In this week’s Gospel, Matthew makes the important point that faith comes before insight, not after. Most people probably would prefer to have it the other way around. They would like to collect a number of solid insights that support their leap of faith. Unfortunately, in the spiritual life, insight is the result of faith, not its cause.
‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.’ (Mt 16:17)
What insights has your faith provided?
Who relies on you for a firm foundation?
This week’s Gospel reading is a complicated theological dialogue that requires some explanation. The setting, Caesarea Philippi, was a Greek colony in northern Galilee. Next to the city was a shrine called the Panion, dedicated to Pan, the Greek god of the wild, of fertility and of the reversal of ill-fortune. The shrine was popular with the Greco-Roman settlers of Palestine, not least because its environs roared with springs and were heavily wooded. The Panionprovided a refreshing place to rest for travelers on the busy highway nearby. It is easy to imagine Jesus and his disciples pausing there and watching the throngs carry their prayers and offerings before the god. Such a setting might well have inspired theological discussion.
The “Son of Man” to whom Jesus refers was a mighty warrior many believed to be coming soon. The title comes from Dn 7:13-14, which prophecies a mysterious being who looks “like a son of a man” (Aramaic, kebar enosh) and who will receive divine power to rescue Israel from foreign oppression. Later writings, like the First Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish text not included in the scriptural canon, merge this prophecy with other mystical speculation, resulting in a description in 1 Enoch 48 of a being who is more divine son than anointed warrior: “All those who dwell upon the earth shall fall and worship before him; they shall glorify, bless and sing the name of the Lord of the Spirits. For this purpose [the Son of Man] became the chosen one; he was concealed in the presence of the Lord of the Spirits prior to the creation of the world, and for eternity.”
Many believed that this chosen one had already come once and would soon return to fulfill Daniel’s vision. Speculation centered on Elijah, but as Peter notes, some suggested other prophets instead. Peter’s intimacy with Jesus and his faith in the Father open his mind in a flash of insight to the real nature of Jesus. “You are the Christ, the son of the living God!”
Our second reading today asks rhetorically who can know the mind of God. The answer, clearly, is “only the Son,” but those who place their faith in the Son can receive a flash of insight, as Peter did today. Jesus, responding to the depth of Peter’s faith revealed in that flash, recognized in him a stable foundation for the Christian community. As our first reading shows, faith-filled individuals offered critical support to God’s people throughout salvation history.
Individuals who can find Christ amid the world’s tumult provide a solid foundation for the community of faith. This is our call: to wait in faith for that moment when we can catch sight of Christ still at work in the world. Holding him in view, we can become a secure foundation for many others whom Christ calls to be his own.