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21. Sunday A (23.08.2020)

Almost daily we are reminded by the news that the ballot box is approaching, hence we live with a heightened political sensitivity. Our first reading therefore may today stir us more that at other times. The text speaks of the past, the time of the prophet Isaiah, but with memorable relevance. We are told of politicians, persons of public influence. One of them is Shebna, master of the palace. As such he is the treasurer, something like the minister of finance in the reign of King Hezekiah. We know little about him, but he appears to have been the leader of a party who favoured a military alliance with Egypt against Assyria. That must surely count as bad strategy, something profoundly godless, because it went directly against what Yahweh had ordered his people through the prophets: No return to Egypt!. More serious however is something else that manifests itself by the description of his successor, a man who is introduced as my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah. Obviously he is the opposite of Shebna, a visible contrast. We hear of Eliakim: He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, exactly what Shebna failed to be. So Israel is given this consolation: A public authority that lacks paternal care for those under its rule is fired and replaced, by Yahweh, the Master of all history, for from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen, as St. Paul assured us in the second reading.

Let us turn to the gospel. Jesus asks a question: What do people say about me? And then, But who do you say that I am?  What do YOU say about me? Obviously, everyone of us here would know something to say about Jesus. Otherwise we would not have come to church today. But what do we have to say about him? In our neighbourhoods we will find many people who were not brought up in a Christian tradition. When they ask, “you often talk of Jesus Christ; who is this person really?”, what will you reply?

Certainly, there is no simple answer that might be helpful. One can, and should, of course present all the information that the gospels provide. Jesus was a Jew, living about 2000 years ago, in Palestine, north west of Lake Genesaret, a handy man, joiner or carpenter, later giving up this profession when he started to move across the region trying to explain the religion of their fathers to his contemporaries, to renew and reform their faith and practice. However, the ruling authorities of his time did not see any need for reform, and they would not tolerate any criticism. So they soon intervened, and with Jesus’ execution they wished to stop this whole affair once and for good.

Beyond doubt, that would be a correct answer. But of course, it is not complete. For it conceals the extra­ordinary impact Jesus’ teaching had on those who directly witnessed his way of life and heard him teach. They were impressed by his personality. Hence they continued to talk about this Jesus, otherwise he would be as forgotten today as all the other people of his village for whom he did carpentry work. But Jesus proved unforgettable. Those who had met him were so fascinated that they found it impossible adequately to explain their experience. Even after he had been killed, they were sure they had met him, ate with him, talked with him, received orders from him to make him known everywhere,  “I am with you always, until the end of the world”. For them, the Church, he clearly is the centre of world history. The great event!

However, there is also this other question of Jesus from which we must not try to escape. “But who do YOU say who I am?” This is an intimate personal question. It cannot be answered by quoting the Bible or the Catechism of the Church. For what Jesus wants to hear is this: What role do I play in your life? Do I matter to you?

Fr. Dietmar Lenfers