Have you ever had a burning question? I mean the kind of question that you just had to find the answer to, a question that didn’t have an easy answer, and that stayed with you for a while? I had a burning question not too long ago. I remember that I was getting ready for bed. I climbed into bed, laid back slowly, and the question began burning within me. The question was: “What on earth did I eat?!” Turns out the burning question was caused by acid reflux.
Today, I want to ask a simple, yet burning question. It’s only three words, and yet it’s fundamental to all of our lives. The question is this: Who is Jesus?
Like it or not, it is a question that everyone must answer. For once we have heard about this man, Jesus, we realize that his very existence has major implications for how we are to live our lives. If Jesus had just been a nice guy and a moral teacher, it would be easy enough to dismiss him as some historical figure. But Jesus did something unique, something that no moral teacher had done before him—he claimed to be God.
Now, if someone were to walk up to you today and make a claim like that, what would you think? To be honest, I know what I would think—this guy’s one shy of a six-pack! I’d be as kind as I could, nodding and smiling as he went on about his divinity, but the whole time I’d be looking for an exit strategy. Does this guy actually believe that he’s God? Only a crazy person would claim that, and I’d be even crazier to believe him!
But maybe this guy isn’t crazy after all. Maybe he’s in his right mind. Maybe he knows exactly what he’s saying, and he’s trying to fool me. He must have some evil intention of controlling me or getting me to join his weirdo cult. In that case, he’s not crazy, he’s the most malicious of liars. Again, time to jump ship from this conversation.
But what if he’s neither a lunatic nor a liar? What if he’s telling the truth? Of course, I’d need some proof. I’d need to see some kind of sign that he has superhuman powers or knowledge, or he would have to demonstrate that he’s immortal. Only then would I really believe that he’s actually God. And if I believed that, I wouldn’t be looking for the nearest exit—I’d fall down on my knees and worship my Lord.
This situation is often called the “Trilemma,” an argument put forth by many modern theologians, and most famously by C.S. Lewis in his book, Mere Christianity. In short, we all have to decide whether Jesus is lunatic, liar, or Lord. It is a trilemma because there is no fourth option where we decide not to care. For, in walking away from the decision, we have, in fact, made a decision.
And so we must answer this question, Who is Jesus? And this is precisely the question that St. Mark seeks to answer in his Gospel.
Today we continue our reading of the Gospel of Mark, picking up where we left off last week. To recap, Jesus has just called his first disciples to join him as he begins his public ministry in the fishing village of Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. This week he enters the synagogue and begins to teach, and in the midst of his teaching, the people witness his first miracle—the healing of a man possessed by demons. By his style of teaching and his ability to heal the demoniac, Jesus demonstrates something about who he is.
At this stage of the story, the disciples and the townspeople are not completely sure who this newcomer is. Is he a prophet? Is he a scholar? Is he a physician or some kind of traveling medicine man? No one seems to know except for this possessed man, who says, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Of course, there’s no way the possessed man would have known this—it was the demon speaking, and the demons certainly know who Jesus is. But those gathered in the synagogue, and presumably, the one today reading the Gospel for the first time, do not necessarily know who Jesus is.
So, in order for us to understand how Jesus’ identity is revealed in this gospel passage, it is critical to understand first who Moses is.
In the first reading we just heard, Moses delivers a message from God to the Israelites. God has promised to raise up a prophet from among their kin, and this prophet will be like Moses himself. Moses was a unifying figure for the Israelite people, and he became the greatest prophet of the Jewish religion. The Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt for generations, and Moses was called by God to lead his people into freedom. But Moses knew that he couldn’t just waltz right into town and take charge of the vast number of Israelites. He even objected, telling God that he was not good at public speaking. So, God instructed Moses to recruit the help of his brother, Aaron, who was a good speaker, and he gave Moses the ability to perform miraculous signs as proof of his authority. He could turn his walking staff into a snake; he could turn his hand leprous and then instantly turn it healthy again; he could take water from the Nile and turn it into blood. When Moses performed these signs before the elders of the Israelites, they believed that he was sent from God.
And yet, the rest of the Israelites did not immediately respond to Moses. They were skeptical of him, not trusting that he had their best interest in mind, and not really certain that he would be the one to lead them into freedom. It was not until the ten plagues were visited upon Egypt, ending with the Passover, that the Israelites finally recognized Moses as their leader.
Now that we have a better understanding of Moses, we can begin to see some of the connections that St. Mark is making as he writes his Gospel. In reality, Jesus is beginning to reveal himself to the public as who he really is. He does this in four ways:
- Just as Mosses proved he was sent from God by performing signs, so too did Jesus prove himself by performing this sign of casting out the demon.
- Just as Moses was sent from God to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt, so too does Jesus lead God’s people out of slavery to evil. The first evidence of his mission is given when Jesus releases the possessed man from the clutches of the demon. This possessed man is symbolic of every sinner who is helplessly enslaved to his/her sin. Jesus shows his power to break the bonds of any habitual sin, addiction, obsession, or evil infatuation.
- Just as Moses proved his authority came from God by bringing down the Law from Sinai, so Jesus shows his divine authority as he teaches in the synagogue. Jesus teaches not based on commentaries on the Torah, but by his own authority, which is from God the Father.
- Finally, just as Moses was able to lead his people to the Promised Land after the first Passover, so too does Jesus lead his people to the New Promised Land after the new Passover. By his death and resurrection, he has opened the gates of Heaven to all who believe. While on the cross, his true identity is revealed once again as the centurion exclaims, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!”
Indeed, Jesus is the New Moses, the long-awaited prophet who the Jews had been waiting for. He is their kinsman, a descendant of the House of David. He speaks and acts with power and authority, and he leads his people into freedom. Little by little, Jesus reveals to the world his true identity. Who is Jesus? He is neither lunatic, nor liar. He is the Lord!
 Mark 15:39