Who do people say we are?

Tom Bartolomeo
26th Sunday Ordinary C 2013b
Amos 6, 1a,4-7; Psalm 146;
Timothy 6, 11-16; Luke 16, 19-13
Reproduced with Permission

Who do people say we are? Sometimes that can be an embarrassing question. Jesus asked the same question of himself. Moving outside his home ground to the Roman city of Caesarea Philippi after performing his most spectacular miracle, the multiplication of thousands of loaves of bread and fish for the hungry crowds, Jesus had asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am." I assume they were startled by a question they had not yet resolved for themselves. (Jesus was always one question, one step ahead of them - always asking questions.) "Some say John the Baptist", one disciple replied" ; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." "But what about you?", he asked, "Who do you say that I am?" (Pause, what if he leads me into one of his probing insights?) Then Peter answered, "You are the Messiah." And "Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him". (Mark 8, 27-30). Why not? One riddle after another. So let me ask you, "Who do you say you are?" or better, "Who do others say you are?" Are the answers the same? It may be the most important answer you will have to give in this life for eternity's sake. Eerie. Perhaps, we will want to study the question first.

While in graduate school many years ago I shared an apartment with a Fulbright scholar, Hans Bertens, a Dutchman and an associate professor of English at the University of Utrecht at twenty-three, a very intelligent man who spoke and wrote better English than any born and bred in America citizen I ever taught. I once asked him, "Who do Europeans say Americans are?" He answered, "You claim you are bigger and better than the rest of us." I didn't argue with him. That would be the "complacent in Zion . . . stretched comfortably on their couches" we heard the Prophet Amos describe. (Amos 6,1-4 ). That would be the "rich man" in the gospel who wore Brooks Brothers suits "and dined sumptuously every day".

(Luke 16, 1-9). That would not be a true follower of Jesus Christ, however, whom the Apostle Paul described to his student, Timothy. "Jesus Christ", Paul said, "gave testimony under Pontius Pilate" that his and his followers' kingdom "was not of this world", otherwise he said, "my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." (John 18,36).

In all the gospels but especially Luke's whose audience were mostly former pagans Jesus repeatedly decried the proud and the wealthy. Actually, the terms intersect in the "pride of life" the Apostle John wrote about in his first Letter, how much we are prone to take pride in our possessions, all the things of this world which can consume us. We are in fact, the premier consumers in the world. We Americans are five percent of the world's population and we consume nearly fifty percent of the world's goods and services. The consumer price index and the consumer confidence index drive our economy and employment. It is spouted in the news daily and formulates government policy.

For some it may become their world everlasting, perhaps a hell of a world coveting what is always disappointing forever. Whatever we buy, a television set, for instance, we will replace for a bigger and better television set multiple times over our lifetimes rather than being content with what we have until it breaks or we will replace a serviceable older car or an older iphone for a new car and a new iphone. And, ladies, must you have a new dress for that special function but wear whatever is handy, say, to church. It all began for us as children, one toy after another until there is little interest or room in the house for all the toys, children's and adults'. We build bigger homes for more stuff with fewer people living there and then we put the overflow in storage. I do not mean to be comical. This compulsive obsessive behavior will be paid for with our souls as in Jesus' parable we heard or the parable of the man whose barns were not large enough for his crops. This man who tore down his old barns for bigger and better ones whom Jesus mocked, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' "So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." (Luke 12, 15-21).

Then there is the story of the rich young man who asked Jesus, "What must I do the earn heaven" as if that were possible. We can not earn a life above our paygrade. We can only hope that God will gift us. But Jesus tells the young man, You know the commandments which the rich young man acknowledged he had kept since childhood. We would think that would be enough, but it was not. "Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" (Mark 10, 17-23). Jesus told the young man he lacked one thing, his attachment to his wealth, his possessions which he would not give up. The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament were imperfect for their day but are now perfected by the eight beatitudes of the New Testament such as "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God". The Ten Commandments merely define what we should not do to stay out of trouble: don't dishonor parents, murder, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet what is not ours. Should we be rewarded for not committing sins? Imagine asking your employer I did the job you paid me for. Can I get a bonus? That's what Jesus said, "Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the servant for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless servants; we have done only what we ought to have done'!" (Luke 17,7-10). The great American naturalist, Henry David Thoreau once observed:

"How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty . . . ." [with all its cares, I would add, and concluded] "the portionless" those who choose to live poorly "find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh." (Walden, 1. "Economy").

Last Sunday Christ explained that we can not serve God and the world. We choose either the one or the other. There is no compromising. Except for man's spirit and soul everything else in this world is destined for eternal obliteration with the advent of a new world where only the godly will reside. From the beginning - without man in residence - there would be no world or other creatures in this world. Think of everything here as so much furniture which we shuffle around as our bodies require. "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul," taught Jesus and does not need further explanation. Our destiny is with God the Father and not with the furniture in this world. (Don't get too comfortable in that couch watching too much TV.) This includes our bodies on those couches which will turn to dust but not our spirits and souls. Our bodies are physical and therefore corruptible, not our souls. As sure as Christ's body rose from the dead reunited to his divine person so will ours some day. The questions is where will our bodies and spirits be reunited, heaven or somewhere else?