Matthew 16:13-20, 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
“He strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ” (Matthew 16:20).
In our Gospel today, Simon Peter correctly identifies who Jesus is – he is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But then Jesus forbids Simon Peter and the other disciples to spread this Good News, this revelation which could have come only from God. Why?
At the end of the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus commands his disciples to teach all nations what they have learned. But we are still a long way from the end, and in our reading today, Jesus wants his disciples to just remain silent about his identity. Why?
One possible answer is that at this point, Jesus thinks that people are not yet ready to accept the kind of Messiah he is. If people were told that he was God’s anointed at this juncture, they might misunderstand. Perhaps they would expect the Lord to dazzle them with miracle after miracle as Elijah did – and some people already thought Jesus was Elijah. Only two chapters before our Gospel today, Jesus fed more than five thousand people. If people were told not long after this event that Jesus was the Son of God, no doubt they would believe. But perhaps they would also just equate the Son of God with food and having their fill. But Jesus is not just about amazing displays of power. The Lord is not just about having more bread and fish than you can eat. People then might not have been ready for Jesus’ way of being Christ.
That was then. What does this Gospel have to do with us now?
A happily-married husband and wife I recently had lunch with shared with me the main thing that marred their happiness: While they were serious about their faith, active in their parish, and intent on discerning and living out what it meant to be Christian, their son could not care less about spiritual matters. He had stopped going to Mass, and they were afraid he did not believe in God anymore. Did they do anything to cause this, and what could they do to address it?
I told them, “Just continue what you are doing: Keep on attending Mass and joining religious activities. Without nagging your son, invite him to go with you. The best invitation though is the joy and the peace you have because of their faith. Perhaps, the fruits of your commitment to the Lord will make your son curious. Perhaps, seeing what your faith has done for you, your son will start asking who God is and what he is all about. Maybe, at this point, things are not yet “ripe” for your son to dive into a relationship with Christ. But Jesus allows for our unreadiness. He gives us space to grow in understanding and love. God is patient with us.”
It is not just people like this son who are not yet ready for the Lord. Even those who are devoted Christians – even the couple who were so worried about their son – may not be open to certain aspects of God. God is always greater than what we know of him. And he is always inviting us deeper into himself. But there are things about him we may not be ready for.
Simon Peter himself, the friend to whom Jesus entrusts his church in our reading today, shows there are aspects of Christ he is not ready for. Flip the pages of your bible to Matthew 16:21, the very next verse after our Gospel today, and you will see Jesus tell his disciples he must suffer greatly and be killed. What does Peter do? He takes the Lord aside and rebukes him. Peter is not yet ready for the Jesus who will die – maybe because Peter is also not ready to die… yet.
At first glance, Jesus’ reply to Peter seems harsh: The Lord calls his friend Satan. But Jesus also says, “Get behind me.” He does not reject Peter with the words, “Get away from me.” Jesus instead says, “Get behind me,” which we can translate to “Go back behind me, turn away from following your own notions of what the Messiah is, get back to following me.” Jesus allows for our unreadiness. He gives us space to grow in understanding and love. God is patient with us.
Earlier this week, I sought solace in Psalm 23 for my evening prayer. I wanted to be assured that God was on my side in the challenges I was facing. I was consoled to see the Lord as my shepherd. He led me along the right paths. He walked with me through dark valleys. He protected me with his rod and staff. Then he “set a table before me in front of my enemies” (Ps 23:5). At first, I reveled in the image of my foes hungry and salivating before me while Jesus served me all my favorite dishes. But suddenly a stray thought pierced my imagination and woke me from my reverie: What if God brought me to eat right in front of the people I disliked not because he was goading me to spite them, but because he was hoping I would invite them to dine with me? I felt myself rebelling. I had to open my eyes, and I stopped praying for a while. Was I ready for this God who wanted me to welcome sinners to my table – as he did so many times?
God is always greater than what we know of him. And he is always inviting us deeper into himself. Is there something God has revealed to you lately that you are not yet ready for? Perhaps it is the God who keeps silent even while you are crying out to him with all your might. Perhaps it is the God who does not give you what you have been praying for even if what you have been begging for is good. Perhaps it is the God who is now asking you to do difficult things you do not understand – leave the safety of the familiar for something new, forgive someone who has hurt you, or keep on reaching out to those who do not return your love.
Perhaps you will know what you are not ready for only when you hit a speed bump or run into a roadblock in your relationship with God. When that happens, take a step back or two. Jesus allows for our unreadiness. He gives us space to grow in understanding and love. God is patient with us.
But this does not mean we can just remain stuck in the wreckage. The always-greater God keeps on drawing us into something deeper. This is not just because he is demanding, but because God wants us to be more like him and to be closer to him.
*Image from the Internet
**Reprinted from “God’s Word Today” in the Philippine Star