where we have to hoard everything for ourselves; it is one of overflowing abundance.
We in the wealthy nations have ignored this message and in so doing we have rebuked God. Instead, we have turned to a false god who preaches a prosperity message for the few, and who allows the strong to exercise dominion over the earth’s resources to the detriment of all others. Following this god, we in the prosperous nations have frequently designed our foreign and diplomatic policies to feed that lust for wealth and power by supporting despotic regimes that allowed us to plunder those nations for their natural resources. And we did this despite the suffering wrought upon native populations as a result of our doing so.
Our belief in a false messiah has led us to this juncture of the refugee crisis. We may try to pass this off as good economic and diplomatic policy, and we may try to pass it off as God’s will, but it is neither. It is a false expectation. Our false expectations lead to what theologian Walter Brueggemann calls “the extraction system.” This is a system run by the economic and political elites who do all in their power to extract every last bit of resource they can out of the rest of the world’s population to satisfy their own greed and lust. And while the extraction system is a lot of things, it is definitely not of God.
When we rebuke God to be the way we want - which is as a warmonger, or an enabler of our sinful behaviors, or worse yet, as a benign entity who lets us do as we please - and we do not live in the manner that God calls us to in Jesus, we suffer the consequences. God’s will won’t be thwarted and we pay the price.
This is an object lesson Jesus is teaching us when he asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
This question will be increasingly asked of us as the globe grows flatter. This question will compel us to examine our behaviors of wanton consumption, greed and dismal stewardship of the earth. It will be asked of us as we determine who we will vote for to lead us in the halls of government. It will be asked of us as we confront the growing economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots in our own country.
How we respond to Jesus’ question is of critical importance. In God’s reign, we are called to work for justice and peace for all God’s people, recognizing the Christ in every human being. The messiah we follow will determine our ability to do that and the lives we lead. And not just our lives but all lives.
When Jesus asks you, “Who do you say that I am,” what will your answer be?
By setting our mind on divine things, not on human things, we will be led to the right answer. Then, and only then, justice and peace for all God’s children will prevail.
 https://www.workingpreacher.org, “Commentary on Mark 8:27-38,” September 13, 2015