Living by the Word: In the Know

By Fowl, Stephen | The Christian Century, September 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

Living by the Word: In the Know


Fowl, Stephen, The Christian Century


Sunday, September 17

James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

MY WIFE and I have two sons, 12 and 14, and a standard-size refrigerator. Hence, we spend a lot of time at the grocery store. As I wait to pay for one day's installment of food, I am invited to learn the full story about the semiprivate lives of numerous celebrities. If the number of these publications is anything to go by, our desire for insider knowledge is insatiable. We want to know all of the details and we want to know them now.

Our sons are especially curious in this regard. When our boys come upon us as we are talking about a crisis at work or in the life of someone we know, they want to know what is going on. Sometimes this reflects compassion, sometimes adolescent curiosity, sometimes a concern that this crisis may have a direct impact on their lives. Explaining that they do not need to know or are not yet ready to learn about these matters simply intensifies their desire. They wonder how someone can be trustworthy if he or she will not tell them everything--immediately.

In the so-called information age, the idea that we might not yet be ready--emotionally, intellectually, practically--to know some things tests our patience and our credulity. I suppose this is why conspiracy theories thrive in the absence of knowledge. It is always easier to suppose that there is a concerted plot to hide things from us than to acknowledge our own inabilities or lack of preparation.

Jesus was a focal point for conspiracy theories long before novelist Dan Brown came on the scene. Paying attention to this reading from Mark's Gospel may help explain why. Even at the high point of his ministry in Galilee, people were not quite sure what to make of Jesus. Some thought he was John the Baptist; others said he was Elijah or one of the other prophets. When Jesus asked his closest followers who they thought he was, Peter responded, "You are the Messiah." In Matthew, Jesus attributes Peter's utterance to divine revelation. Luke and Mark are silent about the origin of this remark. Perhaps Peter was inspired; perhaps he simply took up language that he had heard others use. It does not really matter: he said it, and Jesus responded that he didn't want Peter or the others to say it again until further notice.

Jesus, the embodiment of truth, wanted his disciples to withhold information. On the face of it, this does not seem right. Spreading the word that Jesus is the Messiah seems like a worthy and even necessary enterprise. Jesus' call to silence concerning his identity reminds us that knowing the right form of words to say about Jesus might not be sufficient. Clearly, Peter knew the right words, but by the end of the passage, it is also clear that his use of the term Messiah and Jesus' identity as the Messiah did not match up.

For Peter, the term Messiah was incompatible with Jesus' obedience to God and the suffering and death that would come from his obedience. …

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