“Increase our faith.” The apostles in this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 17:5-10) give voice to a prayer all of us need to offer from time to time. But what is the virtue of faith for which we need to pray?
Faith is a big topic — too big for one article — but in order to get at one of its most important dimensions, I’d like to begin with one of my least favorite movie scenes of all time. The scene takes place in the 1973 musical film, Jesus Christ Superstar. There is a moment, after the suicide of Judas and during Jesus’ trial, when we flash to a rather fantastic scene meant, I suppose, to represent some region of the world to come.
In this scene, Judas stands on an elevated surface, dressed in white robes and surrounded by women who are perhaps supposed to represent angels — but the effect is really more evocative of something like a celestial James Brown and his backup singers. In any case, they sing a series of questions in a challenging and confrontational tone of voice to Jesus, Who stands silently below them. The questions push Jesus to speak about His identity and culminate in the refrain from which the movie takes its name: “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, who are you? What have you sacrificed? Jesus Christ Superstar, do you think you’re who they say you are?”
This scene seems to reverse the order of judgment, so that the deceased person has a shot at judging Jesus instead of Jesus judging each of us. It also reverses the order we see in another important Gospel passage about the virtue of faith, Matthew 16:13-20, where Jesus asks the question of His apostles, “Who do you say that I am?”
In today’s world, and particularly in the United States, we are used to the idea that leaders are subject to public scrutiny. “We the people,” ultimately, are more important than any single political leader and have a deeper and more lasting authority. We might often get carried away in our scrutiny and criticism, but no one questions that we have the basic right to scrutinize. Even our leaders themselves acknowledge as much.
God is not just another leader Whom we can place under the microscope of public critique. And so we cannot do that with the Son of God, Jesus Christ. We do not challenge Jesus to tell us His identity. It is His prerogative to question us.
But what works with human authorities does not work with God! God is not just another leader Whom we can place under the microscope of public critique. And so we cannot do that with the Son of God, Jesus Christ. We do not challenge Jesus to tell us His identity. It is His prerogative to question us.
This is not to say that Jesus tells us nothing about Himself. On the contrary, the very reason He came to earth and took human flesh in the first place was to reveal God to us. And then He asks us whether we “get it” — meaning, whether we have faith, when He asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
Notice that when Peter answers this question, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16), two things happen:
First, we see that he is correct, that God has unlocked for Peter the mystery of Who Jesus is: the Christ and the Son of the Living God. So Peter has real faith. He does not invent some identity for Jesus of his own choosing, as we see so often when people try to reduce Jesus to something less than the Son of God or when they want Jesus but not the Church, which the Gospel so clearly speaks against. Peter instead has faith in what the Father has revealed to him: that Jesus is unlike anyone Peter has ever met, that to see Jesus is to see the human face of God.
Second, Peter not only finds Jesus’ identity in this encounter, but faith is the key to unlocking his own identity as well. Once Peter “gets” Who Jesus is, then and only then is he ready to be the man he is truly meant to be, or even to know what kind of man he is meant to be. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” leads very quickly to, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (16:18).
How does all of this apply to us? Pope St. John Paul II has taught, as did the Second Vatican Council, that, “Jesus Christ is the answer to which every human life is the question.” The more deeply we discover Who Jesus is, the more deeply we will understand who we are and who we are called to be. Peter learned that he was a rock of faith, called to be the leader of the Church. We know that our Holy Father Pope Francis shares this call today.
(M)an-made identities are always faulty. And a faulty sense of identity leads to a distorted sense of personal mission. And pursuing our own agendas instead of our God-given mission is the path to disaster and spiritual ruin, no matter how much fun a person might think he’s having along the path to disaster and ruin.
Our call will not be the call of St. Peter and Pope Francis, unless we have the first American pope reading this article today! But each of us has a God-given identity and a God-given call, a mission, to match it: to be a priest or sister, to be a faithful spouse and a good parent, to be a holy friend and to unleash the Gospel in the world and in our work.
Given all of the emotional and psychological difficulties we suffer from today, who wouldn’t want to trade in the twisted and broken man-made identities we give ourselves or others try to force upon us for one crafted specifically by God? But even those of us tempted by pride, who like their man-made identities, are called to surrender those as well, because man-made identities are always faulty. And a faulty sense of identity leads to a distorted sense of personal mission. And pursuing our own agendas instead of our God-given mission is the path to disaster and spiritual ruin, no matter how much fun a person might think he’s having along the path to disaster and ruin.
We begin by refusing to place ourselves in the role of judge over God, by becoming clearer that we are the disciples and that Jesus is the Master. This is the first step to answering with great faith Jesus’ very direct, personal question, the most important question any one of us could ever answer: “Who do you say that I am?”
Our answer to this question shapes our entire lives from that point forward. It brings many blessings, much for which we should be thankful. It also leads us to share in the Cross of Jesus, as we so clearly see today in the witness of our brothers and sisters in Asia and Africa who are suffering and dying for their faith.
They know, and we need to know, that suffering is not about being alienated from God. It’s about drawing closer to Him. Jesus has suffered and died for us, and He is the Son of God Who has power over suffering, sin and death. When Jesus makes Himself present to us in the Holy Eucharist, may each of us recognize Him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and may we pledge our lives to Him Who has given His life for us.
Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.