NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 16: 21-27
22nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus began to show 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.
Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him,
"God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you."
He turned and said to Peter,
"Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."
Then Jesus said to his disciples,
"Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world
and forfeit his life?
Or what can one give in exchange for his life?
For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father's glory,
and then he will repay all according to his conduct."
As often happens in the Lectionary, two different segments of the Gospel are included in “the Sunday reading.” This presents a challenge to catechists and particularly preachers, who find themselves in the position of explaining distinct “meaning segments” and somehow tying them together. Interestingly, the official Roman ritual does not demand this of the homilist. Para. 65 of the GIRM instructs that “[the homily] should be an explanation of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.” This is not exactly the style of Protestant preaching as a rule, as the Catholic “explaining of texts” does not have the punch of “rousing to conversion,” the general Protestant understanding of the sermon.
What Catholics could learn from Protestants about preaching the Word is a topic I would like to return to down the road in another post, though in this Sunday’s segments there is considerable rousing in the very texts, and too much explaining might only tend to distract from or soften the bluntness of some very hard truths from Jesus: (1) a person who does what Jesus does is bound to suffer greatly; (2) to think otherwise is to think like Satan, and not God; (3) a true believer has no choice but to deny himself and take up the cross; and (4) each of us will certainly meet judgment for how we measured up.
This text follows last Sunday’s Gospel where Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah, and where Jesus commands his disciples to keep his messianic identity a secret. In the first segment of this Sunday’s Gospel it is clear why Jesus demanded secrecy. Peter demonstrates here that while he might grasp the proper titles for Jesus’ identity and work, he has little understanding of the contents and the consequences of what he has said earlier. If an intimate of Jesus could miss the mark by a mile, what of the wider body of disciples and the crowds in general? To Peter’s credit, R.T. France observes that Peter may have been overcome with the thought that Jesus the Messiah’s suffering and death are in fact the full divine plan as described in the Hebrew Scriptures. Peter was hardly the only human confused or scandalized on this point. Luke 24 describes in detail the theological anguish of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter; the divine plan was evidently an obstacle for many (most?) in the early Church.
As France wisely explains, (p. 636) Peter’s strong assertion that “no such thing shall ever happen to you” is a reaction to Peter’s own fate as well as Jesus’. It is beginning to dawn on the Rock that Jesus’ fate is his own, too, for Peter, as well as the rest of the twelve, have been designated as the leaders of the Twelve Tribes of the new and restored Israel. In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims Peter the building stone of his religious posterity. Peter’s consciousness of his own discipleship will take time to develop, and on the night of Jesus’ arrest Peter is more than just hedging his bets; he is in full denial. Until his faith in Jesus is fully established, Peter is a roadblock; hence Jesus’ “Get behind me, Satan!”
The second section’s teaching on the cost of discipleship is reported in the Gospels of Luke and Mark (Mark contains three distinct predictions of Jesus’ death). ** France takes umbrage at translators and preachers who soft-petal these hard words about the cost of discipleship with phrases like “self-denial” and “bearing crosses.” In fairness, even St. Luke—the first evangelist to understand that the Church might last for centuries—softens the original “take up his cross” to “take up his cross daily.” France argues that Jesus’ words here cannot be taken as “merely” metaphorical (p. 636); “discipleship is a life of at least potential martyrdom.”
The precise text of the second paragraph has an almost psychological ring, for it speaks of “wishing to save one’s life,” reflective of both a self-awareness of one’s place in the world and an acknowledgement of one’s deepest desires. In my college days, a popular term was “finding yourself,” though a lot of the searching was assisted with free love, drugs, and infatuation with causes of all sorts. In the Gospel context, Jesus is speaking here of not only saving life and limb, but also one’s psyche, or as I put it to patients from time to time, finding one’s North Star.
“To gain the whole world” is very close to the phrasing of the devil in Jesus’ temptation in the desert in Matthew 4: 8-10. In that instance, the devil offers Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence,” to which Jesus replies, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’” The linguistic and theological connection between the Temptation account and Jesus’ teaching on discipleship is hardly accidental.
The closing line of Sunday’s text is a description of final judgment. The Son of Man will come with his angels, but we know from Matthew’s Gospel that the Son of Man is another name for Jesus. Jesus will return in full glory precisely because he has fulfilled his own prophetic role as a disciple without reservation, having given of his psyche without reservation. In this context, the judgment described here is not a general review of moral decency or failure, but it is much more specific: how faithfully did one follow Jesus as a disciple, and by that measure one will be repaid.
It is worth noting that the Lectionary omits the final line of Chapter 16: “I tell you truly that that there are some of those standing here who will certainly not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingship.” France believes that this is a reference to the opening of Chapter 17, where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the mountaintop and is transfigured before them. In the Catholic Lectionary, the Transfiguration Gospel account is a traditional staple of the liturgy for the Second Sunday of Lent.
** One of my favorite superiors in my major seminary days was the late Father Maurice “Myer” Brick, O.F.M. After many years as a missionary in Brazil, he returned to the U.S. to become the director of finances for our seminary operations. One day I walked into his office with a spiritual book under my arm, The Cost of Discipleship. He took one look at it and laughed. “Red,” he said, “the only one who knows the true cost of discipleship is the book keeper.”
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