The question Jesus poses in today’s Gospel reading is not a pop quiz for the disciples. Since it comes halfway through Matthew’s Gospel, at a critical turning point, we might be tempted to think Jesus is giving a kind of midterm exam to see how well the disciples are understanding him and to test whether they have what it takes to go the rest of the journey with him. But the scene may also reflect Jesus’ own development in understanding of his identity and mission. Taking Jesus’ humanity seriously and recalling Luke’s assertion that Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor (Lk 2:52), we might say that in today’s Gospel and next Sunday’s, we see a glimpse of Jesus’ deepening understanding of what it meant to be the Christ, the Son of the living God (v. 16).
In contrast to modern Western cultures, in which individuals expend energy trying to find their own unique identity as persons distinct from other persons, in Jesus’ culture, characterized by dyadic personality, a person understood himself or herself only in relationship to the groups in which she or he was embedded: family, clan, nation and religion. Paul, for example, identifies himself as a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, and as to the law, a Pharisee (Phil 3:5). Earlier in the Gospel, the people of Jesus’ hometown identify him as the carpenter’s son, whose mother is Mary and whose brothers are James, Joseph, Simon and Judas, and who also has sisters (Mt 13:55-56). In addition, in such a culture the perceptions of others help shape a person’s identity.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus seeks out others’ perceptions as he solidifies his understanding of himself. The disciples first report that people align Jesus with revered prophetic figures: John the Baptist, Elijah or Jeremiah. While there are many parallels between Jesus and these prophets, Matthew clearly distinguishes Jesus from them. He is the more powerful one coming after John (Mt 3:11). And it is John who embodies the returned Elijah (Mt 11:14; 17:12).
As Jesus presses the disciples for their own response, Peter, the spokesperson for the group, rightly declares, “You are the Messiah” (christos). This is a term used in the Old Testament for one who is set apart by God for particular service, like kings (Ps 2:2; 89:20), priests (Lv 4:3, 5) and prophets (1 Kgs 19:16). That Jesus is christos, anointed, is not a new revelation in Matthew’s Gospel (see 1:1, 17, 18; 11:2). But the nature of Jesus’ messiahship as entailing suffering and death is articulated for the first time in the ensuing verses (16:21-27), the Gospel for next Sunday.
As Jesus’ identity emerges and solidifies, so too does that of Peter. Verses 17 to 19 are unique to Matthew, with a wordplay on the name Petros and the Greek word for rock. Jesus exalts the emerging, rock-like faith of Peter and of the whole community of disciples whose identity is tied up in that of Jesus. Yet in the very next verses, the rock will falter when confronted with the stumbling block (scandalon, 18:6, 7) of Jesus’ passion. Nonetheless, as the Gospel progresses, Jesus continues to call him Peter, enabling him to become what he is named.
Just as the disciples’ naming of Jesus as Messiah and partnering with him in his mission enabled him to embrace all that being the anointed one entailed, so too Jesus’ identification of the believing community as rock solid brought forth that quality in them. Likewise, we are invited to let Jesus and our faith community call forth our deepest identity as followers of the anointed, whose solidity is sure.