Year A – 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Strange Gods

[Isa.22:19-23; Rom.11:33-36; Mt.16:13-19]

Do you remember the First Commandment? That’s the one which says, ‘You shall have no other gods before me’.

It tells us that God should always come first in our lives. Why? It’s because we owe our lives to Him. We all come from God, and right now we’re all on our way back towards God.

But many people forget this, or they choose to ignore it because they think the Ten Commandments are much too restrictive for our modern world.

GK Chesterton thought differently. He saw in the Ten Commandments not a world full of no, but of yes, and he argued for their beauty. ‘The curtness of the Ten Commandments is evidence,’ he wrote, ‘not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but… of its liberality and humanity because most things are permitted.’

In her book Strange Gods, Elizabeth Scalia writes: ‘We are so conditioned to think of religion as a bunch of rules that Chesterton’s words almost seem absurd. (But the truth is that) there’s nothing wider than God’s mercy or deeper than His love, if we agree to bend to Him rather than towards our own inclinations.’ [i]

So, who or what do you bend to in your life?

Sadly, most people barely give God a thought. They prefer the false gods of money, power, politics, pleasure and even themselves.

But ‘when we’re obsessed with ourselves,’ Scalia writes, ‘all our feelings, desires and thoughts become like gods to us. They lead us down a long winding path that seems to take us somewhere, but really they only take us down into the dungeon of ourselves. [ii]

In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, near a very large cave at the foot of Mount Hermon. In ancient times this cave was considered the gateway to the dark underworld of Hades. It had a shrine where the Greeks used nasty rituals to worship Pan, the half-goat, half-man god of animals, nature and fright (hence the word ‘panic’).  

Nearby was a temple where the Romans worshipped Emperor Augustus.

Jesus has been with his disciples for perhaps two years now, but He wonders if they really know him. So, in the shadow of these false gods He asks them, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’

They answer: ‘John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’

Then He asks, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter replies, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’

Jesus is delighted by this answer. But He knows that Peter’s faith hasn’t come from Him alone, so He makes the point that it’s a gift from God. Indeed, faith always starts with God, not with us. It begins with God opening himself up to us and inviting us to share in His divine life.

But invitations are either accepted or rejected, so today we must decide for ourselves: do we choose a life of faith? Do we accept Jesus as the Son of God?

In his book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis says that it would be wrong for anyone to say that they accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but not as God himself.

‘That’s the one thing we must not say,’ he says, ‘because a man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.’ Rather, ‘he would either be a lunatic – (like) the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.’

‘You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call him Lord and God. But let’s not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.’ [iii]

When Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ they were surrounded by the false gods of ancient times.

Today, surrounded by the false gods of our own time, Jesus is asking us the very same question.

Who is Jesus to you?  

How you answer that will shape the way you live your life, both today and tomorrow.

It will also determine how you spend your eternity. 

[i] Scalia, E. Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press. 2013:118.

[ii] Op cit. p.23.

[iii] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Fontana Books, London, 1969:52-53.