Thanks to William Shakespeare, Hamlet said a mouthful! The Danish prince’s immortal soliloquy is a haunting search for human identity and meaning, caught as we all are between life and death. Most of us can reel off the first ten words of Hamlet’s ponderings without mistake, but we likely need help to get further and certainly need some informed guidance in making sense of the rest of it. Life and death, meaning and identity – they are the things that begin niggling at us early on and stalk us throughout the rest of life. Some folks seem to understand the challenges and live life accordingly; we may well envy them. Others are perpetually caught in the struggle to understand.
This coming Sunday’s readings resonate well with Hamlet’s soliloquy, but the texts as a group provide the faithful more help than the lonely Hamlet had found. At first, Sunday’s Bible passages seem an odd lot. The Gospel is Peter’s “good confession” made while Jesus and his disciples were in the region of Caesarea Philippi [Mark 8:27-38]. Jesus asks a question about the impact of their work on the folks they’ve encountered. Who do they say that I am? It’s a fair question. Teachers call the process such a question prompts “learning assessment.” Check with Google® and discover just how committed many folks, organizations, and educational institutions are to finding what those assessments might reveal. It’s dangerous simply to assume that the students, workers, or employees have “gotten” what the teachers, administrators, or corporate office hope to communicate. Hamlet might well have reframed his opening, “To get it or not to get it, that is the question.”
However, Jesus ups the ante by looking at impetuous Peter and nailing him: Who do YOU say that I am? Jesus, up close and personal, gives no wiggle room for the steadfast, brash, often hasty, and utterly anxious apostle who would eventually deny that he even knew Jesus. It is fortunately a glorious day for Peter the rock, for he speaks from the heart of faith: You are the Messiah. It is a gutsy assertion for the devout Jewish fisherman. In faith he perceives Jesus to be the one long awaited by Israel, God’s own anointed of whom the prophets of old had much to say. Although Jesus forbids the disciples to chatter about this discovery with others, once confronted with his identity their lives are entirely changed. Peter and his colleagues have come through the scutwork of mastering basic discipleship. The reality of the Messiah’s presence has just made the learning curve steep indeed.
Perhaps that is why those who drew up the collection of Bible readings for each Sunday [a.k.a. the Lectionary] anchored this Gospel passage among several Old and New Testament texts discussing the meaning and pitfalls of being a teacher. Isaiah 50 observes, The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. The Psalmist [Psalm 116] notes that God has heard his questions, yearnings, and anxious moments and gives insight and understanding. The Psalmist, like Jesus’ disciples learning of his identity as Messiah, can assert, I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living. Finally, the Letter of James offers some wise advice to one and all: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness [James 3:1]. Many we encounter may spout off utter nonsense rather than weighing the issues. It takes a committed teacher with integrity and the moral fiber to discern truth from hogwash, not swayed by whatever whim, rumor, or dubious claims have claimed our attention. As James says, … no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison [James 3:8]. Thus, it is important to discern who is a good teacher, worthy of trust, one who seeks to build up and not tear down or divide.
Closely related to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah of God, God’s anointed [in Greek, the Christ] is his identity as Rabbi or teacher. John’s gospel reports that on the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion with time running out to form his wayward disciples, Jesus washes their feet at dinner. Always the teacher, he asks them: Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you… [John 13:12b-15].
Every Sunday – in fact, every DAY – is Rally Day for Jesus. Rally Day isn’t finished when we all find our Sunday School rooms. Jesus’ rallying call is a reminder that much depends upon our paying attention, opening our minds and hearts to what the Messiah, the Good Teacher, is asking of us all. Hamlet was correct; the challenges in life are considerable: “…Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of th’unworthy takes…” [Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1]. Jesus’ disciples also have much to learn and much to do. Thanks be to God for our Good Teacher who guides us.