XII Pentecost, Year A
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land." Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live." But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?" The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them." So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live."
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, "This must be one of the Hebrews’ children," she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, "Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?" Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, "Yes." So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, "Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages." So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, "because," she said, "I drew him out of the water."
Thus says the Lord:
"Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
you that seek the LORD.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
but I blessed him and made him many.
For the LORD will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the LORD;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.
Listen to me, my people,
and give heed to me, my nation;
for a teaching will go out from me,
and my justice for a light to the peoples.
I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
my salvation has gone out
and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me,
and for my arm they hope.
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens will vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment,
and those who live on it will die like gnats;
but my salvation will be forever,
and my deliverance will never be ended."
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
When I first read this passage I thought, ‘how am I going to interpret this in the light of mimetic theory?’ My head was stuck round interpretations of Peter as the first pope, which parts of the text were authentic to Jesus and which parts were Matthean, the halakic nature of binding and loosing, etc., when it struck me. I was surprised that I had not seen it before. I have a series of interpretive suggestions to make, therefore, regarding this text. They are also of importance in the light of our contemporary situation.
What is Jesus asking the disciples? He is inquiring about perceptions, interpretations of himself by others (an instance where Son of Man = I). He is asking them about their hermeneutic. He had done this also at the end of the previous narrative about the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. There evidently was a way of thinking theologically that Jesus perceived of as dangerous.
So, the people perceive Jesus to be a great prophet. Peter on the other hand says that Jesus “is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Yet, at the end of our text, while Jesus admonishes the disciples not say anything about this messiahship, he does not tell them that they cannot perceive and speak about him as the Son of the Living God. Why does Jesus do this? Is this the so-called ‘messianic secret?’
The very next paragraph indicates that a distinction is to be made between the two designations Messiah and Son. Peter’s views of messiah were informed by and conformed to popular expectations which we can read about from the Dead Sea Scrolls or 1 Enoch or 1 Maccabees, Daniel, Josephus and Acts. His view of messiah was that of a powerful conqueror. It is Peter who will take up the sword in Gethsemane.
In the following pericope (next week’s lesson) it is Peter who is rebuked as a satanic ‘skandalon’, the one who puts forth a model, a violent model, for Jesus to follow. Jesus utterly rejects this. And this is why Jesus commands the disciples not to say anything about messiahship, because they have it wrong. The ‘messianic secret’ ought to renamed ‘Jesus concern for the disciples’ misunderstanding.’
I have a feeling that there is meant to be a pause between Christ. . . and Son of the Living God. It is as if these last words come after hesitation. Jesus chuckles (‘blessed are you’) because he knows that Peter has got part of it right, he is the Son of the Living God and it is this last that is revealed by God to Peter. Yet not the whole confession, for what do a retributive messiah and a forgiving Child of God have in common?
Therefore the founding confession that is the bedrock of the church is that of the positive mimesis of Jesus; the revelation of his being the Son of the heavenly Abba.
In addition to the commentaries, I have also benefited from Oscar Cullmann’s Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr.
Jack Dean Kingsbury notes the strategic importance of confessing Jesus as the ‘Son of the Living God’:
“Within the ground plan of his gospel, Matthew employs the story of the Walking on the Water to prepare for the story of Peter’s Confession (16:13-20). This pericope, in turn, is as pivotal to a proper grasp of Matthew’s Son-of-God Christology as is that of Jesus’ thanks giving to the Father (11:25-27).
Uppermost in this story is the question of the true identity of Jesus, and the broad context in which it is placed is that of the history of salvation. The concept of Jesus in vogue among ‘men’ is that he is John the Baptist or one of the notable prophets come back to life. Peter, however, proclaims the true identity of Jesus: He is the Messiah in the sense that he is the Son of the Living God of history.
In confessing Jesus as the Son of God, Peter reiterates the confession of the disciples in the boat (14:33). Still, at this point where that story leaves off this one continues, so that it possesses an added dimension: Matthew has Jesus respond to Peter’s confession with a benediction in which he asserts that such insight into the identity of his person is beyond human attainment and can be known only by the revelation of God (16:17). And when we take into account the rest of the text relating to the founding of the church (vss. 18-20), we recognize that Matthew’s intent with this pericope is to put across the message that Jesus is the decisive figure in the history of salvation and that divine revelation, which is imparted by God to Jesus’ disciples, is required in order to penetrate the mystery of his person. This message, in turn, confirms our previous observations that the most exalted confession of Matthew’s church is that Jesus is the Son of God and that this title is one which is inaccessible to the ‘public.’” (Matthew: Structure, Christology, Kingdom (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975).
If the suggested lines of inquiry in the Anthropological Reading hold water, it seems to me that a key text in our own ecclesial self understanding takes on valuable importance today. For today it is clear that far too many Christians believe Jesus to be a retributive messiah, a violent messiah, a bloody messiah. They also confess Jesus to be the Son of the Living God, but like Peter, they have mixed two separate realities, not realizing that the latter is the transformation of the former.
I cannot think of any more important conversation for the church to be having today than that of discerning who Jesus is from the New Testament. I cannot conceive of anything more critical to our spirituality and discipleship than asking “Who is the Jesus we follow?” I believe that perceiving Jesus in the light of positive mimesis will inevitably yield a non-resistant, forgiving Jesus. As Jesus has imitated the heavenly Abba, this also says something crucial about our theology and the way we use Trinitarian language. It says volumes about God.
Who do we say Jesus is?