Matthew 18:21–35 (NRSV)
21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
There was once an acquaintance I knew, we will call him Jeff. Every day he would come in grab a cup of coffee and begin reading the paper. The problem is that the paper was my paper and Jeff never asked if he could read a portion, he just assumed that it was alright to do. Months went by and this continued to happen. I would get to work early and make coffee, he would come in grab a cup of coffee and proceed to read my paper. It annoyed me to no end. I really did not like Jeff. As time went on others would talk about Jeff in such a positive light and I would stew. How could people like such an inconsiderate person as that. What even made it all worse was they began to compare Jeff and me. They began to speak of him in a greater light than they would speak of me. They discussed how Jeff was always so informed and about the stories he had told them about the news he had read in the paper that morning. They would talk and I would stand there with a smile on my face knowing that Jeff would not be so well informed if I did not bring a paper in every morning.
We have all known a Jeff, and just so you know that was a factious story because I rarely get to work early enough to make coffee in a breakroom or read a paper. To be honest I am lucky to get to work with a cup of coffee. But we all know someone like that. Coworkers, people at church, people that sit around us at a sporting event, or at times people that live in the same house. They do things that annoy us, and we begin to feel a bit underappreciated or even worse we feel slighted because of them. This is the type of scenario I begin to think about when I read this passage as well as the passage from last week.
Jesus has just finished teaching about reconciliation or forgiveness. He just finished teaching the disciples how important it is to try everything we can to restore the relationship we have with those around us. To first speak privately about an offence, with the hopes that they will listen and the friendship can be restored. If that would not work to take another with you so that maybe through the counsel of others the relationship can be restore. If that did not work then the matter should be made public so that the community could assist in the restoration of the friendship. And if even the church could not bring restoration then we are to treat them as if they were not part of the community, but as one we encourage to walk with us as we walk with Christ.
The disciples pondered this concept for a while. Forgiveness has always been a significant part of the ethic that they had lived by. Jesus really was not teaching anything new, but he was prompting the disciples to consider the teaching they had already received in light of His teachings. Jesus was teaching that the relationship is most important, not the offence or sin, but the relationship. According to Jesus the relationship and the restoration of relationships is the primary focus of life. To build a kingdom based on forgiveness, justice, and mercy.
Peter considered the words that Jesus spoke. He contemplated the parables and the image that Jesus gave them by bring the child before them to consider who the greatest in the kingdom would be. The disciples followed Jesus because their greatest desire was to be part of this kingdom of which Jesus spoke. They wanted to be as close to God as a human being could be, so they each thought deeply about these teachings and how to implement them in their lives. Peter approaches Jesus and asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? As many as seven times?”
We might think that Peter has missed the point, because we have the luxury of reading this account in full where Peter had to live it out second by second. But Peter is showing a sign that he is beginning to understand. The customary practice of that day was that person was to forgive an offense up to three times, and if there was a fourth occurrence of the same offense then the relationship could be cut off. These rabbinical teachers were founded in scripture, in Amos it is spoke of how God forgave various nations three times and on the fourth occurrence he pronounced judgement. And Job speaks of God forgiving twice and even a third time before He begins to judge a person or nation. The teaching of forgiving three times has a clear basis in scripture, each of those places say the word three. Peter is contemplating Jesus words, he is thinking about scripture. He realizes that Jesus’ teachings seem to point greater mercy, greater grace, greater righteousness. The teachings of Jesus encourage us to love our enemies, to walk the extra mile, to be salt and light. Jesus teaches that the mysteries of the universe, the entire meaning of life is found in a mustard seed.
Peter considers all of this. He then considers the opposite of forgiveness which is a curse. Which led him to think about the curse of Cain and the curse that would be applied to those that retaliated against Cain which was seven-fold. In his mind if the curse was seven-fold for the first murder, then in the kingdom of heaven should encourage grace seven-fold.
Peter is beginning to understand. And Jesus recognizes this in Peter, so he replies, “Not seven, but, I tell you, Seventy-seven times.” There is a debate as to if it is seventy-seven, seventy times seven, or even a list of seventy sevens (which would be a very large number). This debate distracts from the core principle of Jesus’ teaching. To forgive even three times means we have not actually forgiven because we remember the past offense. To forgive seven means we are simply letting it stew for longer without really releasing the transgression. If we were to do the math to 490 times all this is really showing is that we are spending more time making lists than we are in restoring the relationship. Jesus is telling Peter, and the others, forgiveness is unlimited.
At this point Jesus shows them what the kingdom of forgiveness is like by telling them a story. There was a king who wanted to settle his accounts with his slaves. The concept here is not slave as in exploited laborers, but servants of court. This would be all officials of the government, which would include patron kings like that of Herod the Great. This king brought in this one servant who owed him ten thousand talents. When we consider that these are not just laborers but political officers, we begin to see that these are not just accounts but taxes. This servant had misplaced ten thousand talents of public funds. I also found that during the reign of Herod the Great the tax burden applied to him to satisfy the empire was nine hundred talents. So the debt owed by this person was over ten times the tax burden of the entire nation of Israel. It was an impossible debt to collect and one that would never be satisfied within the lifetime of this servant. Yet this king had mercy for the servant, and forgave the debt. An entire career of fiscal mismanagement was written off and forgiven.
This servant then left this meeting and found a fellow servant who owed him money as well, one hundred denarii. The denarii was considered a day’s wage. The first servant was forgiven an amount of money that was impossible to repay in a lifetime by a single person and the second was being interigated about a debt that could be paid within a year. The first servant was filled with rage and threw the second into prison until the debt could be repaid.
The king heard about this interaction and again called the first servant to stand before him. Imagine the perplexed emotions that the king felt. He had just forgiven this man a debt that we could not begin to understand, a debt equivalent to the entire life earnings of ten thousand men. A debt that would be equivalent to the federal budget for ten years. How anyone could have a debt to that extent baffles me, yet this king said ok I forgive you, and this guy’s response was to go out to find the first person indebted to him to extort funds. Either this guy was a terrible money manager or just a rotten person. The king then decides that the grace available to him was void. It is void because the servant did not live a lifestyle resembling the king, and could not represent then king to those around him.
He could not represent the king because he did not resemble the king. Think again to Peter’s question. How many times should we forgive a brother? It really is not a question as to how many times we forgive, but are we reflecting Jesus to the people around us? All the annoying things we have done to others, all the times we have offended someone, all the times we have hurt another were forgiven by God when Jesus took the wages of our sin to the cross and died. And we are asking how many times should we forgive. The real question is how can I represent the king to those who have offended me?
Consider that for a moment and remember Jeff, the awful coworker who cannot buy his own paper. In what way would Jesus encourage us to respond? There are many ways. One conceivable way would be to Jeff not to read the portions of the paper you have not yet read. Another possible response would be to offer Jeff a portion before he sat down. But both of those responses are minimal. What would happen if we were to observe Jeff to see how he likes his coffee and prepare it for him to have it there waiting for him when he would walk in. What if we were engage Jeff in a conversation learning about his views on the current events and sharing your own. What if you were to bring in special coffee for him to share. Or maybe even consider another topic he might be interested in that you could discuss. What if you and Jeff started a book club covering various ideas that were coming up within the news. What if instead of focusing on all the terrible things about Jeff and all the wrong Jeff has caused we instead developed a friendship with him?
There are countless options available to us. But which resembles the king in the situation? There are times where friendships are difficult, because people are difficult. We all have different ideas and different opinions. But one thing remains we are all created in the image of God. We all bear that image and because of that we are all cherished by the one who created us. Each person is loved by God and has been extended the very same grace that has been extended to us. Are we representing the King?
Right now, I am sure there are names and faces passing before our mind’s eye. Faces of people who have offended us in the past, faces and names of infamous people of history and we are thinking but what if they did this or that. What if they promote things that are totally contrary to our beliefs? What if they took lives of loved ones or promoted the dehumanization of entire peoples? The very same words were spoken to them as to us as Jesus hung from the tree, “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” To follow Christ is not easy, in fact, it would be easier to hold a grudge or to disengage from society in general. Yet that is not what Jesus has called us to do. He tells us to go and make disciples, and by saying that He tells us to build friendships and be his representatives in the world. And as his representatives we are to encourage all we meet to consider or even to enter into a lifestyle of a new kingdom. A kingdom not like that of man, but one built on unity, peace, justice and mercy, mutual benefit and hope. A kingdom that is already present in heaven and one we should reflect on earth. Are we representing the king?
Matthew 18:15–20 (NRSV)
Reproving Another Who Sins
15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
If you have spent any time around people, chances are one of them have made you upset at some point. I would probably go so far as saying everyone that you spend any significant amount of time around has upset you at least once…a day. That is just one of the joys of humanity. People. People that have their own opinions that may or may not agree with yours. People who squeeze the toothpaste tubes incorrectly, or may fold towels in some crazy manner. People who wear mismatched sock or since that is trendy now, people that wear matching socks. People are annoying.
I work in retail and if I have learned anything from that experience is that people are weird. Just yesterday while I was trying to go to lunch a person followed me around the store while I was making my selections telling me how they would shop at our competitors because our electric carts were terrible. Of course, this terrible cart was keeping up with me so it must not have been too bad. I let them know that I would inform the manager and he apologized and we went on with our life. But at times someone might just say something or do something that we just cannot let go of. Every time we hear their voice, we enter a time warp that takes us back to that one day in August in 1997 when they said that one thing that was so totally wrong yet everyone took their side without even listening. Yes, someone did say something in 1997 and I am working through it.
Humans have struggled with this for centuries. Probably since the beginning of time. Wars have been fought because someone said something that was misinterpreted and that person did not apologize and suddenly every nation in the world is dropping bombs on one another, killing soldiers and civilians for no other reason than a misunderstanding or a poorly thought out plan sometime in our shared history. Yes, I have simplified world history into something minor, but if you were to pull back the layers you would probably find something similar that was blown out of proportion. Some historians think that World War II never would have happened if Adolph Hitler was accepted into art school, and that that rejection sparked the spiral of hatred. This is a futile game of what if, but it does make one think.
We get offended and triggered. We walk around in this emotional state cycling between offending and being offended. This cycle continues to stretch our social fabric to the point of ripping it completely in half, or if we were to really be honest the fabric would not be neat halves but confetti. These cycles have been turning since the dawn of ages. It is the way of the world. The cycle of revenge, greed, selfishness, and taking care of number one has plagued cultures. Leading to the rise and fall of empires.
All of this is sin. It is the fruit of the sinfulness of humanity. Sin entered the world because one-man misinterpreted God’s word, because one woman listened to the voice of another and decided that she deserved better. Sin is broken relationships between God and mankind, and between humanity itself. These relationships are fractured because we assume, misinterpret, fail to listen, and exploit for our own gains instead of mutual benefit. I know some do not like my simplistic thought what sin is, but it is my perspective. I understand things in a systematic point of view. My education is in crop science and Ministry. I have training in genetics which study the way different protein coding of DNA work together to bring about desired results, the very same thing applies to the systems theory of social interaction each person within a system or family work together to bring about the people we are today. Everything in my perspective is connected within a system, no one is self-made, and no one is insignificant.
The world is caught up in this crazy cycle of sin, retaliation, revenge and greed. We are drowning and broken in the torrents of a raging storm of selfishness. With that I must take what I can for me and those like me… or who like me. Jesus came to redeem this system. To ease that disease, to throw a stick in the spokes of the cycle, and initiate a new kind of life and lifestyle. God so loved the world, John said in his Gospel, that he sent his son not to condemn the world but to save the world. This salvation comes through belief that the cycles and systems we have always known from the world around can be changed and entrust our lives to a new life, a new kingdom or nation which means a new kind of people. This is offered to all people of every tribe and nation, just through belief, but the world likes their current state so they reject this new life and condemn themselves and those that follow to yet another cycle of brokenness and sin.
Jesus came living a full human life to show us what this new life could be life if we only believe, and he died on the cross taking on our sinfulness though he did not sin himself, breaking that cycle and providing us with a new hope restored life through His resurrection. Life after death, hope after failure, peace after war.
It is great in theory, but there are still people. There are still people who will follow us around complaining. There are still people that keep talking and keep hammering in a heart piercing stake. They were right there in the group of disciples and they are right here with us. If we were to read the verses prior the disciples ask Jesus who the greatest is. In other accounts, this debate is sparked by James and John asking (Or the mother asking) if they could have the seats of honor at the right and left hand side of Jesus when the kingdom comes. Of course, the others in the group do not want to be under these two because they are just as good and the debate and words are spoken. Imagine the offense Peter and Andrew might have harbored toward their friends? They too were there from the beginning, in fact they were first to be called by Jesus. Jesus knows this tension, he knows the petty things spoken and unspoken that have driven wedges in the relationships of the disciples. He knows the actions and inactions that they have participated in. They continue this debate and ask Jesus who is the greatest, and Jesus calls over a child. He tells them that they must become like a child, they must welcome a child and to do so they welcome Him, and that they must not cause children to stumble.
I have thought about this a great deal over the years. I thought this means that I must be perfect, and live a completely righteous life so that those around me could not say that it was me that caused them to go the wrong way. I say I thought that because my understanding has grown. It is one thing to tell a child not to do something, it is another to teach why or to show them a better way. This is the reason children constantly ask why. They are asking us to teach them to show them how to live, what are we showing them?
What have I shown my children? What have I shown all the people around me? I know that I have made mistakes and it is very possible that my mistakes could cause someone to stumble. I also know that others have caused me to stumble as well. This entire chapter speaks about this new life that Jesus came to bring, a lifestyle not directed by sin, but forgiveness, restoration and reconciliation.
Jesus tells them if someone in the church sins against you, go to them and talk about it. Why? They were the ones that offended you, shouldn’t they have to beg for your forgiveness? No, that is the world system still active in your life. Jesus came to restore and redeem the world, to bring it back to what it was intended to be. If someone sins against you, we need to do what we can to redeem the relationship.
There is a reason for this. We are all aware that the rate of divorce in America is around 50%, and that of those around 80% occur within the first five years of marriage. Most would say that money is the number one reason for this happening, but that is not quite true. The number one reason causing divorce is unrealized expectations. We expect a spouse to do something, we assume they know the expectation and when they do not fulfill the expectation we get upset. Many of these marriages could have been preserved if people voiced those expectations to one another, and did not assume that the other party automatically knew. Even to this day I hear my grandparents arguing about assumptions and expectations that they do not voice. My grandfather will point to the salt at the table and my grandmother will hand him the salt while telling him that he never talks and how can she possibly know what he wants or needs if he doesn’t speak. They have been married a few years and my grandpa got the salt he needed so I am guessing they probably understand each other more than they think, but there is an unrealized expectation still working in their lives.
Would you be surprised to know that the rate of divorce has decreased over the past thirty years? Part of the reason why is because many ministers require counseling before they perform the wedding, and the main thing spoken about in those sessions deal with voicing these assumed expectations. They also attribute it to people waiting till they are older to get married. If someone sins against you go talk to them clear the air, see if it is something that was misunderstood or if that person is just a jerk. If this does not work take the next step, bring someone else into the conversation.
I spoke earlier that I have a systems perspective because of the education that I have obtained. This means that there are layers to every problem that we have, and sometimes it takes someone else to help us get to the root cause of problems. Sometimes a simple rephrasing of a question can open the eyes of everyone involved. Most of you know that my little sister died right around Halloween in 1997, for years I would get depressed around this time of year and would tend to argue more during this season of the year. I never really understood why until someone asked me when she died, the question did not pertain to the issue I was discussing but it opened my eyes that after all these years I was still mourning her absence. Then I was irritable and struggling during the spring one year. I didn’t know why but I was substituting and a student asked about my family and I told them that I had a sister that died. This student asked how old she was and when she was born and it dawned on me that she would have been graduating that year again I was mourning her loss. I would not have realized it if someone did not ask the question they did. We cannot always fix things on our own sometimes we need help to work through the messes in our heads and in our relationships.
Jesus then says if there is still no reconciliation after then bring the matter to the church make the sin public. Our culture tends to jump straight to making things public first, with our mindset of seeing people in court if we do not get our way. We like this so much that if you are at home during the day you might be able to catch a court case or too with a celebrity judge. But making offense public is not to shame but to restore life. If someone is struggling with substance abuse issues they will often continue to struggle alone, but if they make it public they will often find support to help them overcome. The community of believers is a powerful force. The prayers of the saints can inspire give us strength to continue to try, it can give us hope when we once found hopelessness. That is one of the reasons we gather together, because we are stronger together.
But there are times that even the church may not be able bring restoration. This is probably the hardest place to be. Jesus then tells us to treat them like a gentile and tax collector among you. I struggle with this. For many years I assumed that this meant we could just write them off and forget about it, but that is not the case. Jesus ate with the tax collectors and sinners, he even invited a tax collector to join his disciples. That very man is the one that wrote this gospel account. So how are we to treat those that reject the church? We witness to them, we share the good news of the kingdom of God with them. We allow the Spirit to work in their lives as we share with them how God has worked in ours. We pray for repentance and that they will return, but we continue to engage. The only difference is that they rejected the church, so they are no longer leaders among us but are restarting the journey at the beginning.
Jesus then for the second time tell the disciples whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. I want us to look at this closer. The key is you. You bind and you loose and God goes along with it. But what is bound and what is loose? Again, the key is you. You are the one that starts the restoration process with those that sin against you because you are the one that realizes that you have been offended. I have offended many people with words that I have said and very few of them have ever told me that I offended them. As far as I know their lives just took a different path and that no longer included me. I do not know why and to be honest I’m so busy some of them I did not even notice were no longer speaking to me. My offense does not keep me bound, but their grudge binds them. And the people that offended me have no clue that I have spent years boiling over the words they have said. They are going on with their lives while is stew. I am bound until I forgive and work at restoring the brokenness.
Sin leads to brokenness within all our relationships. Brokenness then leads us into a cycle of revenge in various forms that produces more brokenness. We are all aware of this, we see it every day on the news, and we read about it in the history books. But we can break that cycle through Christ. Through Christ we can forgive because through him we are forgiven. But are we willing to trust Christ with the restoration of our relationships? Are we willing to take that bold step to talk with someone instead of sticking it to them? And are we willing to continue to share even when they reject us? Are we bound or free? As we enter this time of open worship let us examine our grudges, and ask ourselves if they are important enough to bind us in heaven as they are binding us on earth. If it is something that is important then let us follow Jesus and take steps to restore relationships. Because the system will not change unless we are willing to take that first step.
Matthew 16:13–20 (NRSV)
Peter’s Declaration about Jesus
(Mk 8:27–30; Lk 9:18–20)
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
The past couple of weeks we have walked with Jesus into some of the outlying areas of the region. Tyre and Sidon are both on the Mediterranean coast, both of which are in modern Lebanon. Today he walks to the city named Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi is located on the southern slope of Mount Hermon, which is currently near the border of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel in the area we know as Golan Heights. I mention this because it shows us that the tensions we hear about in the region today, the wars in Syria and the various troubles Israel has with neighbors are actually very close. Jesus could walk to these areas, and covered many during his earthly ministry. This is one reason we should have concern for these areas and the people of these regions, although they may not have the same faith as us, their ancestors were connected to those saints of old who have become our spiritual heritage.
This city of Caesarea Philippi has a unique history of its own. Many scholars believe that Mt. Hermon, which is very near this city, is the mountain that Jesus was on during the Transfiguration, since the last place mentioned before this event was approximately seven miles here. Caesarea Philippi was a city dedicated to Caesar by Herod the Great, and a temple was dedicated for emperor worship. Later after the death of Herod, his son Philip was given charge over the area known as Batanaea of which Caesarea was part of, and Philip renamed the city to include his own name. The reason given was to designate it from the other Caesarea which was located on the coast, but I think he just wanted his own city.
If you were to look up Herod the Great’s family you might be confused when you look at the names, mainly because Scripture tells us that Herod Antipas married his brother’s wife and his brother was named Philip. That Philip is most commonly known as Herod II. Herod II, lived in Rome as a private citizen and after his brother married his wife we do not hear anything about him, except he was the father of Samone, who danced for Antipas and requested the head of John the Baptist. While Herod the second was off in Rome, and his brothers and aunt inherited the divided Kingdom of his father. Antipas received Galilee, and Philip received the North-Eastern area Batanaea including Trachonitis (which is mentioned by Josephus), Herod Archelaus received Judah and Samaria, and Samone I received Jamnia.
When Samone died she left her inheritance to Caesar, and Archelaus’ land became unruly and was taken from him to form the province of Judea ruled by a roman governor. Which left only Herod Antipas and Philip as the only survivors of the Herodian Dynasty. A confusing family to say the least, if you didn’t catch it there were two Philips and to make it all worse the Philip of Philippi married his niece Samone, the daughter of Herod II (Philip) which make the whole thing just a bit nauseating.
This is where Jesus is at. The city bearing the name of Caesar and Philip. But this city prior to being named Caesarea Philippi was called Paneas. The reason for this was because when the Alexander the Great came to Judea and claimed it for his followers settled here and found that there was a very interesting cave. They determined that this cave must have been the dwelling place of one of the gods called Pan. Pan was the pagan god of the mountainous wilds, shepherds, flocks, and rustic music. He was also the companion of the Nymphs. Worshipers of this deity did not build temples for him, instead they worshiped him in nature, usually in mountain caves. The area surrounding Mt. Hermon inspired those Greek settlers to remember pan. This mountainous terrain, filled with caves, springs, and good grazing lands filled their hearts with rustic songs and now you know where country music comes from.
Pan, is not exactly the most moral of Greek mythical deities. His depictions usually have him as part man and goat to represent the passions of this deity. And those passions caused him to fall in love with two nymphs, Echo and Pitys. These relationships angered the gods and Echo was punished by never having her own voice, only able to repeat what others say, and Pitys was turned into a pine tree. Again, the reason Pan hangs out in caves is because caves echo.
There is a cave at the base of Mt Hermon that contains a spring. This is Pan’s cave, and is one of the sources of the Jordan river. But before the Greeks came to Paneas, there was another group of people that lived there and this cave was holy site. It was the gateway to the underworld especially because this cave spewed water from it. They would fear what was just outside the light lurking in the darkness, so they would offer sacrifices and participate in religious rites in the mouth of the cave. Even Jewish teachings had legends surrounding this cave. It was the place where the fallen angels were sent.
I tell you all of this because all this history is wrapped up in understanding what Jesus is speaking about when during this journey. Jesus asks the disciples, “who do people say that the son of man is?” They respond by saying some say John the Baptist, but others say Elijah, and still others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.
Some say John the Baptist. This city is the administrative capital for Herod Philip, the son of Herod the Great, the husband/uncle of Samone, the dancer who demanded John’s head.
Some say Elijah. Elijah is often seen as the greatest prophet of Jewish history because he did not taste death but was carried away in a fiery chariot. Elijah called fire down from heaven to prove to the northern kingdom that God was God not Ba’al, and it was from this region where Elijah performed one of his greatest miracles with the widow who never ran out of flour or oil for bread. Ba’al was the god that was worshiped by the pre-Hellenistic inhabitants of this region, it was Ba’al who they were trying to keep in that cave.
Who do they say that I am? Jesus is standing there with the history of Israel stretching out before him. The Jordan river beginning at their feet, the very water that John once used to symbolically wash away the sins of the confessors. The very water that separated the desert wonderers from the land of promise. The land their greatest prophet walked, and the land filled with pagan worship. Right there in that city is a cave considered to be the gateway to hell, and a temple dedicated to Caesar who was considered to be a god.
Who do they say I am? Everything about the world is represented in this one location. We have the worship of a nation, the worship of demons, the embrace of lustful passions and immoral activity. The son of a king that sought to kill the son of David. The location to which the fallen angles was banished. Who do they say I am? All around the disciples were the testimonies of the world the very best that they had to offer, and standing there with them is Jesus their teacher. Who do they say I am?
If we were to ask this question today what answers would you expect to hear? Probably the first thing that pops into your mind is something negative, but all that negativity is not what people think of Jesus it is what they think of the Church. If you were to ask people who they think Jesus is, they would say something like a great teacher or philosopher. Many would even say that they wished they could be like Jesus because he lived a lifestyle of love and compassion. But everything that they say about Jesus leaves one thing out, they see him as just a teacher, just a prophet, just a miracle worker or magician.
Jesus asks the disciples another question, “but who do you say that I am?” Imagine hearing that question while standing there in that place. You can see the temple built to worship the Emperor, and you can hear the water spilling out of the cave. The Emperor represents the greatest military presence in the entire known world. Life depends on the Empire. The economy rises and falls with the empire. Everything they really know is interpreted through this empire which has occupied their land for their entire lives, and that of their ancestors for centuries. There are people within their own religion that proclaim that the Roman occupation is a gift from God because they bring wealth. But there are others that feel that God is cursing the land because of the foreign influences and idolatry accepted within the nation’s boundaries.
You hear again the rushing water, the water that will eventually become that great river of symbolic meaning. You hear the teachings of the baptizer and you look at the idols that are placed around the cave’s entry. Idols that represent the vilest images of lust. You see people attempting to appease a false god, one who is so twisted if he wakes up angry his screams will drive people into a panic, but if he wakes in a pleasant mood then they will enjoy the wildness that nature can offer with a good deal of rustic music. You hear the water, you see the idols, you remember the stories of angels being cast out of heaven and sent to this place. And you hear Jesus ask, “who do you say I am?”
Pan is the god of chaos, of the wilds. Caesar is the god of the empire or the nations. And Jesus is asking who am I? Amid chaos, in the center of nationalistic fervor who is Jesus? Peter answers, “you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Do you grasp the significance of this statement?
Caesar was the god of the world. And the current emperor was called the son of god. Rome was the religion of the empire, everything revolved around that, sure they could worship any other god they wanted but they all had to honor Caesar their god of men. Peter is looking at Jesus and saying you are greater than Rome, you are the Son of the Living God. You are the Messiah, the one of which the prophets spoke, the one who was promised by God to restore all things to bring the world back into perfection from the chaos that was brought in by the sin of Adam. Peter looked at the world around him; the chaos, the idolatry, the emperor worship, the lustful revelry and he looked at Jesus and said you are the one that can redeem all this.
Peter and the others looked at the world before them, the hopelessness and despair, and what did they see? They saw Jesus. They saw that there was hope through everything. They did not have to sell their souls to Rome, and they did not have to live in fear of the darkness. They saw hope. And Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
So again, who do they, the people of our world, say Jesus is? I mentioned before that when we ask that question most of us would automatically assume that the world would respond negatively to that question. Why do you think that is? Many within the walls of churches feel as if the world is in greater chaos than ever before and that the darkness is closing in around them, why do you think that is? Jesus said that the gates of Hades or hell will not prevail against it. Has the church stopped looking at Jesus and started looking at the temple of Caesar or the cave of Pan? Have we forgotten where our hope comes from? Who do you say Jesus is? Is he the promised messiah proclaimed by the prophets to redeem the cursed chaotic world, or is he just a good teacher among many? Is he the son of the Living God, the God who hovered over the waters of the preformed universe, who spoke and set the universe in motion while creating all the things seen and unseen on earth and in heaven? Or is he just one more philosophy like many adhered to by the nations of the world? Who do you say that He is? Is he greater than Caesar or Pan? Is he your hope and redemption?
The keys of the kingdom are found in the answer to that one simple question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” Our response to that question both in word and action changes everything. Our response can bind things or loosen things. It can inspire or condemn. It can give hope or leave others in despair. Who do you say Jesus is? As we enter this time of open worship and communion as Friends, let us consider that question. And I pray that we will live fully in our answer.