In the opening sentence of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus poses the question to his disciples: ‘Who do people say that I am?’ This leads into a dialogue about his identity as the Messiah. What, though, was Jesus like as a person? If I was asked to describe his personality I would not be able to do so.
Why should this be so? When authors write biographies of well known people, past and present, we are usually given an indication at least of what they were like as people. They may be revealed as virtuous and kind or scheming and corrupt, extrovert or introvert and so on. From this, and photography and film we can get at least an idea of the personality of the one concerned.
When we consider the life of Jesus, though, his personality is somehow obscured. We know that he is the Son of God and Saviour of mankind but what about him as a person as you or I are? Throughout the ages artist and sculptors and film makers have produced numerous images of Jesus as a baby, and a boy and as an adult in agony on the Cross. To my mind these images give us the unique story of the life of Jesus rather than his personality. There are episodes in the New Testament that give us his attitudes to life. We know that he was strong willed in that he defies the norm by staying in the Temple in Jerusalem for the Passover without his parents knowing. He is welcoming and supportive of little children as he says: ‘suffer little children to come unto me’. He can get angry; he curses the fig tree and overthrows the tables of the money changers in the Temple. He can be sorrowful; he wept for a friend. All this leading up to the agony the garden before the Crucifixion. Where, though, is his personality in all this?
If narratives, images and behaviours do not answer, can it be found in his identity? If we consider today’s Gospel reading, Mark gives us a strong message that Jesus does not want his identity as the Messiah to be known and that, to my mind, obscures his personality even further. Jesus asks his disciples ‘who do people say that I am?’ When Peter replies ‘You are the Messiah’ he strongly orders the disciples not to tell anyone about him. Jesus keeps himself at a distance by referring to himself in the third person as the Son of Man ‘who is to be rejected, killed and then rise again after three days’. He stays with the third person when he says it is the Son of Man who will come ‘in the glory of his father’. Again, a few verses on in Mark’s Gospel, after the Transfiguration, Jesus ‘charged them that they should tell no man what they had seen ‘until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead’.
What, then, might be the reason for not being able to perceive the personality of Jesus in the New Testament? He teaches, he heals, he commands, he endures, he suffers, but where is the person?
An explanation may be found in the book entitled ‘The Bible for Grown-ups’ by Simon Loveday. Simon writes that the words of Jesus saying: ‘go and tell no man of this’ are often repeated in Mark’s Gospel as this leaves the field clear for others to write his story. Another possibility, Simon writes, is that Jesus is ‘very selective about who he reveals his true identity to because, as chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel reveals, it would allow the Jews to be converted and their sins forgiven.’ A further explanation is given in Jerome’s Biblical Commentary which states that the secrecy surrounding his identity ‘allows Jesus to avoid misinterpretation of his discipleship’. We have to wait until chapter 16 of Mark’s Gospel before the secret is out.
I believe there is a further reason why we cannot find the personality of Jesus. The reason is that those who wrote the Gospels were not concerned with personality. In ancient times there were stories written about those who did good deeds and those who did not but we cannot readily perceive the personalities of the people concerned. The story was what counted. This precedence of story is, to my mind, the approach of the New Testament writers. They want us to know what Jesus did, and illustrated those deeds with certain behaviours because they want us to focus on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus which lies at the heart of our faith. It is enough for us to know that the Word became flesh and was to suffer, be crucified and rise again to sit at the right hand of God. We are not asked to consider a personality profile but to contemplate the divine which is God revealing himself in the life of Jesus.
As we learn from today’s Gospel reading, the personalities of the disciples are not to be revealed either. On the contrary, Jesus calls upon them to deny the self in order to take up their Cross and follow him. They are being asked to have faith in that which they cannot comprehend but must trust in as the loving purpose of God.
Today we are also called upon to trust in this loving purpose in the midst of the pandemic, the situation in Afghanistan, the threat of terrorist attacks and the threat to the planet brought about by climate change. A tall order but if we stand firm in faith and not give up in working towards a better world then much can be achieved and remember that we have the promise of eternal life already made to us by God in his covenant with us.