Twelfth Sunday Year C – Introduction to a lectio divina on Lk 9,18-24
Luke usually presents Jesus at prayer before decisive moments in his ministry. On this occasion, Jesus asks his disciples about his identity, forcing them to take a position in public. This sudden interest in public opinion is in sharp contrast with his normal lack of concern about what people think. His disciples are challenged twice over – once because he is the one who is asking, and secondly because he asks them what they think about him as a person.
The response he receives is partly satisfactory. Now he can show them how he wants to be understood. After Peter’s profession of faith, he tells them that he must die if he is to be the Messiah they say he is. The disciples did not think that this could happen. They run the risk of imagining the Lord as they would like him to be, or as seems right and reasonable to them. Anyone who wants to be his follower must know that he will not escape unscathed. The cross awaits his followers. The episode foretells the path that Jesus will have to travel and shows very clearly what his disciples must do if they want to be faithful. They will have to share prayer and intimacy with Jesus to really get to know him. They will have to accept the cross, that of Jesus and their own, if they want to be sure of knowing him personally.
18 It happened that as Jesus was praying alone the disciples were with him; and he asked them, “Who do the people say that I am?” 19 And they answered, “John the Baptist; but others say, Elijah; and others, that one of the old prophets has risen.” 20 And he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” 21 But he charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, 22 saying, “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” 23 And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focusing on how it says it.
Before taking the decision to go to Jerusalem, “when the days drew near for him to be received up” (Lk 9,51), Jesus devoted his attention to preparing his disciples more intensely (Lk 9, 1-50). The first mission of the twelve had been a success (Lk 9, 1-6). It led to puzzlement on the part of Herod (Lk 9, 7 -9) and to an enormous desire on the part of the crowd to follow Jesus Lk 9, 10). He took advantage of the occasion to nourish them with his word (Lk 9,11) and with bread that he multiplied miraculously (Lk 9, 12-17). Now, alone with his disciples, Jesus questions them. He wants to know what people are saying about him (Lk 9,18) and what the disciples think of him (Lk 9,20). His time in Galilee is coming to an end. This examination of his closest disciples is intended to help him to gauge the results of his mission. The importance Luke attaches to this episode is obvious from the way it begins. Jesus was at prayer in the presence of his disciples when he questioned them. Both Mark and Matthew locate this incident at Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8,27; Mt 16, 13) but Luke places it in the context of a moment of solitude and prayer.
Luke usually links the decisive moments of Jesus’ ministry with times of prayer (Lk 3,21; 5,16; 6,12; 9,18,28-29; 11,2; 22,41.44-45; 23,46). It is quite significant that Jesus questions his disciples while he was speaking to God. His questions were not simply a matter of curiosity to know what people thought of him, but an act of piety before God. The examination was reduced to two questions: what did the people think of him (Lk 9,18) and what did the disciples think?
The order of the questions is not just by chance. The disciples should know what is being said about their master. And what was being said illustrates well the confusion that Jesus’ way of acting had given rise to among the people – great expectations, but uncertainty at the same time. The people saw Jesus as being like some of the well known people from the past and from the present (Lk 9,19). Only Peter, who spoke on behalf of the others, had something new to proclaim. He saw Jesus as God saw him, as God’s messiah (Lk 9,20).
Peter was forbidden to witness to the authentic faith he had just proclaimed. This is surprising, only if we overlook what Jesus said next.
Peter knew that Jesus was the Messiah, but he did not know yet what that meant. In the meantime, he must keep quiet about what he believed. If our faith in Jesus is to be genuine, we must accept the plan that God has for him. Anyone who does not think as God does, that the Messiah must suffer, cannot proclaim Jesus as the Messiah (Lk 9,22).
And that is not all! Luke notes that the last warning given by Jesus was addressed not only to the disciples but to all who were listening (Lk 9, 23-24). And now, for the first time, he makes following him a free choice (If any man would come after me…) because the conditions are almost impossible (Let him deny himself and take up his cross).
The cross, which neither God’s Messiah, nor his followers, are to be spared, is not freely chosen: is it the guarantee that the Master and his disciples belong to God.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
The disciples were surely the first to be surprised by the double question put by Jesus. They had been with him on his travels all through Galilee, seeing the miracles he worked, listening to his preaching, sharing times of work and times of rest. They must have known him well. They had spent so much time with him, and had got to know him so well, that surely they must have formed an idea of who he was and what his plans were. It was not for nothing that they followed him everywhere and had left everything they had for his sake. They were the people who were interested in Jesus, who frequently used to ask him about his ideas and his teaching. They never thought that one day Jesus would be interested in what others thought of him, nor indeed that he would want to know what they thought of him. It is interesting that Jesus asked the disciples what the people thought of him. They had been with him everywhere. He had as much chance as they had to know what the people thought!
Jesus must have had some reason for asking this question. The disciples should be interested in what the people thought of their Master. As Christians, we cannot go through life knowing well who Jesus is, and not caring what others think about him. Having a personal interest in Jesus, and knowing that he is the one sent by God, should lead us to ask ourselves if others share the knowledge and the love we have for him. A follower who is enthusiastic about his master is the best propagandist. A good disciple wants the whole world to become disciples.
Maybe our lack of interest in knowing whether others share our ideas about Jesus and our commitment to him, is the result of how little we know him and how little we appreciate him. If we have not formed an opinion of Jesus, then obviously we will not be interested in what others think of him. If we do not really love him, we will not suffer on account of the indifference towards him that surrounds us. We first need to be interested ourselves, if we are to arouse interest in others.
If we want to feel that we are disciples of Jesus today, we ought to pay heed to his question. We should remember that Jesus did not ask the crowd what they thought of him. He asked the disciples who were closest to him. In doing so, he gave them a masterly lesson, which is still relevant for us today. To be interested in him and have no interest in what others think of him, is just not worthy of a disciple. If we are interested in what others think and say of him, then we ourselves will continue to be interested in him, in his person and in his teaching. The indifference of his disciples is the reason why the Master is reduced to silence in today’s world. If we challenge the way of life of our contemporaries, not just by our words, but by the way we live, and cause them to ask questions about Jesus Christ who is the reason why we live the way we do, then we will be the kind of disciples Jesus wants to have at his side.
However, it is not enough to know what the people think. The disciples of Jesus had to reply personally to the question Jesus asked. One day, sooner or later, we will have to answer the question: “Who do you say that I am? Who am I for you?” Maybe we have already done so, and certainly we will have to do so again. As in the case of Peter, it is not the time we spend with Jesus, but the answer we give to this question, which will prove our claim to be authentic disciples of Jesus. All Christians who are called by Jesus must tell themselves, and tell the world – and tell Jesus – who Christ Jesus is for them, how much his love means to them, and how much they love him. Until we have answered this very personal and very demanding question, we cannot be confirmed as disciples of Jesus.
A question of this kind is not so much a test as a great opportunity. It lets the disciple see that the Master is thinking about him and taking him seriously. When God asks for our opinion, it is a sign that God is interested in us. If God is concerned about our opinion and our personal stance, we should be happy that we mean something to him.
The people to whom the question is put, who know that God wants them to take a stance in regard to Jesus, and who call themselves disciples, are the only people who know that God is interested in their opinion.
When we proclaim to the world that we are Christians, we are telling ourselves and others who Christ Jesus is for us. It is a way of knowing that God is interested in us and that he has not forgotten us. It is no mere coincidence that the more reluctant we are to give public testimony of our faith in Jesus, the more we feel abandoned by him. When we declare publicly that we belong to Jesus, we will know then that God is on our side. We can be sure of our faith in God if we remain firm in our option for Jesus.
When Jesus shows an interest in what we think, it is a sign that he is interested in us. The present day disciple, who knows that he should give witness to Jesus, will never feel abandoned by God. If he is interested in our opinion, he is interested in us. This should make it less difficult for us to declare publicly our faith in Jesus. What he asked of the disciples who were with him, was to declare publicly who they thought he was, and what they thought of him.
Only those disciples who are able to give a reason for their faith, and who can tell when they are being questioned by the Lord, and know how to respond to his question, will know that they are important to him. They will also know that it is necessary for the Lord to die on the cross.
Those who are able to reply personally are the disciples who have had the great personal secret revealed to them, namely that death on the cross is the fate that awaits Jesus and those who follow him.
This is the testimony the disciples must give. It is not enough to know who Jesus is, or to know what he has done for us. We must also follow him, walking the same path and carrying the same burden. Losing our life for him means gaining it forever.
It is not enough then, to express an opinion about Jesus, however personal that opinion may be, or however publicly we declare it. If we are not prepared to give our life for him, our words mean nothing.
When Jesus wants to know what we think about him, he is revealing to us how much he is interested in us. Jesus continues to ask his disciples to state publicly before others what they think of him. And when we do so, we will know, like Peter, that it is not just because Jesus is worried about what people think of him, but because he wants to give his life for us. If we are not willing to bear witness to Jesus, he will not declare himself for us. We risk losing so much for so little! The God who asks us to bear witness on his behalf, has given his life for us. This was his witness on our behalf. This is how he has shown his love for us.