A ? Is Shaped Like A Hook

Matthew 16:13-20 – 10th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for August 21, 2011

“But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)

The Bible offers a multitude of questions. Each generation hears them anew. They invite answers, but even more reveal the depths of our faith. Or doubt. Or fear. Or hope.

“Where are you?” God asks Adam and Eve in the mythic grandeur of Eden. Before Adam replies, does he swipe the forbidden fruit’s juice still dribbling down his chin?

“What is his name? What shall I say to them?” Moses demands. Coarse sand pinches his naked feet, and it takes all his courage not to retreat from the burning bush. Does Moses gulp, throat parched, between the two questions he poses to God as he seeks the Holy Name? Moses is, after all, caught between the divine call and the ever-grumbling Israelites.

“Tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Perhaps Mary Magdalene’s request wasn’t a proper query. But I hear an anguished plea. Near Easter morning’s empty tomb, eyes literally open and yet figuratively closed, she first assumes Jesus is merely a gardener. What has been done with him?

These ancient longings rise from the mouths of fools and saints, of the weary and the wary, and yet seem . . . just asked, as if whispered in your ear. It’s like a question mark, its top shaped like a shepherd’s crook, reaches across the millennia to encircle us, drawing us closer to the Holy, challenging us to be honest with our faith. Our doubt. Our fear. Our hope.

If you’re familiar with the Bible, you have favorite questions asked in oft-read verses. Some always challenge you, because they expect such truthful answers. If you don’t give a damn about the Bible, there are still profound questions you ask about faith—though you might scorn words like faith or religion. I’ll make two guesses about your questions. First, you too will struggle to truthfully answer them. Second, somewhere in the Bible, a peasant or a king has also posed your deepest questions.

Questions embolden us. Questions take our breath away. The curve of the hook tightens against our chest and draws us nearer to the Holy.

I wonder . . . would you answer Jesus’ question differently now than, say, ten years ago?

“But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples (Matthew 16:15).

And asks us. Asks me. Asks you.

In the very next verse (Matthew 16:16), Simon Peter responded . . .

. . . But I don’t want to rush to his answer. I write enough fiction to realize the importance of setting a scene. I desire this Gospel moment extended by imagining Simon Peter’s reaction. What might have gone on in the disciple’s mind when Jesus posed that question?

Would Simon Peter, like I sometimes do, seek to please the one asking the question? In other words, we avoid giving our real, heartfelt answers. Who do you say that I am? And we say Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace because, well, that’s what we’re expected to say. That’s what the pastor or the church or the traditions have led us to say. Do we really know how we feel or what we believe? We desperately hope, when we quickly answer JesusistheSonoftheLivingGod, that the person asking will be satisfied and go away.

Or did Simon Peter, like I sometimes do, thoughtlessly blurt out his answer? One of the central stories in my relationship with my wife is how I first asked her to marry me. She was one of several adults helping to lead a youth backpack. During the hike, the only times without mosquitoes occurred during thunderstorms. We were either strafed or soaked. On a dreary morning, beneath trees weeping second-hand rain, I blurted out, “Will you marry me?” Shocked, she replied with, “I’m not ready to answer.” I, embarrassed, apologized. She asked me to wait, to give her time. It would be months before I gathered the strength to ask again. Obviously, I did. And yet I can still, as if part of me watched from a wet tree limb above the clearing where we stood, marvel at the words springing from my mouth. Sometimes we can’t explain what we’ve said, but we can’t deny it reveals a piece of our hidden heart.

Truth be told, I’d love for there to be an obvious pause in the verse after Jesus asks the question. Let’s call it Matthew 16:15.2. Old Simon Peter doesn’t give an expected, easy answer. He doesn’t blurt out a response. He waits. Contemplates. Maybe he nods his head to buy time. Maybe, because I love how a few added words might help us see not only the character on the page but “me” in the present moment, the Galilean fisherman holds Jesus’ stare for a few seconds and then breaks eye contact. Bows his head. The question feels intimidating. And intimate. It simultaneously births caution and commitment.

Simon Peter considers hopping into his boat and casting his nets. That’s a job he knows. He wishes he were invisible. And yet the question has been asked. He chooses to avoid a safe answer meant to please the other. He resists blurting a first answer that may or may not be what he really feels. He . . . pauses.

Who do you say that I am? The question mark is shaped like a hook. It encircles us, draws us closer.

I pause. You pause.

Simon Peter looks up. Eye contact is made again.

What is his your answer?

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  1. My favorite biblical question, recently, at least, is Pilate’s question “What is Truth?” in the fourth Gospel version of Jesus’ trail. This is the dramatic climax (as opposed to the denouement) of the trial, because it summarizes in three words the whole point of the fourth Gospel. I like it because it leads us to the various methods by which people choose to find the scripture’s answers. For example, 1 Corinthians 6:9 “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, (1Co 6:9 KJV)” is not uncommonly interpreted to condemn homosexuals. I made the point of picking a translation which does NOT suggest suggest that interpretation, the gold standard for 300 years, the King James. To make it condemn homosexuals, the fundamentalists had to literally create a new translation to fit their answers (the NEW KJV). A lot of people prefer to have the Bible provide those answers they themselves bring to it, and prefer to not deal with the fact that sometimes, the Bible can be as obscure as the Delphic Oracle. Not only that, Jesus ADMITS that he is obscure and speaks in parables which may be difficult to understand. So how in the world can people have the chuzpah to say the Bible is easy. I suspect there are many who would prefer to not be presented with questions by the Bible. If those 3 out of 10 people who believe the Bible is literally true where to actually read the Bible, they may have a different, much more realistic view of what the Bible says and how it says it.

    1. Have you read Frederick Buechner’s take on that verse (found in TELLING THE TRUTH-The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale)? If not, I suspect you would enjoy it. Directly or indirectly I “borrow” from Buechner quite a bit.

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