By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Response: Psalm 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; Second Reading: Romans 12:1-2; Gospel: Matthew 16:21-27
In the first reading, Jeremiah is having a very bad day. Some background to this situation. First, the time of his prophetic ministry was in Jerusalem and vicinity from his calling in 627 B.C. to his unwilling departure into Egypt in 587-586 B.C. He was already unhappy about the Lord more-or-less forcing and flattering him into his prophetic ministry when he was young (1:1-10). If Jeremiah could have foreseen what he would endure as the Lord’s prophet, he might have tried an escape like Jonah — taking a cruise on the Mediterranean. Of course, that didn’t work for Jonah. The Lord was insistent for Jonah, just as he was for Jeremiah. The Lord did not permit the joys of wife and family to Jeremiah (16:1). He had to remain celibate. The men of his hometown rejected his ministry and threatened to kill him if he spoke the word of the Lord to them (11:18-23). Jeremiah retaliated with curses. The Lord commanded Jeremiah to perform weird audiovisual rituals (13:1-11; 19:1-11). His ministry more than once put him in danger of his life (11:11; 20:1-2; 26:11). He must have had some good days, as we can conclude from his words in 15:16; “I found your words. I consumed them. They became my delight and the joy of my heart.”
In today’s reading, he is at a low point in his life. He speaks back to the Lord as few of us would dare to speak. “You deceived (cheated, conned) me, Lord, and I let myself be deceived.” Jeremiah envisions God as an oversized bully. “You were too strong for me, and you triumphed.” His imagination may be playing tricks on him. “All day I am an object of ridicule. Everyone mocks me.” He does not like the messages from the Lord that he has to deliver publicly. “Whenever I speak out, I have to shout. My message is violence and outrage.” True, it often was and brought him “derision and censure.” Does Jeremiah see a way out of this predicament? He says to himself, “I just won’t mention him anymore, not even speak his name.” That won’t work. “But then it becomes like fire in my heart, imprisoned in my bones.” Why was this dialogue/monologue selected for today’s liturgy? To prepare for the words of Jesus in this liturgy’s gospel. “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly,” the very city in which Jeremiah suffered his own Passion. Just as it was Jeremiah’s own religious and civic potentates who persecuted him, so it was with Jesus, “from the elders, the chief priests and the scribes.”
At least some of the verses selected from Psalm 63 do respond to Jeremiah’s dark night of the soul. Recalling that Jeremiah could not escape from the Lord, the people respond, “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.” The psalmist’s whole being feels deprivation. “My flesh pines and my soul thirsts for you, like the earth, parched, lifeless, and without water.” The rest of the selected verses of the psalm are upbeat and recognize that God is actually present. “You are my help. My soul clings to you. Your right hand upholds me.”
St. Paul has reached the exhortation or homiletic part of his Letter to the Romans. In an implicit comparison with the animal and grain sacrifices taking place in the temple at Jerusalem, he offers a substitute sacrifice, “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. This is your spiritual worship.” Paul envisions Christians as having undergone a metamorphosis in becoming Christians. He uses that very word. Like the worm sheds its cocoon and becomes a beautiful butterfly, so the convert sheds his former way of life and glorifies God in spiritual worship.
In last Sunday’s gospel reading, Simon Peter (the Rock) was exalted to the stars, so to speak, by Jesus himself. It was a moment of triumph for Jesus and for Simon Peter. Peter professed Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah (the Christ). Jesus was well aware that Simon and the other disciples were expecting a political/religious revolution. Jesus would restore the long ago Kingdom of David, rule it, and install them in positions of power. A corrective was needed. Therefore, our gospel opens with Jesus’ first prediction of his suffering and death, plus his resurrection from the dead. They probably understood it as the general resurrection of the just at the end of time, as in Daniel 12:1-3. Peter wants nothing to do with that plan. He rejects it. “Nothing like that will ever happen to you.” Wrong move! Jesus turned to Peter with a vehement denunciation, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a skandalon to me.” The Greek word skandalon can mean a trap, a snare, an obstacle on a path, something over which to stumble or a cause of ruin. To reject the plan Jesus outlined in his Passion prediction merits a response similar to that given by Jesus to the tempter in Matthew 4:7, 10, “Be gone, Satan,” and “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” Simon Peter was still thinking like a mere human being. He had not learned that God’s ways and God’s thoughts can be different from ours (See Isaiah 55:8-9).
More needed to be said by Jesus. Not only did this strange plan of God apply to Jesus. It applied also to those who wanted to follow him as his disciples. “Whoever wishes to come behind me” (the proper place for a disciple, which Peter had forgotten), “must take up his cross and follow me.” Eventually, that is what will happen to Simon Peter. Matthew must have been aware of the persecution of Christians in Rome two decades earlier under the Emperor Nero. During that persecution, Peter, Paul and many other Christians were martyred. We tend to think of the cross as the aches, pains, disappointments, problems, sickness and suffering with which we may be afflicted. That, too, is legitimate based on Luke’s version, “taking up the cross daily” to follow Jesus. But, that is not the meaning Jesus and/or Matthew intended in their circumstances. Another saying of Jesus is added that one may deny the cross (martyrdom), as surely happened often; but, by this denial, one forfeits not physical life but eternal life. Matthew adds a Jesus-saying about the last judgment, a favorite topic of his: “For the Son of Man (Jesus) will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then repay all according to one’s conduct.”