I recently celebrated my 59th birthday during an especially debilitating flare-up of multiple sclerosis, my unwelcome companion of three decades. Though I can still take my daily beach walks with my dingo, I now use a cane to propel myself through the sand. And I find myself musing on questions that haven’t plagued me since my late adolescence: Who am I? What is my purpose in life? What do I have to offer the world with my unique set of limitations? Where do I fit in to this world?
It’s an age-old human question, honed to obsession in the 21st century: Who am I? But though it permeates our culture now, we don’t have a monopoly on the question. For proof of the importance of identity, look no further than the genealogy that launches the Gospel of Matthew, where the writer lays out a historical resume to prove Jesus’ identity. Then, as now, questions of identity and belonging are essential.
When Jesus asks his disciples the divinely existential question of who the people and then the disciples think he is, his essential question is also all about identity—Jesus’ identity, Peter’s identity, and ultimately our identity as Christians.
The disciples report that people (anthrōpoi) see Jesus (huios tou anthrōpou or “Son of man/humanity” in Jesus’ question) in the context of figures from the past, but Peter recognizes Jesus as someone who melds the past and the future into the present time: the long-awaited Messiah who was and is to come has indeed arrived. One who, Peter clarifies, is also “the Son of the living God.”
We don’t know if the writer of Matthew was familiar with the letter to the Hebrews and its thundering proclamation that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31), but he most certainly was intimately familiar with the Hebrew Bible. In the Hebrew Bible, the phrase “the living God” often carries the sense that this deity is to be feared by those who are not on his side. As Moses asks the people, “For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the fire, as we have, and lived?” (Deut. 5:26).
See the rest of this lectionary right here.
For another perspective on the same text see Losing puns in translation (Matthew 16:13-20).