XXII SUNDAY – A – 31.08. 2008
Jeremiah 20: 7-9; Psalm 63; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16: 21-27
Last week we heard in our Gospel reading about Peter's spontaneous profession of faith "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." This was followed by Christ's great mandate to Peter and his successors, "You are Cepha, and upon this rock I will build my Church."
And yet here we are with the immediately following text where Jesus calls Peter a stumbling block and says, "Get behind me Satan"! It is hard to credit that these two things should be in the same Gospel, let alone in the same chapter. Did you notice what happened in today’s Gospel? Why such a change in Jesus reactions?
Matthew has deliberately chosen to put these incidents together to teach us something really deep.
„Get behind me, Satan! You are stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things”.
In the original Greek text Jesus uses even the stronger words: “Go away Satan, You scandalize me and others, because you take the things not in the God’s manner but you try to please the people”.
Why is Jesus so harsh with Peter today? Because Peter starts to think in worldly terms, to please the people, to gain popularity and crowds. When Christ says he has to go to Jerusalem, to suffer, and be killed, Peter went into shock. Peter still thought Jesus would make Israel the powerful kingdom, just like when David was king. This means: thinking in the worldly manner. But there is something more, Peter tries to erase, to eliminate the cross from the Gospel, from the history of salvation? He tries to “take it easy”, to soften, and to moderate the strong teaching of Jesus. He is afraid that this teaching about the cross and suffering will be absolutely not attractive, nobody will buy it. “God forbid it., Lord. This must never happen to you!!” Take it easy Jesus, don’t be so serious, so tragic and catastrophic, you will scary the people, nobody will follow you!
What -many of our contemporary Catholics and even priests- try to do nowadays? Don’t they try to erase the cross from the Gospel? Don’t they try to please rather humans than to follow God’s way? Deep commercialization touched even the Gospel. If something is not nice and contains even a smallest suggestion of pain and suffering, people will not buy it! We have to take care and not bother or scary our parishioners. Everything in the church must be nice and easy, every homily must be smooth and kind, otherwise people will feel upset. I have to feel good in the church otherwise I quit. Is it not the worldly style of thinking, is it not the “scandalon ei eimon”?
The problem plagues us to this day. How often we think in worldly ways, how easily we ignore the ways of God. We do not like to suffer. We don’t even like to hear about the commandments. But, here's the point. Sticking with God, we have to take up our crosses. Jesus said to Peter, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." “Who loves me will keep my commandments.” We do not like the cross, we do not like even to mention the idea of commandment. It’s offending my feeling of freedom, it’s humiliating and mortifying me. Pain and difficulties and hard times come into our lives, and we ask, Why me? God din not create us for suffering but for joy and happiness.
Peter did not mean to offend Jesus, and he certainly did not want to do anything to obstruct Jesus' plan of salvation; it is simply that he didn't understand it, in all its fullness. Peter was simply saying the kind of thing any other “good pastor” would say in the circumstances; he can't really believe that Jesus would need to suffer and die. Because he loves Jesus he does not want him to die and so comes out with his statement of disbelief. But also Peter tries to avoid the unpopularity of the Jesus’ teaching. He is afraid that speaking about suffering, crosses and dead will certainly not gain for Jesus new disciples. This is what sometimes we can hear from the “good pastors” nowadays: “father don’t scary the people stressing to much the commandments, talking about the cross and suffering, otherwise the church will become empty.”
The underlying assumption of Peter is that suffering is bad and it is something that we should be protected from, and this is an assumption that we all share in our everyday lives. Christ, though, tells us something different; he tells us and shows us in his own life that suffering is redemptive. He tells us that suffering is essential to his work of salvation. Even more, the suffering is essential and necessary to our life and our salvation.
One of the greatest problems in the world is that people do not seem to understand this anymore. And indeed one of the most common arguments against the existence of God put forward by ordinary people today is that God allows the innocent to suffer. What they fail to take into account is that:
- the source and origin of suffering is not God but wrongly used human freedom, and
- the suffering has a meaning. They fail to understand that it is often only through suffering and struggle that a greater good can come about.
Now this is not to say that suffering and pain are good in themselves or we would feel obliged to flagellate ourselves few times a day! No this would be a distortion of God's intention. But we do know that in suffering there is something deeply mysterious, valuable and redemptive.
In time Peter was to come to understand the meaning of the Cross. We know that when faced with his own crucifixion at the hands of the Romans he asked to be crucified upside down because he did not feel worthy to imitate Christ.
We don’t need to be afraid of the cross in the church, we don’t need to change and accommodate the message of Christ to make it easy and acceptable by the “Hallmark culture” of nice and pleasant life.
Matthew puts these two things together as a warning to us, the members of the Church, the people to whom this Gospel is primarily addressed. It is a warning that we should not take the first part of the text in any sort of triumphal way. We should not become so confident that we are members of the true Church of Christ that we start to believe that this means we can do no wrong.
We find this to be very reassuring. Jesus did not choose the perfect man on which to build his Church. No, he chose a man like us; someone with all the same sorts of faults and contradictions that we recognise within ourselves and yet someone who is essentially good and straightforward.
Even when we get to the moment of Peter's greatest betrayal, when he denies Christ three times, we find that it is not something blatantly bad that he is doing. Actually he is trying to be near Jesus, to find out what is going to happen to him and, one is tempted to think, try to help Jesus if he can.
What happens is that his cover is blown, he is recognised and it is the panic that this induces that causes Peter to deny that he even knows Jesus.