Gospel reflection for Aug. 27, 2023, 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Our Gospel passages over the past several weeks have been leading us to the climax that we hear this weekend.
Taking his disciples up to Caesarea Philippi, with its large and beautiful rock formations, Jesus poses the question that has likely been on the minds of the disciples: who do they think Jesus is.The miracles of Jesus have served as an important revelation, and even there he has distinguished himself from the other miracle healers. He has performed exorcisms, showing his power over the forces of evil. The disciples have also noted that he teaches with authority, unlike other rabbis. So who is he? This is the question we are all challenged to answer as well.
During our time of increasing religious skepticism, interest in other spiritual realms and modes of understanding, a fascination with different philosophies, and even a growing interest in the possible influence of sentient beings from other planets on ancient cultures, questions as to who Jesus is always manage to surface.
It becomes necessary to discredit, discount and even deny the existence of Jesus as an historical person, in order to strike at the heart of the Christian message and values. Some commentators and scholars go to great lengths to try and make the case that Jesus didn’t exist, was a fraud, or the product of overzealous followers after his Death at the hands of the Romans.
Regardless of which approach to discrediting Jesus they take, they seem confident that 2,000 years of the practice of a faith built on the proclamation of the Gospel and the tradition of the apostles, is nothing more than a misrepresentation of reality. The more voices and approaches to discrediting Jesus, the more the message will be heard. Or so it would seem to them.
This is not new.
A similar movement was popular in the late 19th century, when many German philosophers, theologians and historians, went about demythologizing the Gospels and reducing Jesus and his teaching to a few insignificant words. Albert Schweitzer, renowned German theologian, Lutheran minister and musician, believed that Jesus was in fact wrong. He died a frustrated man who had thought he could bring about the Kingdom of God through his Death on the Cross. He died a noble Death, but still a disappointed eschatologist. Therefore, Jesus’ teaching has only an interim and no abiding significance. Others at the same time, in a movement known as the Liberal Quest for the Historical Jesus, tried to turn Jesus into a weak figure, basically harmless, whose teachings could be manipulated to justify the zeitgeist prevalent then.
Unfortunately, this primarily liberal Protestant perspective became the dominant American, and unfortunately even American Catholic view of Jesus. We all gushed at moves such as “King of Kings,” “Jesus of Nazareth,” and “Godspell”, where Jesus is depicted as a thoroughly harmless figure with little substantive to say.
Today, Jesus is being usurped by the religious right as he is turned into an ardent nationalist and defender of political liberty and certain political aims. At the same time, the left is attempting to reinforce the nineteenth century imagery, and to discount him all together.
Such openly agnostic biblical scholars as Bart Ehrman, attempt to use the tools of biblical criticism to discredit the Gospels and thereby diminish the importance of Jesus, and even raise doubts as to his historicity.
This often shoddy, and intentionally deceptive scholarship can be the source of confusion among believers, and lead those who are struggling with faith, to lose faith. While all historical figures need to stand the scrutiny of history, Jesus has been dissected by every form of criticism since the day he emerged from the River Jordan baptized by John.
It is for the disciple to answer with Peter and the disciple the fundamental and affirming question as to who Jesus is with the bold pronouncement: “[Jesus is] the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.