"Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check"
James knew the problems of being an evangelist and teacher, you put your head above the parapet and become an easy target if you say the wrong thing. He says, ‘We all stumble in many ways.’ The word he uses means ‘slip up’.
Someone once said, ‘The pavement of life is strewn with orange peel.’ Perhaps banana peel would be more appropriate, but you get the drift. We use our voices to sing hymns of praise to God, we pray to God when things are getting tough, and we use our voices to moan about all sorts of stuff, say things that are either unfair or unjust, share our dislike about certain individuals (who, says James, have been made, like us, in God’s likeness).
Our voices have the capacity to gain us both friends and enemies. We’ve tamed goodness knows how many different types of animal, says James, and yet we can’t tame our own tongues. Unless we’re perfect, he adds. So, I guess we’re all OK? William Barclay in his commentary sums James’ words up quite poetically, I think. ‘The tongue can bless or curse; the tongue can wound or soothe; the tongue can speak the fairest things, and the tongue can speak the foulest things. It is one of life’s hardest duties, and it is one of life’s plainest duties, to see to it that the tongue does not contradict itself, but that it ever speaks only such words as we would wish God to hear.’
Mark tells us Jesus wanted to know what people were saying about him. He was moving so fast it was probably difficult to keep track of how well his teaching, which was mainly through parables of course, was getting the message across. Jesus probably had a good idea what the authorities thought about him, the theologians and synagogue leaders.
But what about the ordinary folk? What did they think, what was the word on the street?
You have to bear in mind that Jesus asked this question when they were in Caesarea Philippi, which in the past had been a centre for the worship of Baal. In the hillside there was a cavern said to be the birthplace of the Greek God, Pan, the god of nature. From another cave came a stream believed to be the source of the River Jordan, and further up the hillside was a gleaming temple of white marble that the local ruler Philip had built to worship the Roman Emperor, who was regarded as a god.
Anyway, Jesus asks the question, ‘Who do the crowds that follow me everywhere say I am?’ and although the responses are mixed, it’s sort of encouraging I guess, even if no-one seems to have put two and two together and made anything like four, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’
Then he puts the disciples on the spot. He knows they must have been talking about this over the time they’ve been around him, and he’s dropped plenty of clues. So he asks them. And it’s impetuous Peter who opens his mouth and blurts out, ‘You are the Messiah.’
This is almost the midpoint in Mark’s Gospel. From then everything is a walk to the cross. There’s not a lot of time left for the penny to drop, because the opposition was growing. Just like Isaiah, Jesus, in the things he said and did, laid himself open to being condemned by the religious leaders, because they certainly couldn’t see what he was other than a good teacher and potential troublemaker.
So, for Jesus this was a very important question to ask of his disciples. If he had lived and taught and moved among these people and no-one had glimpsed God in him, then all his would have been in vain. Jesus had a message to leave for the whole world, and that includes us, and it had to be written on people’s hearts, so it could be passed on and written down. So, for Peter to answer the ‘Who am I?’ question with ‘You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Son of God’ all of which are encompassed in his response, meant that all was not lost! But now wasn’t the time to open their mouths and start telling other people.
Why not? Surely that’s what Jesus wanted all those others who seemed confused about him to know? And of course, that was true. But first and foremost he had to go on to teach his disciples, his followers, what Messiahship really meant. Because it probably wasn’t what the disciples thought, and that’s why Jesus didn’t want them blurting out the name in every village they went through – people would get entirely the wrong end of the stick, and the authorities would silence him in days.
Because the word Messiah meant something different to the Jews at that time than it does to us now. Then, after generations of oppression and exile, it meant God intervening in the world in a way in which the people couldn’t do by themselves. It would be a time of great tribulation, the birth-pangs of a new age from which would emerge Elijah again to be the herald (a bit like John the Baptist) and bring a little order into the chaos before Messiah appeared, some kind of super-human figure out of Marvel comics who would remake the world, destroy the hostile powers (there would be a lot of blood shed) and bring down a new Jerusalem from heaven where the dispersed Jews from all over the world could return and gather. Then would follow a new age of peace and goodness that would last forever.
So, that was the expectation. No pressure then, Jesus! And no wonder that he didn’t want the disciples going off and bragging about him. Jesus needed to re-educate them, because he was not the Messiah they were thinking about. No wonder then, when he started talking about the Messiah having to suffer much and eventually being killed that Peter should open his mouth again and reprimand him for talking nonsense. To Peter, this kind of Messiah was impossible!
That’s why Peter got such a stern rebuke, because Jesus knew that he had the power to be what they wanted, but that was not the way it had to be .
It was like a revisit to those first few days of temptation in the wilderness after his baptism in the Jordan. Peter, in what he said was speaking similar words to the great tempter himself, Satan! Jesus did not want any of his followers, or even the fans on the side-lines, to misunderstand what his role and mission was. He was absolutely open and upfront about what following him meant. And it wasn’t going to be an easy road to follow, but it was also a road that he was prepared to go along himself and face whatever it held.
Follow me, he said, but don’t follow me part of the way, be with me to the cross and beyond, and if that means carrying your own cross, then so be it.