An ersatz homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, cycle A

Today’s gospel reading, Matthew, chapter 16, verses 13 et seq., presents the passage that divides the Christians from the Jesusists.

Today, as in those days, there was dispute over just who this Jesus fellow might be. In those days, some said that he was John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. I don’t think that the point here is that they thought that Jesus was actually the reincarnation of Jeremiah, or that John the Baptist, after his beheading by Herod (Mt 14:3-10), had sort of possessed the man whom he had publicly baptized only shortly before (Mt 3:13-15). Rather, I think the point is that “the man in the street” thought that Jesus might be a prophet, a wise teacher, a holy man, and so on. Today’s reading answers the question: He may be a wise teacher and a holy man and so on, but that is not what matters: What matters is that He is the Christ, the messiah, the son of the living God. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this is the confession, the truth, on which Christianity stands or falls.

It’s also a hard saying (cf. Jn 6:60), and I don’t think I’m being unfair in suggesting that there are people today who say Jesus is a wise teacher, a holy man, perhaps a prophet, but no more, and certainly not something as threatening as the Christ who, should he exist, would imply the existence of God Almighty. This is the confession of an ersatz faith that might call itself Christianity, but isn’t, because it substitutes an acknowledgement of Jesus for a confession of Christ.

We might call this alternative religion “Jesusism.” Although Jesusism probably has almost as many variants as believers, I think that we might perceive its central tenets: Jesus was a nice man and a wise teacher who was really nice to people and said some wise things. He had a special understanding of a divine power that we might call “god” (although she—Jesusists are keen on the feminine pronoun—has gone by many names through history). He was ultimately killed by the Romans because he worked for social justice and sought to change the status quo. Naturally, the Jesusists are very keen on doing what Jesus would have done—especially that last part about changing the status quo, no matter what the predicate situation!—and imagining what Jesus might have said about modern social phenomena. That’s a tough task in which they are hindered by their internal disagreements on what exactly Jesus said: While the Jesusists all acknowledge the existence of the Bible, and while they all understand that it was written in a specific time and must therefore be corrected by our subsequently-accumulated wisdom (!), and while they all realize that it has been corrupted and interpolated by organized religion since it was written (!)—the Jesusists themselves, of course, aren’t religious, boo, hiss, because religion is a patriarchal opiate, but they are very spiritual—they nevertheless disagree among themselves on exactly how to correct these issues and on which sayings of Jesus are authentic. Naturally, they soft-pedal today’s reading, because the messiah of Israel doesn’t fit into Jesus-as-a nice-man-ism. (They also tend to insist that the commission Jesus promises Peter is a later interpolation—but it must have been added very early in the Church’s history to escape any variance in the manuscript history, and since they also insist that the papacy in the form in support of which this passage is often adduced was unknown to the same early church, you have to wonder why it might have been added.)

You can’t even really call it heresy. If you take out the “Christ” part, including anything fundamental that is implied and understood within that part, the predicate for calling it heresy disappears: It’s really not even a Christian heresy any more. It becomes an entirely different “religion,” constructed centuries after the fact on dry texts. 

So let’s not have any of this soft humanism masquerading as religion. (Cf. Chesterton, Orthodoxy 136-37 (1909).) Let us instead confess, with Peter, that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and order our lives accordingly.