If you think back to your English class and how to write good fiction, you might have heard that there are various classic conflicts out of which come our stories: man vs. man. Man vs. nature. Man vs. himself. Man vs. supernatural. Man vs. technology. Man vs. society. I recall a few years ago watching the end of The Amazing Spider-man and the main character, Peter Parker is sitting in class and his teacher says, “It is said that there are only 10 plots in all of fiction, but I believe there’s only one: ‘Who am I?’” She’s referring to another broader list of plot formats, but I think that her simplification of “Who am I?” could also sum up those various conflicts. Ultimately, they each involve man (or woman) trying to discover who he is – and all of those plot conflicts have to deal with identifying who he is in various situations. For example, we could say The Terminator (classic woman vs. technology) asks “Who am I?” in the life of the heroine, as she is pitted against the technology that is trying to hunt her down, and the story reveals if she is the kind of person that can survive or not? Does she have those virtues necessary based upon who she is in this encounter?
It sounds good — you can use the question “Who am I?” in all of those plot conflicts to analyze stories. But all of those plot conflicts from English class regard fiction. In other words they come from the main character who flows out of the imagination of the author. They should tell us something about the author. We can get a lot about the author from his characters, but a brilliant author might write about a very simple minded character. Or a very moral author might write about some awful villains. The author defines the characters. We only get to the root of who the characters and why they are in the story when we know the author. In the Gospel, something very interesting is happening. God has come down to mankind – to us – to the characters – and He has asked us who He is.
One of the most famous passages from the Second Vatican Council is that Christ, the final Adam…fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” In other words, only if we ask the question: Who is Jesus? And seek the answer to that question will we truly find out the deepest truths about ourselves. Why? Because we did not make ourselves. Our parents did not make themselves. Our cause is hidden in Jesus and you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God (I Cor 3:23). Who we are is revealed only by the Divine Author.
Let’s go back to that first reading. “The Lord God opens my ear that I may hear.” If we went back just one verse, Isaiah says, “Morning after morning He awakens my ear to hear as disciples do.” Disciples of God are those who are taught the truth, and not any truth – but the truth of how to become more and more like God. Isaiah goes on to say that he is abused by those who pluck his beard and spit on him as they insult him. Yet, who can oppose him? He has the Lord to help him.
Just before todays’ Gospel, Jesus had multiplied the bread and fish for the second time and was then still questioned by the Pharisees and goaded: “show us a sign from heaven.” The bread didn’t rain from the sky. To which He replies that they’ll get nothing. So right after that episode Jesus finds a deserted place and asks first who others say that He is. Just think of the answers. John the Baptist – John had just been killed and the evidence had been shown to many witnesses. Elijah. Elijah had lived over 800 years ago and been taken into heaven on a flaming chariot. In other words, the crowds thought of Jesus as someone who was either back from the dead or 800 years old. That’s pretty special. But Jesus asks not only the Apostles the next question, but us as well: Who do you say that I am? He does not ask the Apostles and He does not ask us this question as if we were part of the crowd. He considers us among the Apostles as we are brought into the sacred intimacy of the Gospel and He desires to drink of our faith.
Who do You say that I am? He asks the apostles separate for they and we have shared in divine secrets. He asks us as if we were on His level. As if we were gods. Faith is the doorway into eternal light. Peter responds that Jesus is the Christ. We know that in Matthew’s Gospel – it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to Peter, it was God the Father. When we recognize that Jesus is God – and that Jesus reveals man to himself…we are called to conform more and more with divinity. That is our calling.
Faith opens the door. Love is what moves us into the house and begins to live in it. St. James tells us that if we have faith, but we do not have works – it doesn’t do any good. It is dead. If you have a key to a door, but you never use it – what good is it? How can you prove it actually works? We must perform those works of love and mercy by actually clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.
One of my favorite films is Gattaca in which two sons are always competing and each summer vacation they sneak away and play chicken by swimming out to sea. The younger son always wins because he is healthier and supposed to be genetically perfect. But on pivotal year the older son just keeps going out until the younger even begins to fail and drown. The older rescues his brother and upon returning the Anton, the younger asks, “How are you doing this Vincent?” Vincent responds, “You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back.” Christ reveals to us that we are children of God and as such we can imitate Him and give everything.
Jesus is of course ready to give His entire life, because He knows He can. When Peter tries to step in and contradict Jesus, He is contradicting His very words of Jesus’ divinity – as if Jesus was not quite strong enough to give that much. But He is God and He teaches us that there is no limit to how much we can give in love. Who am I? Not much. But who is God? If God is our love, than we can endure any conflict.