“The Guessing Game”

September 17, 2017
Jonathan Rumburg
Matthew 16:13-20


Recently my family and I went to Kennywood, an amusement park in Pittsburgh.  Then last Sunday we went to the Wayne County fair.

Among the things we like to do at these venues—and when I say “we”, I mean “me”—is play those old time carnival games on the midway.  And even though I know they are rigged for you to lose, I can’t get enough of them—I just have to win those stuffed toys that are actually worth less than the money I plunked down to even play the game!

There are few carny games I won’t try—save for one.  The one game I won’t play is where a grizzled carny looks you up and down, and then attempts to guess your weight and age.  How this game exists bewilders me.  Who wants to get on a scale big enough to see from space?  Or who wants to be told they look ten years older than they are—even if they do?!  It’s a lose-lose if you ask me.

Now if the guessing game were played without the person or subject being seen, then maybe I’d play.  But, if you couldn’t see, how would you guess age or weight?  How could you even guess gender?  What about marital status or income?

But truthfully, it’s easier to guess these things than it is for the mid-way Carny-guy to guess your age and weight.  All that’s needed is your phone.  Just look at the apps on a smartphone, and you can deduce the age, gender, income level and marital status of the owner.

That’s what researchers discovered when they cross-referenced the 3G app usage of 3,700 people.  They determined which apps and personal attributes correlated, and found they could predict a person’s gender, age, marital status and income with between 61 and 82 percent accuracy.

The saying used to be, “You are what you eat.”  I guess nowadays it’s, “You are what you download!”

Some examples from the research are as followed…

If you have Pinterest on your phone you’re likely a woman.

You’re probably over the age of 52 if you listen to iHeart Radio, and younger than that if you choose SoundCloud instead.

If you’re an avid user of Uber, you’re likely single since most married people own their own car to transport kids.

Your choice of app for restaurant reviews says a lot about your income.  You’re probably earning more than $53,000 a year if you’re checking out Yelp and less than that if you’re searching Foursquare.

And if you don’t have a smartphone…

It’s research like this that make those pop-up ads so creepily accurate—your data reveals the real you.


          Now all this would have been a lot harder in the ancient world.  That guess your age and weight game would have been tough given the layers of robes and a short life expectancy.  And data collecting algorithms struggled to work given the terrible cellphone coverage and few Wi-Fi hotspots.  But that didn’t stop people from trying— especially people who didn’t quite fit the usual mold.

The Guessing Game—like at amusement parks and fairs, and like in cellphone data mining— has been played for centuries.

Move 1

The crowds had been observing Jesus for some time by now, but no consensus had developed.  In a world where a person’s demographics involved 3G analysis: gender, genealogy and geography, Jesus was an outlier.  Consider the data about him to this point:

He is born in unusual circumstances and of questionable parentage.

He is from a poor family, but his birth threatens a king and attracts foreign diplomats.

Rather than stay at home and take on the family business, as expected of a Jewish male, he becomes a wandering Rabi who leads a ragtag group of disciples.

Rather than find a wife, which was also expected, he remains single.

He has no visible means of income, yet spends a lot of time at parties and provides food for thousands.  Other accounts have him providing the best wine—and in large quantities!

He performs incredible miracles, but never uses his power to benefit himself.

He casts out evil spirits but, at the same time, is blamed for being in league with them.

He is a student of the law of Moses, but teaches it doesn’t go far enough.

He appears to be a righteous person, but hangs out with the dregs of society.  He even eats and drinks with them.

He talks about eternal life, but seems obsessed with death—in particular, his own death.

Its little wonder people were confused.  The guessing game took place everywhere he went— even among his closest associates.

Move 2

This brings us to our text for today where Jesus turns to the question of his identity.  Jesus and the disciples arrive in “the district of Caesarea Philippi”— a fact which is significant for the setting.

Pagans living in the region believed a cave near the city was the residence of the Greek god Pan, the half-man, half-goat god of fright (from which comes the word “panic”) and the cave was the entrance to Hades—the underworld, or the realm of the dead.

The city was also significant because it was built by Herod Philip in honor of Caesar and given the additional designation “Philippi” to distinguish it from Caesarea Maritima, built by Herod the Great on the Mediterranean coast.

It seems appropriate that in a place identified with two significant rulers, and also a place identified with the personification of evil and death, Jesus would bring up the question of his own identity as a counterpoint.  So one day he says to his disciples, “Wanna play the guessing game?”  His actual question was, “Who do people say that I am?”

The answers given by the disciples as to the crowd’s perceptions are all connected to the prophets, even though most Jewish teachers at the time believed authentic prophecy had ceased.  Still, there was some expectation of a return of the prophets at the end time, particularly Elijah.

Some thought John the Baptist was an Elijah figure, but when John was executed by Herod Antipas, they began to transfer that moniker to Jesus.  Many of Jesus’ miracles had seemed to mirror those of Elijah—raising the dead being the most prominent.  When Jesus announced God’s judgment on unrepentant cities, and downplayed the central role of the temple, he sounded a lot like the prophet Jeremiah.

The crowds linked Jesus with what they knew from the past, seeing his ministry as a prophetic one pointing to some future figure who would finally overthrow systems of injustice and oppression, introduce the kingdom of God, and rescue them from exile and subjugation.

But those closest to Jesus began to suspect there was more to him.  They were realizing Jesus was the One for whom they had been waiting.  When Jesus asks his disciples the pointed question, “But who do you say that I am?” it’s a question that will not only define who he is but also define the identity of his followers.

Move 3

Upon hearing this question, “But who do you say that I am?” it was Peter who answers first, and with confidence, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Peter has examined the evidence and concluded that Jesus is the real deal.  But while Peter gets Jesus’ title right, he still doesn’t quite understand what it means.

Like most Jews of his day, Peter had certain Messianic expectations.  The problem with expectations is they often narrow our vision, allowing us to see only that which is compatible with the vision.  Clearly, Peter’s vision of “Messiah” and “Son of the Living God” is like the crowd’s—limited by what they’ve seen in the past.

When Peter confesses Jesus’ identity as Messiah and Son of God, he is actually not thinking of him as the second person in the Trinity but rather thinking something more like, in our own vernacular, “I think you might be president one day.”

It’s clear from the next section, when Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, that Peter’s bold confession, while technically correct, still doesn’t fit the full messianic algorithm Jesus has in mind.  Peter still doesn’t get it about Jesus.  And it will take the cross and resurrection of Jesus to give Peter the full picture.


          This brings up an important question for those of us who follow Jesus as well.  Would we be easily identified primarily by our association with Jesus?  Age, weight, gender, education or income are not relevant factors.  Would we be easily identified primarily by our association with Jesus?  Do we get it?  I mean, do we get who he was and is?  Do we really get what it means to follow Jesus?

Jesus wants us to identify him as our Lord, and then to work on his behalf, imitating him in all that we do.

And imitating him means we act as Jesus did.  Accept others as Jesus did.  Speak as Jesus did.  Love as Jesus did.  Meet people as Jesus did.  Hold people accountable to un-Godly ways as Jesus did.  Offer healing, compassion, and grace as Jesus did.

Jesus focused on others.  Do we get that about Jesus?  Or are we still guessing who Jesus is based upon the expectations we want Jesus to have?


The apps on your phone might say a lot about you, but it’s all a private matter between you and the internet advertisers who are collecting your data.

Following Jesus, on the other hand, while personal, is never private.

Even when Peter would later deny knowing Jesus, he couldn’t get away with it.  Once you are associated with him, it’s an identity that sticks.

Anyone we meet should be able to tell, from our words, actions, and way of living that we are followers of Jesus—meaning they shouldn’t have to guess!

The question is whether people will be able to discover Jesus, and see God, through the way we live our lives.

May we strive to make sure any and all can—with no need for an algorithm or an app!  Amen.


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