“What about you?” he asked them. “Who do you say I am?” (16:15)
This may be one of the most important questions of all time. Maybe this is the question that all people must grapple with and answer.
For the Pharisees the answer was simple: Jesus was an ally of Beelzebub (12:24), even though all of the signs were there for them to know otherwise, Jesus says in today’s passage (16:3).
For Herod, Jesus was John the Baptist back from the dead (14:2 ;16:14).
For the masses, after two miraculous feedings, Jesus was a free meal (14:13ff; 15:29ff).
For some the disciples had talked to, Jesus was another great prophet like Elijah or Jeremiah (16:14).
For the disciples, Jesus enigmatically pushed them past the literal (16:7-12).
For Peter, Jesus was the Messiah . . . but not the right kind. Jesus was the vanquishing savior here to whip up on the Romans, not die on one of their crosses (16:16, 22).
We grapple with the same question today. Ask around. Jesus is a prophet, a wise man, a great teacher, a crazed lunatic, a egomaniacal liar, a carpenter turned revolutionary, a revolutionary turned lover of Magdalene, a hippie, a homosexual, a partier, a beaten up hero in a violent bloodbath, a scapegoat for Jewish nationalism, a healer, a handsome emotionless guru, a meek milquetoast whipping boy, a misunderstood leader, a rabbi, a philosopher of love, a Republican, a Democrat, a Communist, a Capitalist, a vegetarian, a figment of Paul’s imagination, or some other permutation next week when another book, movie or YouTube video comes out.
Albert Schweitzer is famous for saying that the quest to determine who exactly Jesus was, apart from the Bible, is a futile one. It is like looking down into a well; all we see is our own reflection looking back. People have a tendency to mold Jesus into whatever we want him to be, and in the end he ends up looking a lot like us or at least what we would like to be.
Looking ahead to the account of the Transfiguration in the next chapter, God will weigh in on the matter:
Then there came a voice out of the cloud. ‘This is my dear son,” said the voice, “and I’m delighted with him.” (17:5)
Still, the question is before us today: “Who do you say I am?”