22nd Ordinary Sunday (Year A)
First Reading: Jeremiah 20:7-9 Second Reading: Romans 12:1-2 Gospel reading: Matthew 16:21-27
“TAKE UP YOUR CROSS AND FOLLOW ME!”
A certain lady who spent her time working for the Lord – visiting the sick and the bed-ridden, helping the elderly and the handicapped – was diagnosed of a knee problem needing surgery. The surgery unfortunately, was not a success and so left her in constant pain and unable to walk. It seemed that the Lord had ignored the prayers of this woman and her friends for a successful surgery. This was a woman who considered herself a personal friend of Jesus. She was utterly disappointed and her cheerful disposition turned into sadness and gloom. One day she pulled herself together and shared with her confessor what was going on in her soul. The confessor suggested that she go into prayer and ask her friend Jesus why he has treated her this way. And she did. The following day the priest met her and saw peace written all over her face in spite of her pain. “Do you know what he said to me?” she began, “As I was looking at he crucified Jesus and telling him about my bad knee, he said to me, 'Mine is worse.'”
Today is the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time. The Scripture Readings of today tell us that suffering is an integral part of our earthly life, but it is also our road to glory. There is no crown without a cross. In the First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, Jeremiah complains about his difficulties as a prophet and the pain he experienced to speak in God’s name. He has become an object of derision and scorn, and all because the Lord deceived him into this task. He feels like giving up the work assigned to him but an inner fire drives him to do what God wants. In the Gospel Reading from St. Matthew, Jesus teaches his disciples regarding the suffering Messiah who will suffer, die and rise again. Peter cannot understand why Jesus must suffer and die and tries to admonish him. He receives the reprimand from Jesus and also receives the correct teaching about the cross. Jesus tells his disciples that they have “to deny themselves, carry their cross and follow him.” In the Second Reading from his Letter to Romans, St. Paul appeals to the Christian community at Rome to not lose their identity as Christians, to not live according to the pagan customs of the times. They are to be renewed in their minds so as to live out their Christian identity as God has revealed it to them and to dedicate their lives to Him.
THE INTENSE ANGUISH OF THE PROPHET JEREMIAH:
In the First Reading, the Prophet Jeremiah seems to regret that he was called by God to be his prophet. “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.” The call of Jeremiah to be a prophet which is found at the beginning of his book describes both his initial reluctance and the Lord’s insistence that he accept the call, as well as a firm reassurance of Divine protection. However, we know a great many details about the life and times of Jeremiah which would seem to contradict the Lord’s promise of protection. In the face of his condemnation of the leaders and the people alike for their infidelities to the covenant, he was met with resistance, rejection, and outright persecution. He was beaten and thrown into a sewer to die, an outcast from his own family and friends.
In today’s remarkable text from the autobiographical writings known as his 'Confessions,' we hear expressed the intense anguish that his sufferings have caused him. Jeremiah challenges God in bold language one might use toward a betrayer, and he admits he has even tried not to utter his message of doom to Jerusalem. But he has been unable to suppress the Word of God; keeping it in was like trying to shut up a fire burning in his bones.
Christian tradition has long recognized in Jeremiah a figure for the sufferings of Christ and for the disciples of Christ. The inevitability of the suffering which awaits a true prophet or disciple of the Lord has found no more eloquent personification than Jeremiah.
SUFFERING AND CHRISTIAN DISCIPLSHIP:
We noted last week the pivotal importance which Peter’s declaration of faith played in the structure of Matthew’s Gospel. Today’s Gospel Reading is linked closely to that profession and, in fact, completes what Matthew wishes to say here about discipleship.
a) The suffering Messiah:
In today's Gospel Reading, we hear Jesus telling his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. By saying this Jesus is telling his disciples the true characteristic of Christ – viz. Christ was to suffer, die and rise on the third day. This, undoubtedly, must have come as a terrible shock to the disciples. This was not at all part of the scenario for the coming of the Messiah! Popular Jewish expectation of a Messiah was a political messiah, a king, who would bring instant glory to Israel in terms of military success, wealth and prosperity. The disciples shared this popular belief. And they, of course, as his followers and companions would have a special share in the glory and privileges that went with it. 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, the chief priests and the scribes, 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 be remembered, however, that Jerusalem was the city where prophets died. The disciples must have felt very disturbed and confused indeed.
b) "Get behind me, Satan!”
Same Peter who a little while ago acknowledged Jesus as Christ was not ready to accept this picture of Christ. How can this happen to the Messiah-King of Israel? 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. “Heaven preserve you, Lord! This must not happen to you.” Stronger still is the Lord's rebuke, which must have come as somewhat unexpected to say the least, “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter was not merely a trifle rude; he was the agent of the devil. When Christ was being tempted in the wilderness, Satan offered him the kingdom without the cross. Peter offers the same temptation, and earns the same title. The devil espouses such worldly and human values, such things like seeking the glory of the kingdom with lack of suffering. In adopting such a position, Peter places himself in league with Satan. Thus, he who is called 'rock' is now called 'stumbling block,' setting himself in the path of the Savior. Jesus tells Peter that he is thinking in purely human terms, and not the way God thinks.
c) The true meaning of Christian discipleship:
Having put Peter in his place, Jesus now turns to his disciples saying, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This passage indeed presents to us the dominant and ever recurring themes of Jesus' teaching about Christian discipleship.
There are three things which a disciple must be prepared to do:
First. 'The disciple must deny himself.' Normally when we say deny oneself, we understand self-denial, self-renunciation, i.e. to give up something, a part we use. For Jesus to deny oneself means in every moment of our life to say 'no' to self and 'yes' to God. To deny oneself means once and for all to dethrone self and enthrone God and make him the dominant principle of our life.
Second. 'The disciple has to take up his cross.' This means that he must take up the burden of sacrifice. A Christian life is a life of sacrificial service. He must abandon his personal ambition in order to serve Christ. He will have to sacrifice his time and leisure for him. It means that one has to be constantly aware of the demands of God and needs of others. He must accept the pains and difficulties for Christ.
Third. 'The disciple must follow Jesus Christ.' That is to say, he must render Jesus perfect obedience in thought, word and action. That is he walks in the footsteps of Christ and go wherever he leads him.
In conclusion, Jesus makes it clear that he is going to the cross and the disciples must be willing to follow. The way to life is found in the way of the cross which ends not in death and defeat but in new life, glorification and exaltation. Discipleship is not about achieving success, greatness or status. Those provide only a false sense of security and cannot give real life. It is only when we get rid of our false life that we discover our real life which is not centered in self, but in God. This teaching is parabolic, meaning that it is about reversal. We gain life by losing life. Suffering and death lead to life and glorification.
OFFERING ONE'S BODY AS LIVING SACRIFICE TO GOD:
In the Second Reading from his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul, having reminded the Christians at Rome of the mercies God has shown them, exhorts them to prove themselves generous in their self-giving to God. He urges his fellow-Christians to offer their 'living bodies as a holy sacrifice, truly pleasing to God' and appeals not to lose their identity as Christians by living according to the pagan customs of the times. They are to be renewed in their minds so as to live out their Christian identity as God has revealed it to them. They need a 'new mind,' the way of thinking which Jesus had and which Peter certainly did not yet have in today's Gospel Reading.
To conclude: In the Gospel narrative today, Jesus makes a direct connection between discipleship and the cross. The cross was indeed a genuine and real instrument of abusive torture, suffering, and death in Jesus' life. It had no happy component. But, for subsequent Christians it has become a symbol of Jesus' Salvific Death and Resurrection along with being a metaphor for fully and freely engaging in real human life, whether messy and painful or happy and fulfilling.
The discipleship bestowed by the Gospel message of today demands that each believer embrace life as fully as possible, and in doing so, that each embrace the cross. This is a necessary connection. No Cross; no discipleship. From such faith-filled embrace of life with the Gospel derive for Christians all the virtues of compassion, mercy, fidelity, truthfulness, forgiveness, conversion, charity, and the like. Believers know intuitively that life is indeed worth living, and that it is good to suffer for a noble and worthy purpose. No disciple of Jesus Christ would have a life free from suffering and pain.
Again, it is not unfair to say that the cross has become somewhat glamorous. Crosses are displayed in Churches, in homes, on jewelery and in other places. The cross has lost the original significance of its symbolism. Yet this must not allow us to lessen the profundity of Jesus' call. There are often times when we would seek to escape suffering, to settle for being an 'armchair Christian,' satisfied with watching from the wings. Many people today still die for their faith. Many people who walk among us, who share our daily lives, remain steadfast in faith despite great suffering. Often this happens silently, but it always reflects a similar truth- that the Christian faith is more profoundly focused when it is seen through the lens of this suffering. And this is the Good News of today.