NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 9: 18-24
TWELFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Once when Jesus was praying by himself,
and the disciples were with him,
he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
They said in reply, “John the Baptist;
still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.’”
Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”
He scolded them
and directed them not to tell this to anyone.
He said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Then he said to all,
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
This weekend’s Gospel is remarkably rich; our house commentator this year, Joel Green, begins his treatment with the observation that this text marks the intersection, so to speak, of Jesus’ identity with the definition of Christian discipleship. (366ff) The text immediately prior to Sunday’s reading recounts the Mission of the Twelve, who are sent out geographically to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. They are evidently quite successful, and word of their mission reaches Herod, who wonders out loud about their identity and certainly that of their leader. (Green calls the Herod interjection a dark cloud on an otherwise sunny scene.) Upon returning, Jesus feeds the enthusiastic crowd with the bread and fish in his rendition of the miraculous feeding.
And so the stage is set for this Sunday’s Gospel, material which Luke clearly borrows from Mark’s earlier Gospel but which he alters in several key ways. Mark records the successful mission of the Twelve, too, but also notes that the success has not been totally enlightening, as they appropriate too much of their good fortune to their own efforts and not enough to the Father working through them. They do not yet understand the nature of the true disciple, a lesson that both Mark and Luke’s text here will attempt to remedy.
Sunday’s text as we have it is not a continuation of the previous paragraph. This is obvious from the phrase, “Once, when Jesus was praying by himself….” On the other hand, the text is something of a retrospective about how the mission of Jesus and the preparedness of his disciples has progressed. Again, there is the simple evidence that “Jesus was praying by himself and his disciples were with him.” Evidently the habit of intense prayer had not yet rubbed off on the Twelve. It is also a staple of Luke’s Gospel that Jesus prays intensely at important junctures in his life--his baptism and his garden agony prayer come immediately to mind, particularly the latter where Luke reports that during prayer his sweat became like drops of blood.
Consequently, we can expect a major declaration to come forth. Jesus begins with his question “who do men say that I am?” This is a repetition of Herod’s question just earlier; and Herod was not happy with the options in front of him. The disciples here provide Jesus with a similar list; it is interesting that John the Baptist is mentioned in both lists. Jesus is not happy with these options, either, and presses his disciples about their own understanding of who Jesus is. Peter identifies Jesus as “the Christ (anointed one) of God,” the first human confession to manifest something of Jesus’ true identity. Green reminds us that in Luke’s narrative the readers (that is, you and I) already know the answer, for it has been revealed a number of times, at Mary’s Annunciation and at Jesus’ baptism, to mention two. That only Peter can make the confession—and even he cannot elaborate upon his answer—is an indication to the reader that the disciples have not been listening observant students.
It may be for this reason that Jesus “scolds” them, but earlier in this Gospel Luke also scolds a cluster of demons “because they knew he was the Messiah.” The issue here appears to be sequence and timing. Jesus has not yet met the final destiny of the disciple—i.e., he has not yet taken the cross and died upon it. He will truly be the Christ, the Messiah of God, when his work is complete. Now is not the time for royal identifications; moreover, it would give the disciples the wrong impression that discipleship can be achieved without the cross. It is better, then, to say nothing, no grand announcements of his identity.
Jesus continues with a description of what awaits the Anointed one of God, and he identifies that segment of the Jewish community which will bear responsibility—the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. Luke is careful not to implicate the entire Jewish community, and he is more precise here than Matthew and John. Jesus continues his discourse with an elaborate and sobering description of the life of the disciple. To deny one’s self means to set aside the relationships, the extended family of origin and inner circle of friends, by which an identity is normally forged. In short, the disciple is “counter-cultural.”
Luke makes one major deviation from Mark’s original text. For Mark, the denying of one’s self and taking up the cross was quite literal, a disciple could literally expect to shoulder a wooden cross on the way to death. Luke, in speaking of taking up the cross, inserts the word “daily.” This change reflects the circumstances of the two Gospels’ composition; Mark’s text was written in the face of imminent persecution. Luke, on the other hand, is taking the long view that the Church and its disciples would both survive for a long time, and the self-denial of a disciple was a lifestyle lived “day by day.” In Jesus’ final remarks here about losing one’s life to find it, Green says that “One cannot cling to this life and also serve the redemptive plan of God. (374)
These are indeed hard sayings, and it is no accident that the next episode in the Lukan narrative is the glorious Transfiguration event on the mountain, a glimpse of what awaits those who die to this life.