Among the fables of Aesop is one entitled “The Hunter and the Woodsman.” A hunter was out following the tracks of a lion. He asked a woodsman in the forest if he had seen any tracks. “Oh yes,” said the woodsman, “In fact, I can even take you to the lion's den myself.” At this, the hunter turned pale and stuttered, “No, no, thank you. It is only his tracks for which I am looking.”
In today's Gospel, Jesus asks the disciples two questions. The first was, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" And they answered, "John the Baptist; Elijah; or one of the prophets." Now, none of these descriptions of Jesus is unflattering. On the contrary, the answers show that, unlike the religious leaders, the crowds, the people at large, were friendly to Jesus.
Their answers tell us that the people saw him as holy, a figure out of the Scriptures, a messenger of God. But then, Jesus asked the second question, "Who do you say that I am?" And Peter answered, "The Messiah."
If Jesus asked us those questions today, what would we say to the first? It's a good question. What do people say about Jesus, all those people we see every day, at work, at the store, in our neighbourhoods, even at home? What do they really think about him?
Many of our friends and neighbours are active followers of Jesus. Many are not. Some are like the crowds described by the disciples. They see him as a great teacher, a good and wise man, an outstanding figure of antiquity. And then there are others whose picture of Jesus is not even that developed. It's not that they're hostile, as were the scribes and Pharisees, but they're simply not interested, one way or the other.
Oh, they've heard the name, but "Jesus" is just someone who lived long ago and far away. Nothing to do with me. And they're amused or bewildered by the people who go to church.
Actually, here's some information from the Chief of Naval Chaplains office. Among new navy recruits - mostly teenagers, 17 to 19 years old - just about half know Jesus is called the Son of God; only a third can recite the Lord's Prayer without making a mistake; and barely one in four realize that Easter is when Christians celebrate the Resurrection. Amazing. But let's keep things in perspective. Those figures were reported in 1947.
The point is that benign apathy towards Jesus is nothing new. Even the “Greatest Generation” struggled. But why has there been such a reluctance to respond to him? I mean, in his own time that might have been understandable, but we know who he was, is. Well, maybe that's the problem.
Consider how the disciples reacted to what Jesus said after Peter identified him as the Messiah. He began to talk about crosses and self-denial and being killed and rising from the dead and the disciples, it says, began to draw back. In St. Matthew's telling of the story, they become so agitated that Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him flat out that this sort of talk isn't what they want to hear.
And these are the very people who have gone far above the level of the crowds. But they find the implications of what they've discovered too much to handle. Like the Woodsman in the fable, Jesus is taking them to meet the lion when, like the Hunter, they'd rather just look at the tracks.
Perhaps, knowing who Jesus really is and what he expects is the reason so many draw back. Much easier to respect Jesus from a distance. Agree that he was a good man, but for all practical purposes, join in with the crowds. Then maybe we can avoid the second question.
But "Who do you say that I am?” doesn’t go away. Who do you say, not just in the quiet moments of prayer, not just when you are sharing with your fellow Christians. But who do we say that Jesus is when we're in the presence of those who don't know him, or don’t care, or indeed, whether we know it or not, those who might just be curious and really want to know what we think?
Yes, the time will come for us to meet the lion and, when that happens, who, indeed, will we say that he is?