by Dave Shulman
It may be true that “much depends on dinner”, but in the world of housing, everything depends on location, location, location.
Real estate figures prominently in today’s gospel passage. Jesus and the disciples are just outside Caesarea Philippi, a complex that today would be called a “prime waterfront location” for the monster homes and temples of the Herodian family. The Herodians are the puppet rulers of Palestine installed by the Roman Empire to create the illusion of local self-rule. They got to develop the waterfront properties as a reward for pandering to Roman interests while thousands were homeless and dispossessed. And like the exclusive real estate of our own time, these properties have guards . . . and gates.
It is near the gates of the Herodian family compound that Jesus chooses to reveal something to the disciples. The Greek word for reveal is “apocalypto” and for centuries people have been so mesmerized by Jesus that they look for a revelation about his personal identity and overlook the importance of the location. The disciples turn Jesus’ question about the Son of Man into a guessing game of titles and “name-that-prophet”, concerned only with who the Son of Man is – not what the Son of Man will do with enclaves like Caesarea Philippi.
In fact, people have been playing this game throughout Matthew’s gospel. Herod identifies Jesus as the avenging ghost of John the Baptist (Matthew 14). And in Matthew 11, John the Baptist asks Jesus whether he is “the one to come” – or will it be someone else.
Jesus’ reply to John the Baptist sheds some light on today’s passage. Tell John that miracles are being worked, but then he adds: “Blessed are those who don’t stumble because of me”. In other words, blessed are those who aren’t distracted by wonders and titles, but who are ready to follow the Way to a new world – a world without guards or gates.
Maybe too much has been made of Peter’s messianic recognition. After all, Jesus has already been recognized by the Canaanite woman as the “Son of David” in the previous chapter. And when Peter does use the “M” word, notice how quickly Jesus shifts the focus from messianic identity to the keys and building blocks of a new society where what is loosed and bound in heaven will be loosed and bound on earth.
To obsess about identity is to stumble and overlook the significance of what the gates of exclusion represent in the first century – and the twenty-first century. Jesus has chosen this location to underscore the struggle to smash such gates once and for all. Like most struggles, there will be casualties, and for the first time, Jesus reveals that he will be one of those casualties. Talk of gate crashing and casualties disconcerts Peter and turns him from being a building block into a stumbling block.
But truthfully, most of us would rather follow Peter than follow Jesus. It’s easier to speculate about Jesus’ identity than to breach the gates of privilege. It’s easier to colour-code Jesus’ sayings to uncover the “real man”, and more fun to hypothesize about his relationship with Mary Magdalene – than it is to pass an Affordable Housing Act in the Parliament of Canada.
So the gates remain standing. In some cities, the gates of exclusive property stand next to homeless shelters. The gates stay up while Toronto public housing is governed by a Herod-like puppet – and thousands have no housing at all.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Because Jesus also says that for those committed to God’s justice, another world is possible. And not only is another world possible, it’s possible in the lifetime of a generation.
Think about it. The women who launched the first International Women’s Day in 1911, they struggled, there were casualties, but they did not “taste of death” till they won the right to vote. Think of the labour movement in 1911, they struggled, there were many casualties, but they did not “taste of death” till they won the right to collective bargaining. And this generation can testify to the courage of those who have taken up the cross of justice and changed the world in a single lifetime.
And so the real question isn’t who-is-Jesus, but who is willing to take up a cross.
The real question isn’t who-is-Jesus, but who is willing to defy the Herods and say to the Caesars: “Do your worst, we’re not afraid to speak out”.
The real question isn’t who-is-Jesus, but who is willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with the angels and storm the gates of hell.
The real question isn’t who-is-Jesus . . . it’s who are you?