Was it the practice of the Rabbis to probe the minds of their disciples by asking them searching questions? I don’t know. Socrates is probably the most famous figure of the ancient world for asking awkward questions. We are told that he tried to encourage those around him to keep their assumptions and attitudes under constant scrutiny and said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Perhaps this was his ‘take’ on the oracle ‘Know thyself’ inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi.

It is quite clear from the Gospel narratives that Jesus likewise had a way of asking disconcerting questions. According to Luke’s account it was a characteristic which manifested itself quite early on – when as a boy of 12 he was discovered in the Temple in Jerusalem   LISTENING to the teachers AND ASKING THEM QUESTIONS. And his response to his Mother’s anxiety  on that same occasion was a question: HOW IS IT THAT YOU SOUGHT ME, DID YOU NOT KNOW THAT I MUST BE IN MY FATHER’S HOUSE?

And that is how it was during the days of his Public Ministry. The pages of the Gospels are thick with his questions: WHAT DO YOU SEEK?...WHY ARE YOU HERE?...WHY DO YOU CALL ME GOOD?...DO YOU NOT PERCEIVE OR UNDERSTAND?...DO YOU NOT REMEMBER?...ARE YOU ABLE TO DRINK OF THE CUP THAT I SHALL DRINK?...WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO FOR YOU? and so on.

His questions are not frivolous and they are not rhetorical. He looked for a response from those whom he addresses. His purpose is to make us examine more closely the assumptions and motives which underlie our attitude towards him and our relationship with him.

So, here at Caesarea Philippi – WHO DO THEY SAY THE SON OF MAN IS? WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM? What is remarkable about these particular questions is that on the whole Jesus seems to have been indifferent to what people thought or said about him. He did not seek to make an impression or court popularity or look for human applause. He was always his own man.

The physical setting here is significant: Caesarea Philippi. Jesus and those who are with him are far out of their usual context. This is not Galilee or Judea: they are in Gentile territory. pagan territory. In earlier times this had been the place where  the god ‘great Pan’ had a shrine. Eventually it became a Roman town, named by Herod the Great in honour of the Emperor Caesar Augustus, to which Philip - one of Herod’s sons and the local tetrarch - added his own name, to distinguish it from the other Caesarea on the coast – Caesarea Maritima.

So for one reason or another, this was not the kind of place in which godly and observant Jews would feel comfortable. They would probably feel compromised by its pagan associations and by its connections with the hated Herodian dynasty. Yet it is in this ambiguous, difficult, place that Jesus chooses to confront his disciples with that challenging question, WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?

Was Peter startled by the declaration which seems to burst from him of its own accord, YOU ARE THE CHRIST THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD? Was this his considered opinion, the result of much deep reflection? Or was it merely an expression of impetuous, exuberant enthusiasm? Whichever it was, Jesus took it seriously and spoke of Peter’s declaration as foundational, the basis on which something permanent and inviolable would be established.

However, the moment of illumination, the moment of insight and disclosure passes and THE FLESH AND BLOOD which had not revealed it to Peter will subtly reassert themselves and all the habitual attitudes and false expectations will re-emerge. In fact, in the end self-protection, self-preservation and fear will take over and the vision will be disowned and denied – I NEVER KNEW HIM.

These things are written for our instruction. Whatever insights have been given to us, whatever truths have dawned upon us, that of itself is not enough. Truth has to be explored, digested, appropriated. Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah – overwhelming though it was – was not enough. He and the others with him had to learn the meaning, the nature, of that Messiahship. They assumed that they knew what it meant: and without their being aware of it, all the old ways of thinking clustered round this dazzling insight of who Jesus was. The familiar, unexamined ways of looking at things, the old unconscious habits of mind, the old attitudes and expectations, simply reasserted themselves – all the old paraphanalia of status and prestige and power. In the end events and circumstances forced those first followers of Jesus to unlearn all that, to die to all that, so that they might come to a new understanding of the truth of who he was. It was hard and painful for them to come to that new realisation; it was for them both a death and a birth.

As individuals, as a Community, as a Church, as members of the human family, we have to keep in mind always the fact that whatever insights have been given to us, there is always more to be done, more to be learnt, more to be received. For the journey into truth, because it is the journey into GOD, is endless – it is a journey in which the mystery of birth in death and death in birth, is constantly at work.

John Donne reminds us that this is so when he speaks of Truth standing ‘on a huge hill, Cragged and steep... and he that would Reach her about must and about must go’.

Centuries earlier Gregory of Nyssa said much the same, when he wrote, ‘He who truly rises up must always continue to rise. To him who runs towards the Lord a vast distance will never be lacking. Thus he who ascends never ceases, going from beginning to beginning by beginnings that have no end’.

Eric Simmons CR