THE TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – August 31, 2014

 

 

From the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 20:7-9

From the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans 12:1-2

From the holy Gospel according to Matthew 16:21-27

 

The tone of voice used determines the shade of meaning. You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped. The dictionary defines a dupe as one who is easily deceived or cheated; in other words, a fool. So, to be duped is to be made a fool of. Was Jeremiah raging with fist raised to the heavens when he spoke these words? Was he broken hearted, with tears streaming down his face, as he whispered them? Was there a wry smile, accompanied by a wagging head that left Jeremiah telling God that God had really pulled a clever one on the lad when God chose him to be a prophet? It’s all in how you hear the words as they are proclaimed. Regardless of how you hear them, the truth remains that for Jeremiah the dice has been cast. Even if prophesying costs him his life, he must do what God called him to do. Jeremiah is in love with God and God’s people, come what may. And he can’t be quiet about it.

Jeremiah’s feelings may mirror Peter’s in the Gospel. Remember last week’s reading? Peter proclaimed for the other disciples that they all are convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. That means that, for them, Jesus is the Messiah of God, the anointed one God has sent into the world. Remember the praise that Jesus lavished on Peter for his insight? Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. It is difficult to reconcile such generous praise with the dressing down that the Rock receives a few short verses later: Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me!

What has happened? Quite simply, it seems Peter has a lot to learn about what the term, Messiah, means. He must be disabused of some of the assumptions he has made. To this point, for Peter the word Messiah had rich meaning that included with it power and prestige in the here and now. Peter assumed that Jesus, as Messiah, would set up a mighty kingdom, a rich kingdom. Peter assumed that Jesus would drive out the oppressors who made life miserable for the Jews. And Peter could hardly wait, because when all that happened, the rewards would start pouring in. Who would be there in a position of favor to bask in the newfound luxury? You guessed it. That one would be Peter.

But those dreams are dashed in today’s Gospel when Jesus begins to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly… and be killed and on the third day be raised. What about the might and the glory? What about the throne? Where is the position of power in which Peter sees himself sharing? After all, Jesus had just said that Peter was foundational to the kingdom that Jesus was bringing.

There is a word in the text whose force we might miss. Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. To rebuke is to give a complete dressing down to. The word is harsh and severe in meaning. Maybe Peter shook his fist in Jesus’ face. The words might have hissed from Peter’s lips in his panic. The panic is born of Peter’s fear that Jesus has duped him. Peter has not forgotten the first words Jesus addressed to him and his brothers. Come after me and I will make you fishers of humankind. That’s a position of power, isn’t it?

When Jesus tells Peter to get behind me, Satan, he is not banishing Peter, excommunicating him, as it were. Rather, Jesus calls Peter a tempter in the same way Satan argued with God in the Book of Job. The order to get behind me tells Peter to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and learn from what he observes over Jesus’ shoulder. Jesus will not be a warrior Messiah. Jesus is a servant Messiah. This Messiah will associate with all the wrong people – the poor, the blind, the lepers – all those whose condition gives evidence to many that they are sinners and out of favor with God. That was the commonly accepted assumption of the times. How will Peter reconcile that assumption with the views of this Messiah who sees suffering and death to be at the very core of his mission? Rejection. Crucifixion. Death. There is nothing worse that can be imagined. And Peter probably missed the part about being raised on the Third Day.

What tone of voice do you imagine that Jesus used in the final discourse of this pericope? We probably would like to hear the gentle Jesus reassuring Peter and the other disciples. But could it be that Jesus used a stern voice with a hint of anger in it to shock the audience into hearing the new basic condition for discipleship? Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow me. In other words, if one seeks discipleship for the good things that will follow, the prosperity, power, and position that will follow, that one is following the wrong Christ. The trappings of glory do not belong here. This is a servant church whose foundation is Rock (Peter).

You duped me, O lord, and I let myself be duped! Jeremiah’s words are now on Peter’s lips. What was true for Jeremiah is also true for Peter. Peter may have been duped, but there is no turning back. Life without Jesus would be no life at all. He may still have a lot to learn, even the basic meaning of discipleship, but the truth emerging is that for Peter to live is Christ and to die is gain, as Paul will say when he faces his own death.

People can come to Christ from various motives as they begin to walk with him on The Way. That walking takes time for the walking to be formational. Inevitably that walking necessitates denying self and giving up presuppositions. That walking must be in Jesus’ footsteps in order to learn lessons from watching over his shoulder and doing what Jesus does. Those who aspire to discipleship must accept being vulnerable. Jesus’ values are not the world’s values. This call to discipleship is not about power, but service, about serving the poorest of the poor and giving them primacy of place.

Pope Francis, from the first moments of his papacy, has been echoing this call as he urges reform in the church. Make no mistake about it. It is reform Francis is preaching when he yearns for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. How else do you interpret his pleading with the hierarchy to get out and walk among the people and even smell like them? Let their shoes get muddy in the walking. Francis has put aside the splendid trappings of popes past. He has said that he is not over anyone, but stands beside. He wants the bishops to do the same, as they become those who stand in the midst as ones who serve.

Discipleship entails welcoming all and gathering with them at the Table to give thanks to God – the word Eucharist means thanksgiving. There, dying and rising happen as the Assembly breaks Bread and shares the Cup and is transformed into the Body of Christ in order to be sent to be broken and distributed until all the poor have been fed and lifted up. Being vulnerable servants might entail dying, too. It did for Jesus. It will for Peter. It does for all those who follow Jesus.

Don’t miss the promise. For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to their conduct. I think of St. Ignatius of Antioch who, as bishop, urged his people not to try to dissuade him from the Martyrdom, the lion’s jaws that awaited him. His plea was for them to let him be ground like wheat in the lions’ jaws, an allusion to the flour from which the Eucharistic Bread would be kneaded. For Ignatius, the death of martyrdom was not defeat but victory in Christ. So must it be for all who follow Christ. We may not be cast to the lions, but we may be abased in our service.

Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t how it is supposed to be. Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t the lesson to be learned and taken to heart by all those who let themselves be duped by the message.

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

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