24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Fr. Simham)
Christianity is not something theory but practice
There is a story told of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson on a camping trip. As they lay sleeping one night, Holmes woke Watson and said, “Watson, look up into the sky and tell me what you see.” Watson said, “I see millions of stars.” Holmes asked, “And what does that tell you?” Watson replied, “Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets in the universe. Theologically, it tells me that God is great and that we are small and insignificant creatures. Meteorologically, it tells me that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. And what does it tell you?” Holmes answered, “It tells me that someone stole our tent. That is why we can see stars” Some people are great at speculative knowledge but when it comes to its implication for practical living they score zero. Such is Peter in today’s gospel.
Scholars tell us that the passage we had for today’s gospel is the central passage in Mark’s Gospel. The first half of the Gospel leads up to this passage, and the second half of the gospel flows from it. From the beginning of the Mark’s Gospel up to this point, it has been a preparation for the revelation of the secret of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, in this passage the Messianic secret is revealed, and from here to the end of the Gospel, it deals with the fulfilment of Jesus’ mission as the Messiah. What we have in this passage is Jesus examining his disciples to see whether they have got the point. The examination is in two parts: a doctrinal-theological and a practical-existential part.
The first part focuses on the questions: Who do the people say that I am? And “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29a). In typical theological fashion, they have to summarize what others have said on the issue before giving their own views. Peter, spokesperson for the apostles gives the pointed and correct answer: “You are the Messiah” (verse 29b). The importance of this moment of disclosure is brought out more in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus congratulates Peter, assuring him that this knowledge is a direct revelation from God. Then he rewards Peter, whose name until then was Simon, by giving him the name Peter, meaning Rock; and promises that upon this rock he, Christ, would build his church and that the powers of hell would not prevail against this church. That is the end of the first half of the examination, the theoretical, theological, doctrinal part; and Peter emerges in flying colours.
The second half of the examination has to do with the practical, existential implications of the conclusion they reached in the first part. “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (verse 31). At this point Peter disagrees vehemently with Jesus. Even though he scored 100% in the doctrinal part of the exam, he shows by his actions that, in fact, he knows nothing of the practical implications of what he had said. What it means to be the Messiah. So Jesus gives him a thumbs down. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (verse 33). The Rock who came out in flying colours in the doctrinal section of the exam ends up as the Satan in the practical section, which is really the determining section.
This must have been a big shock for Peter, and it should for us too. For we are very much like Peter, paying too much attention to doctrinal correctness and too little attention to practical life correctness. We are good at professing our faith. Saying our prayers and receiving the sacraments. But when it means to the question of following Jesus and following what he said, we have our own ideas of following him. We pick and choose. We choose those things that are less demanding and less costly. When Jesus says ‘following him means taking up the cross, we say ‘No’. When Jesus says following him means doing something, we say ‘it is difficult.’ We are more of a professing Christians than professional Christians. Christianity or our faith has less role to play in our professions, business and our day today behaviour. This is what St. James is arguing in the second reading. How can you prove your faith without good works without living your faith?
In the parable of the Last Judgment also, Jesus reveals that we are judged more by how we have practised the faith than by how we have believed. Of course, both are important, but practical life has the priority. Let us ask God today to make us solid as the rock in our profession of the true faith, but even more so in our practical commitment to the demands of the faith in our daily lives.
Fr. Showreelu Simham