Opinion polls and surveys are very popular. It seems our entire society is being run by opinion polls these days. Most politicians check survey results each morning to discover what values they believe in. Some won’t even choose which tie to wear (or which pantsuit) until they get the latest report on popular colors.
Opinion polls are nothing new, however. In this week’s gospel reading Jesus conducted a public opinion survey. He asked his disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
The disciples pulled out their iPads, opened up the latest spreadsheet analysis, and gave Jesus the results: John the Baptist, 42.9 percent; Elijah, 28.6 percent; one of the prophets of old, 13.4 percent; undecided, 15.1 percent—with a margin of error of plus or minus four percent.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “But you—who do you say that I am?”
Now, the disciples could have acted like modern politicians. They could have studied the data and realized that John the Baptist, while not yet a clear-cut majority view, was by far the most popular response, and issued a statement: “In keeping with our commitment to strengthening families and improving economic opportunities for all citizens, we are convinced that the proper course of action at this critical moment in history is to endorse legislation making John the Baptist the official identity of Jesus. And, of course, we do this for the children.”
But the disciples were not like modern day politicians (thank God!). They were more concerned about the truth rather than popular opinion. Peter stepped forward and, in a moment of politically incorrect courage, declared, “You are the Messiah of God.”
Peter didn’t care what the crowds thought. He wasn’t interested in jumping on any public opinion bandwagon. He could give a hoot about being part of the “in” crowd. Being right was more important to Peter than being popular. (Of course, we know that later on, on the night Jesus was betrayed, Peter decided that being wrong was safer than being arrested—a choice he deeply regretted afterward.)
Peter’s behavior was rare. Most people don’t feel very comfortable expressing a minority view. It’s much easier to parrot popular opinion than to speak your mind.
We see this principle in action all the time today. As soon as a survey is published claiming that the majority of the population feels a certain way about a topic, subsequent surveys show that that particular view has strengthened. The results of the initial survey actually help people make up their minds.
If a survey was conducted today, asking the same question Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” what would be the response?
There can be many answers: A prophet, the founder of a great religion, a good and wise teacher, the figment of someone else’s imagination, a philosopher, an egocentric nut-case, or Peter’s answer, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
I’m kind of hoping that a fair number of people would give the answer that Peter gave. But I wonder, what if the question was phrased, “In a recent survey, 88 percent of Americans said that Jesus was a good and wise teacher, but only human. Now, what is your opinion, who do you say that Jesus was?”
I’ve got a funny feeling that a lot of people who might have given the same answer Peter gave will quickly change their minds, not wanting to go against such a strong trend.
When we die and our souls stand before God's throne of judgment, popular opinion is not going to matter. It won’t do us any good to whine, “Hey, you can’t hold it against me just because I thought Jesus was a human teacher. That’s what everybody else thought. It’s not fair!”
It’s not a popularity contest. It’s not a majority rule democratic election. The key to eternal life in heaven is to give the same answer that Peter gave, regardless of what the opinion polls say.