Note that he does not ask their opinion rather he asks the opinion of the people. Why? In order to contrast the opinion of the people with the disciples answer to the question but who do you say that I am?” - St. Chryostom
Strange as it may seem, in Jesus’ times you were what your own said you were, only they would never say . . ? Let me explain: If you came from Nazareth, the rest of Galilee and all of Israel had you pegged. You belonged somewhere and that somewhere was known. They could tell pretty much what you were like and what to expect from you. Hence the cold words of Nathaniel: “Can any good come out of Nazareth?” For that matter: “Can any good come out of Detroit?” Or how about this: “you know what Catholics are like.” In that last one substitute Lutheran, Missouri Synod, Arab, Cretan, Mesopotamian, pastors, laypeople. . . you name it, ancient or modern.
All that is to say, as much as we Americans want to believe that we are winning the struggle to be unique, independent, and our own person that is not like anyone else, we are definable. My grandfather once looked at me, dressed in the style of the 1960-70’s — washed out jeans, sneakers, flannel shirt — and quipped: “I see you are wearing your no conformist uniform today.” He was right it turned out, we all thought we were different and rebelling in the cause of individuality and, miraculously, we all looked the same as a result.
There is some truth to it that knowing were we are from or how we align ourselves gives hint to our character, our motives, and our future actions. It also gives hint who “pulls our strings.” It seems that this was even more pronounced in ancient Middle East. Jesus’ question then is not so much a curious question as to the opinion of the disciples, though that plays a role as he is probing their understanding. His question is one of allegiance. “Who do they say I am,” begs the answer to the question: “Where is Jesus’ ultimate allegiance and who is his authority?”
We are at a place in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus has done a lot of miracles. He has fed two multitudes (Matt 14:13-21, Matt 15:29-38), he has walked on water and caused Peter to do the same (Matt 14:22-33), he has done numerous healings, he has taught with authority (Matt 5-7) and he has debated the Pharisees successfully a couple of times. He is about to become transfigured ,after an interlude explaining sharply what messiahship means, next weeks’s text. (Matt 17:1-9) After this, things begin to have an eschatological flavor. End times are discussed even on the way down the mountain. Instructions are about to be given how to behave as the church. (Matt 18-20). A great apocalyptic eschatological sermon will be delivered. (Matt 24, 25) Somehow, after chapter 16 and 17 it is clear that the disciples know well who they are dealing with though they are having a hard time dealing with what he has planned. (Matt 16:21-28) But then, that is next weeks text and subject.
I want to, for just a moment, go back to the arguments with the Pharisees that begin chapter 16. In enigmatic fashion, Jesus scolds the current generation and says: “No signs will be given except the sign of Jonah.” The large fish did not digest Jonah and death will not digest Jesus, (Chromatius and Hilary of Poitiers) the point being that God’s Holy plan will not be thwarted by anything created here on earth. Yet, church, just now built on the confession and realization of Peter and the disciples, will you have faith in this? Even further, as with Jonah, the mercy of God, rather than the wrath of God will be evident in the end. World will you realize it and say: “Surely, he was the Son of God,” (Matt 27:54) will you repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand? (Matt 4:17)
What will it take for the church to have faith and the world to come to repentance? Matthew seems to suggest that the answer is: The death of Jesus Christ and his resurrection all for the forgiveness of sin so that repentance might become possible and faith might become the hopeful “in spite of.”
In a place were no wrong is ever forgotten and where everyone is pegged for life by where they came from and what they were once like repentance is irrational. It would just not matter in any way. An aside: The same is true for what has been called the third type of atheism, the conviction that what we are and what we do just does not matter to a god who just does not care or blankly overlooks. This world where everyone is what they are and that is that is Jesus’ Nazareth and maybe also us today. The church knows that her Lord and the church herself: “Ain’t from ‘round these parts.” Her flaw is that, often, she would like to not stand out by her association with the Holy that claims her and blissfuly think and act like the world around her. It will not work. The Lord will rebuke her, but that is next week.
For this week, it is important that we, church, dare to be from somewhere else. A place where repentance is preached because it is possible and reasonable because the wrath of God is held. A place that trusts that God does not deal with us according to our transgressions but according to our faith in this work, death, and resurrection of Jesus. A place where this faith is given. (AC 7) A place where Peter eventually lets Jesus be God and surrenders to His plan, way,s and means.