Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 3)

The Gospel for today’s liturgy opens with Jesus teaching 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.”

This is the mission of Jesus. He comes to reconcile mankind to the Father. He comes to offer atonement for the sins of all. He comes in love of the Father and will remain faithful to the end. He will empty himself in love. The mission is daunting, but Jesus is determined to see it fulfilled.

The desire of Jesus to complete his mission is great, for it is tied to love. His love for the Father is expressed concretely in obedience. His love for the people is expressed in self-offering. The desire that drives him is intense; similar to that expressed by Jeremiah in the first reading.

Jeremiah acknowledges the trials and sufferings he is enduring because of his mission. He is ridiculed and mocked regularly. He is tempted to abandon the mission saying: “I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more.” Yet the very name and word that he dares to speak propels him to speak: “But then it becomes like a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I can not endure it.” Jeremiah’s intensity is driven by his relationship with God and his word.

Psalm 63, the responsorial for today, expresses a similar intensity. The psalmist says: “O God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.” Acknowledging the beneficence of the Lord, the psalmist finds courage: “You are my help, and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy. My soul clings fast to you; your right hand upholds me.”

Jesus’ mission will take courage. C.S. Lewis once wrote that courage is not merely one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. Jesus’ passion is very real to him at this point. In last week’s passage, Peter professed Jesus as “the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God.” Now Jesus tells Peter and the other disciples that his passion, death and resurrection are the foundation and essence of his messianic mission. Courage will be needed to see this mission to its fulfillment. Perhaps this will help us understand Jesus’ fierce reaction to Peter as the dialogue continues.

When Jesus speaks of his passion, Peter is upset and blurts out: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Jesus had previously declared Peter the rock upon which “I will build my church and the gates of the nether world shall not prevail against it.”  Now he says to Peter: “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Peter’s words not only represent a lack of understanding about Jesus’ mission, but also a temptation for Jesus. He tells Peter that he is thinking of Jesus’ mission from a worldly perspective rather than from God’s perspective. Jesus will not abandon the mission or the cross, but will courageously continue on this path.

The centrality of the passion is then further attested as Jesus tells the 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.” The mission of love will be continued in the lives of the disciples, in our lives. It is in the laying down of one’s life in love where we find life for ourselves.

The second part of the peace prayer of Saint Francis reflects this reality: “for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Jesus reminds us today that discipleship entails love, and love entails courage.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.