In the last week of his life on Earth, Jesus brought his verbal sparring match to Jerusalem, where was gathered the authorities of his age. Welcomed enthusiastically by crowds expecting him to transform their political and religious reality, Jesus instead proclaims the kingdom of heaven and his impending destruction.
Sensing weakness, the temple priests swoop in for the kill. Perhaps advised by spies that Jesus had been proclaimed the Son of God, and certainly with the evidence of his tirade in the temple, they summon him to pose the question directly: Is he the Messiah, the “King of the Jews?” However, if they thought that Jesus was on the ropes intellectually, they were mistaken. For in answer to their questions, and the questions of Pilate and Herod, he simply answers “You say I am.”
The Gospels give us no punctuation for this statement, and so it is generally read passively, without emotion. But we cannot imagine Jesus without emotion in this moment, not given the throes of passion just evidenced in the Garden of Gethsemane. There must have been something there, besides simple resignation.
So what would the emotion have been? That of the man pleading “Father, take this cup away from me!” – a petulant “You say I am.” That is to observe “Would you face the consequences of that admission? Then why do you expect me to say it?”
No, Jesus was a man of greater heart than that. Perhaps, then, it was “You say I am!” The proof of the statement was in their actions, this desperate attempt to preempt the rallying of the people to him after his non-violent provocations against their authority. If they did nothing, he would indeed become king, a king brought to authority by God, rather than by human methods.
Or was it a prophetic proclamation? As David had proclaimed his suffering twenty generations before, was Jesus merely observing to Pilate, “You say I am!” The ultimate authority of Rome, the Emperor himself, will one day proclaim Christ the Lord!
But there is another thread, the thread that starts with Israel being told “I am that I am”, and continuing with the challenge to Peter “Who do you say I am?” It is the prompting of God through the ages that beseeches us to trust our hearts – to hear the still, quiet voice that Samuel counseled the Israelites to rely upon over the institutions of men. It is a voice of hope, still hoping against hope that the pain and suffering could be avoided. Not just the endurance of the cross, but all the religious wars, the starving children, the women demonized and abused for sexual gratification, and the wasted words of political dispute when only compassion can light the road to justice.
It is the hope of rejoining human institutions to the divine purpose.
It is to encourage:
You! Say I am!
Are we prepared to do that now? Not just if he came down in glory – but if he came as he did before, a man with all the frailties of flesh. Would he be recognized? And if not, why would he return?
Only to die again?