In the days long before caller line identification existed, when you make a telephone call, the first thing that most people would do is to identify oneself to the one you are calling and only after that would a conversation continue. However, if you fail to do so, the person on the other end of the line is likely to ask, ‘who am I speaking to?’ The conversation proceeds only after that relationship has been established. Not only the tone of your voice and the cordiality afforded during that conversation is determined by what kind of a relationship you share with the other person, the amount of self-disclosure would also be determined by the kind of relationship you share.
Our gospel today has Jesus placing before His disciples two questions regarding His identity: ‘who do people say I am?’ and ‘who do you say I am?’ The questions are put not because Jesus was unsure (doubted) who He was or needed to feel affirmed by His disciples. The questions were intended to prepare them for the time has come for Jesus to disclose to them more explicitly His destiny. The verse right after the last sentence of our gospel today reads: “From then onwards Jesus began to make it clear to His disciples that He was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day” (Mt 16:21).
But before He goes further, Jesus intends to hand over the earthly ministry He began. Despite knowing that Peter was going to deny Him three times and on many occasions, he did not understand what Jesus was talking about, in our gospel today, we hear Jesus speaking about handing over the responsibilities of leading and continuing His ministry to Simon Peter. Looking at what is written about Simon Peter in the gospels and the way he responded to different situations, in today’s world, no CEO would have handed over the reins to him. By human standards, Simon Peter certainly did not qualify to lead Jesus’ ministry. Yet, Jesus saw in Simon Peter more than what the world would have seen – to see beyond his imperfections.
We live in a world where we show little tolerance towards imperfections. We pride ourselves on being perfectionists and we want to create a perfect generation of people. People whom society consider as “imperfect” (not just physical imperfections) are often left behind because there are those who don’t possess all the skill sets required to accomplish many tasks, or they may be slow or weighed down by other impediments. We see each other as finished products and not as one in the process of improvisation. Since perfection is the goal, we end up being impatient and intolerant towards people who don’t meet the standards that we have set for ourselves and for others… it could be an elderly parent struggling with old age, an “imperfect” spouse who has to multitask, a growing teenager struggling with identity, or even a slow worker or colleague who is not able to cope with stress. Because of this “obsession” for perfection, we often end up complicating our relationships more than they ordinarily would.
I am not saying that we should not strive for perfection… even Jesus, in the context of the Beatitudes, makes it clear – “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect!” (Mt 5:48) However, perfection does not happen overnight; rather, it is a lifelong process which implies that we cannot just sit back and expect perfection to happen. When we put in the effort, God fills the gaps. In the words of St Thomas Aquinas, “grace builds on nature”. But the underlying question is, how long must I accept imperfection in another person? It is similar to the question Simon Peter put to Jesus, ‘how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? Seven times? Jesus answered ‘seventy-seven times’ (Mt 18:21).
When Jesus made Simon Peter the rock, it was not a perfectly cut rock – it was certainly a rock with many rough edges. Over time, the grace of God and the community of disciples, smoothened out the rough edges. Life is not about perfection because we can never be “perfect”. Rather, strive for continuous improvement for that is what God demands of us and if we can learn to accept the imperfections of others and encourage each other to grow, rather than being critical, we can only become better – for the greater glory of God. God loves us though we are imperfect but the gospel today challenges us to love the imperfections of others in the way God loves us in our own imperfections.
– 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)