Sunday of Week 22 of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Commentary on Jeremiah 20:7-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

In Last week’s Gospel, we saw the disciples riding high. They had, through Peter, acknowledged that Jesus, their teacher and friend, was no less than the long-awaited Messiah-King of Israel:

You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

It must have been a really exciting moment for them. This, in turn, brought from Jesus a commission of the highest responsibility to Peter and his fellow disciples. Through Jesus, they were to be given the authority of God himself within their future communities. Peter himself is spoken of as a rock, firm and unshakeable, on which the ekklesia, the Church community, will be built.

It is hard to imagine that this was not a moment of particular joy and satisfaction for the disciples. They now were thinking that Jesus, in line with Jewish expectations, would be a glorious and powerful king. And they, of course, as his followers and companions would have a special share in the glory and privileges that went with it (and later, would not two of them go so far as to ask, rather cheekily, and behind their brothers’ backs, for special places in the Kingdom, to sit on the right and left of Jesus?).

A shock
However, the euphoria was not to last very long. Very soon after this:

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised.

This, undoubtedly, comes as a terrible shock. This was not at all part of the scenario for the coming of the Messiah! What is worse, the agents of Jesus’ humiliation and death will not be some hostile outsiders (like the pagan and barbaric Romans), but the leaders and most distinguished people of their own community. The elders, chief priests and scribes were the people who formed the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews in Palestine.

Furthermore, it would happen in Jerusalem, the holy city, the site of the Temple where God dwelt among his people. It might also be remembered, however, that Jerusalem was the city where prophets died and Jesus had said to the Pharisees:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! (Matthew 23:37)

The disciples must have felt very disturbed and confused indeed.

A protest
So, it is not surprising that at this point, Peter, still flush with his newly-acquired status, takes Jesus to one side, speaking to him almost on equal terms:

God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.

How can this happen to the Messiah-King of Israel?

The angry reaction of Jesus must have come as somewhat unexpected, to say the least. Turning to face Peter, Jesus says:

Get behind me, Satan!

These are strong words for someone who just now was being given leadership of the community Jesus would leave behind. It is not to be understood that Peter is literally a demon, but the disciple’s words are understood as a real temptation to Jesus to turn away from the path he is to follow. Unwittingly and with the best of intentions, Peter is doing the devil’s work – trying to steer Jesus away from the path laid out for him by his Father. How often have we been such a temptation or stumbling block to others? Perhaps more often than we care to think.

You are a hindrance to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

Peter is seen as an obstacle, a scandal (skandalon), a stone in one’s path which causes one to stumble. Ironically, the ‘rock’ which Jesus just now had said would be the foundation of his ‘church’ is now seen as an obstacle to Jesus’ work and mission!

The mind of Christ
Jesus is angry for, though his disciples may have acknowledged that he is the Messiah, they clearly have no idea whatever what kind of Messiah-King Jesus is going to be. They are, as he says, thinking in purely human terms and have not yet got “the mind of Christ” (Phil 2:5).

They shall have to change completely their ideas about what the Messiah is going to be like. He will not be a great political and military leader who will sweep away all of Israel’s enemies. Even after the resurrection they were still thinking in those terms.

Said the two fellows on their way to Emmaus, not realising the irony of their words:

…we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.
(Luke 24:21)

And, the disciples asked Jesus as he prepared to leave them at the Ascension:

Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6)

Yes, Jesus will be a King, but he will be a King of love, a King who will rule by serving. Because he loves and serves them, he will, if necessary, be prepared to die for them, for this is the greatest love that a person can show for his friends. This is not to say that Jesus wants to die on the cross, but he is totally prepared to suffer and die, if the service of love demands it – and it will. Ultimately, the disciples will see that the death of Jesus was the source of his greatest glory and power:

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth [on the cross and into glory], will draw all people to myself. (John 12:32)

The prophet’s lot
The other readings today give examples of people who had similar experiences to Jesus. In the First Reading Jeremiah seems to regret that he was called by God to be his prophet.

O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.

As a result he became an object of people’s ridicule, a “laughingstock”.  Every time he opened his mouth, he had to warn of violence and disaster coming on God’s people. In return he got nothing but insults and derision. He decided he would not speak about God:

I will not mention him or speak any more in his name…

But that did not work because:

…within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

He just had to go on speaking God’s message, which was like a fire in his heart, to his people whatever the cost to himself. It is a situation like this which explains why a person would risk insults, suffering and even death in order to witness to Truth and Love. Many people languishing in jails today for expressing their religious and political beliefs know this feeling. We have seen how political or religious dissidents released from jail show no signs of “conversion” and continue the struggle for human dignity.  It is something which those who see life in terms of material comfort and power simply cannot understand.

Paul, in the Second Reading, also knew all about this. He urges his fellow-Christians to offer their:

…bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable act of worship.

And, they are not to:

…be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that [they] may discern what is the will of God.

They need a “new mind”, the way of thinking which Jesus had and which Peter certainly did not yet have in today’s Gospel.

Walking with Jesus
Today’s Gospel goes further than just asking us to understand why the glory of Jesus our King and Lord was to be found through suffering and the shameful death of the Cross.  There is a further call for us to walk the same road with Jesus:

If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Jesus is asking each one of us to dedicate our lives in totally loving and serving others even, if at times, this involves misunderstanding, ridicule, pain and even death itself.

It would be altogether wrong to think that Jesus is asking us to lead miserable lives in order to be good Christians, although one gets the impression that some people interpret the passage in that way. To follow Jesus fully, we must be able to see life as he sees it, we must have that “mind of Christ”.

When we have the mind of Christ, then we can only see our lives in terms of loving and serving others and not in the pursuit of purely self-centred or even family-centred ambition. When we have the mind of Christ, the whole direction of our life changes. Our whole concept of happiness changes. Jesus is calling us not to a life of sacrifice and suffering, but rather to a life of total love and freedom. The person who can go to jail for his beliefs is more free and usually a lot happier than the one who is tied to the pursuit of material things, social position, pleasure, and the fear of pain.

“Denying oneself” is not a suppression of one’s personality. It is rather to let go of oneself so that one can really find oneself.

This is what today’s readings are saying, namely, that Jesus is calling us to where true success and happiness are. Maybe when we walk the way of Jesus there will be people who criticise us, think we are stupid, and even attack us. Yet those who have chosen the way of Jesus again and again confirm that their lives are full of freedom, happiness, and peace. Isn’t that what we all would like to experience?

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