Sometimes lectionary mix-ups lead to theological insight. At least that’s the story I’m sticking to.
I have a confession to make. I’ve had my propers mixed up since the week after the Day of Pentecost. I’ve been off by a week, which has led to all sorts of liturgical, lectionary mishaps. For starters, I erroneously pointed a parishioner to the wrong week of the Daily Office. I hope she figured it out. Then, because I was out of town last week, I printed out the lessons for Wednesday’s midday service for someone else to read. Then, yesterday when I was preparing for the same service, I realized that the readings I was prepared to preach on were the same ones I printed out for last week, so I had to do a last-minute switch and read the previous week’s actual lessons. Because of that, today’s lesson has come alive in a whole new way.
Yesterday, I read Matthew 14:1-12—the story of Herod’s ordered decapitation of John the Baptist. That passage begins when Herod reflects on the rising popularity of Jesus, saying, “This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” Herod was racked with guilt and fear, which stemmed from the awkward means through which he ordered his prisoner’s execution. He was tricked by a seductive woman, who got Herod to promise her anything, to which she replied, “the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Matthew tells us that Herod was sad by this, and, although this gospel account doesn’t let the tetrarch off the hook by making him overly sympathetic to JtheB (like Mark), it does retain the conflicted nature of the story’s end.
Fast-forward a week and a day today’s lesson—Matthew 16:13-20. Jesus says to his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” And the disciples reply, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” And so the link is made. Usually, I read this story as Peter’s great confession (a moment we commemorate in the church calendar). This time, though, I’m drawn to the mistaken identity—some say John the Baptist. Interesting.
What leads people to mistake Jesus for someone else? For Herod, it was superstitious, unresolved angst. For others, it might have been unfulfilled hopes and dreams. And for others, it might have been simple misunderstanding. Some say John the Baptist. Of course, that’s silly. They were contemporaries. How could they be the same person? Yet so strong is the human desire to make concrete relationships that we’ll convince ourselves of the strangest things.
Last night, I went to a minor league baseball game with our youth group. While there, I overheard a parent say to his son, “See that! When you stop paying attention to the game, bad things happen.” The opposing team had just scored two runs, and, although I think he was joking, the father attributed that unwanted success to his son’s lack of paying attention. That’s ridiculous. But, before any of us thinks a critical thought, consider this. When was the last time you thought about switching seats or walking out of the room or changing channels when your favorite team was down just in case that might help the situation?
We like to think of things in our terms. Who is Jesus? He’s the superhero I’ve made him out to be in my head. But the beauty of Peter’s confession is that Jesus is none of those things that people think he is. He’s not another JtheB or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets. He is the messiah. He is unique. He shatters our expectations and defies our attempts to relegate him to analogies we understand. Only God himself could have revealed that to Peter, and we must trust that only God can show us who Jesus really is.