Our American culture has sometimes been characterized as the culture of rugged individualism. Our heroes tend to be men and women who have struggled alone against the forces of power, be they natural forces or human forces. This is very clear when we read some of the classics of American literature by the likes of Mark Twain, Henry Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, etc. Our literature and our history speaks of the men and women who strove to be unique and distinctive. Our political leaders speak of their personal legacy. Our heroes tend to be those who have accomplished a superhuman feat all by themselves. When wronged we speak of the violation of our personal rights.
So when we Americans read the Scriptures, literature that comes out of the culture of the Middle East, we tend to read them with our particular individualistic mindset. However, Mediterranean people are not used to thinking of themselves as individuals. Social scientists refer to the people of the Middle and Far East as dyadic personalities. Such people are “other” oriented to such an extent that they have no sense of their individuality but depend upon the opinions and customs and habits of their particular family or community. They cannot imagine themselves as anything other than part of a group.
So, for instance, when we read the Gospel passage that is selected for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, we tend to hear the question that Jesus poses differently than the apostles heard it. In particular, because Jesus commends Peter’s answer, we tend to read this passage as a “pop quiz” that Jesus springs on the apostles. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus, ever a product of the culture of the Middle East, is seeking feedback from the group, just as everyone else in that culture would. “What’s the opinion of the crowd about me?” “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
The answers that we hear both in this passage and in other parts of the Gospel are telling. People are answering through stereotypes, another particular aspect of the Mediterranean culture and one that is present in our culture as well. However, the stereotypes don’t fit in this instance because Jesus is not like anyone else. Jesus is not just another prophet, another John the Baptist, another Elijah. Jesus is not simply a carpenter from Nazareth. When introduced to Nathanael, he responded, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” When Jesus preached in the synagogue of Capernaum, the people asked, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph and Mary, the carpenter’s son?” Jesus doesn’t fit into their stereotypes of Nazarenes and carpenters.
It is Peter that is able to break through the stereotypes. Peter responds to Jesus’ question by saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” St. Matthew records that this question and the answer took place at Caesarea Philippi, a Roman grove or sanctuary that was filled with statues and grottoes that depicted the pantheon of gods and goddesses from Greek and Roman mythology, dead gods and goddesses.
“You are the Christ.” The Greek word “christos” means “anointed one,” another word for Messiah. St. Matthew is the only evangelist to add “the Son of the Living God.” This faith statement on the part of Peter prompts Jesus to accord Peter a role similar to his own; namely, he makes Peter a mediator between God and the human family. He is accorded the same powers that a steward of a great household would hold. The reading from the Prophet Isaiah that we hear today illustrates that role. He will be the “father” figure in the household, he will hold the keys to the house deciding who may enter and who may leave, and he will have a stabilizing effect on the household, much the same as the pegs which hold up and secure the tents of desert dwellers.
While understanding the cultural background of the Scriptures is vital to our interpretation of them, it also remains for us to transfer their meaning to our own culture. We do not live in a dyadic culture. We live in a culture which values the individual over the group. We are much more likely to “go it alone” than we are to join the group. While we may mouth the words “No man is an island,” we also tend to value those who sing “I did it my way.”
Being a Catholic Christian, however, means being a part of a community, seeing value in the worshipping assembly. Our faith in Jesus as our Savior cannot simply be a matter of standing firm as an individual; it also requires that we care for the other, that we pray together, that we support one another in our efforts to live the Gospel. The very act that we come together for every Sunday is a communal effort; in fact, we call it “communion,” a word that literally means “with unity.” Believing that Jesus is our Savior means that we believe that Jesus is the Savior of the entire created universe. While our Creed may say “I believe,” the prayer we offer to God begins “Our Father.” I have often thought that the first word of the Lord’s Prayer is the most important word because it not only recognizes the primacy of God in our lives but it also acknowledges that God is the Father of all men and women.
As we prepare now to receive communion, to eat and drink the Body of Christ, let us also remember that what we do here today must translate into our daily actions if it is at all meaningful in our lives.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator