(See the readings for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 31)
James had just gotten home from work. It was 9 p.m. Mary, his wife, was at the door when he arrived. She was waiting for him. “What happened?” she asked. “What do you mean ‘what happened’? replied James. “You missed dinner, it’s nine o’clock and I have not heard from you all day.” “I’ve been busy at work. You know the bonus only comes when I make the deadline. I’ve told you that before.” “You look exhausted.” “I am. I’m doing all I can to get that bonus, just like the last time, but it’s taking a toll.” “I think we better talk about this – the toll might be bigger than you realize.” “OK, can we talk tomorrow? I’m really tired.” “I don’t think it can wait.” “Jimmy was upset this afternoon,” she said.
As soon as the words came out of her mouth he remembered that he had promised Jimmy, his son, that he would attend his track meet that day. It was an important day for Jimmy. He was running the mile in the finals for the district championships. He had confided to his father that he was anxious about the race, which was a big step for Jimmy being in the throws of adolescence.
His father had listened and tried to encourage him. He promised he would be there for support no matter what happened. Jimmy had run the race and won. When finished he was excited and exuberant. All he could think of after crossing the finish line was to see his father who was there to support him. He looked expecting to see James with Mary but he was not there in the stands. When Jimmy got to his mother, he said: “Where’s Dad?”
St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans: “Do not conform yourselves to this age
but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). In this succinct statement Paul describes the struggle within every human being. Making a choice for God and his way over our own ways or the path that our society says is the way to go.
In the story above James was taken up in the way of the culture. Society said for him to be important, to have worth, was to succeed, to make good money, to advance, to get those bonuses. He had become consumed with this, thinking he was doing what was expected, what would bring him happiness and what would please his family. He found out the hard way that none of that was really important. He had to reevaluate everything.
We all have a longing in our hearts to be as God wants us to be. It is natural since we have been created by him and for him. He longs for us to experience the fullness of life he offers us. This is the mission of Jesus: “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
The longing in our hearts, whether articulated or not, is real. It is a desire for joy, peace and contentment. It is a desire for authentic love. Yet we struggle. We get distracted. We make choices that do not lead to life but to self-satisfaction. The “world” presents “goods” to us that it says we should want and desire but these “goods” don’t really lead us to life. Wealth, power, prestige, and advancement might be enticing but they are not fulfilling. In fact, instead of leading to life they drain life of its meaning and joy.
Jeremiah has an experience of this as he recounts in today’s first reading for Mass. Jeremiah is a prophet. He had a very difficult job and was rejected by the leaders and people of Judah. You can hear his anguish through his lament: “All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I must cry out, violence and outrage is my message; the world of the Lord has brought me derision and reproach all the day.”
Although he proclaims the divine word he is met with opposition. He is burdened by his mission. The world does not want to hear the message. They would rather he be silent. So for a moment, albeit brief, he thinks he will turn away from the Lord and his mission. He will escape from this burden saying: “I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more.” Yet he quickly realizes he cannot for the word of the Lord is deep within him.
God is present even in the midst of his suffering and burdens. He says: “But then it becomes like a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” The longing for the Lord and his way is powerful indeed. Jeremiah is a witness that even in the midst of trials and tribulations the Lord is there and he offers life. His word and his will are the way to life.
Jesus says it this way: “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?” (Matthew 16:24-26)
You may recall last week’s Gospel passage for Sunday Mass. The passage just precedes this one. It is the interchange between Jesus and his disciples: “Who do the people say that I am? … Who do you say that I am?” Peter replies: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” A recognition that Jesus sees as coming by the grace of his heavenly Father to Peter: “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, no mere man has revealed this to you but my heavenly Father.” Jesus then commissions Simon as “Peter,” the rock upon which he will build his church.
Yet Peter’s understanding of the Messiah and Jesus’ mission is still growing. When Jesus predicts his passion and death (today’s reading) Peter replies: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Jesus responds strongly and immediately: “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Peter got distracted. He was thinking of the messiah in worldly terms. This view would see the messiah triumphant over the worldly power of Rome. He would see Israel restored to its place on the world stage. He would free Israel from worldly oppression. The messiah would not suffer, or die; he would rule. The idea that the messiah would succumb to torture and death was absurd to Peter. This was not his view of the messiah or his mission. Peter was thinking as the world thinks, not as God thinks.
Jesus’ reaction to Peter is strong (to say the least). Perhaps there are two reasons for Jesus’ reaction. First, he is correcting Peter for his misunderstanding of Jesus’ messiahship. He cannot have his mission or purpose misunderstood, not on this point. So his reaction is succinct and straightforward.
Second, Jesus is being tempted. He refers to Peter as “Satan” where as just before the current interchange he had bestowed on Peter the “keys to the Kingdom.” Jesus does this because he sees Peter’s suggestion as a temptation coming from Satan, for he is the one who tempts. He tempted Jesus in the desert (cf. Matthew 4:10). The temptations continue to come in many forms. Even during the passion, as Jesus is praying in the garden, he speaks of a “test” to the disciples. You may recall Jesus inviting Peter, James and John to pray with him. When he finds them sleeping he says: “Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”
The “test” is a temptation to veer from the path to life because suffering is part of that path. Jesus while fully God is also fully human. He is subject to temptation like each one of us. He immediately recognizes the temptation to think as the world does, not as his father does, and he refutes the temptation.
Jesus’ instruction to the disciples that concludes the passage is not only a teaching on discipleship but a teaching on life: “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” Jesus teaches us that the basis of life, the most fundamental element of life and the way to experience the fullness of life, is to offer ourselves in love for each other; to choose the way of God over the ways of man.
In the story above, Mary speaks to her husband as a loving wife and mother. James is caught up in the ways of the world. He is forgetting the most important relationships in his life. He is losing touch with the fundamentals of life. Like James we too can sometimes get distracted. Like Jeremiah we might get frustrated and think there is another way. Like Peter we might allow our own desires and ideas cloud our vision of God’s way. Like Jesus we might be tempted. However there is always a way back and a way to life.
If we seek to love God with all our heart, our soul, our mind and our strength; if we love our neighbor as ourselves; if we truly seek the Kingdom of God and his will for us; if we deny ourself, take up our cross, then we will truly find life “for whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.