Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 30)

“A Man for All Seasons” is a play and later a movie which in 1966 won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The story centers on Thomas More and his commitment to faith and conscience. His life is a principled one. He seeks the truth and tries his best to live by it.

Several figures are contrasted with More as the plot develops. One such character is Richard Rich. When Rich is introduced, he is a teacher in the local school. Rich seeks out More, then Chancellor of England, for a governmental position. More encourages him to stay with teaching. He responds: “Who will remember me?” “You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public at that.” Rich refuses the counsel and seeks a position elsewhere.

Toward the middle of the play he has a position in York which he achieved through false witness against More. At the end, during More’s trial, Rich agrees to perjure himself in exchange for higher office. During the trial, after Rich’s testimony, More asks if he can see the seal of office hanging from Rich’s neck. It is that of the attorney general for Wales.

More, who is about to be sentenced to death, looks at the medallion and with the tinge of irony says: “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?”

In that last scene, Thomas More is quoting Jesus from the passage in this Sunday’s Gospel according to St. Matthew. If we look at this passage along with the one from last week that immediately precedes it in the Gospel, we find a contrast being made.

The first instance centers on Simon (later Peter). Last week when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Jesus affirms this, asserts that Peter did not just say this on his own but God the Father inspired him to do so. And so he tells Simon, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my Church.”

The contrast comes today when Jesus tells Peter and the others that he must suffer greatly, be killed and, after three days, rise. Peter immediately rebukes Jesus saying “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen.” At this Jesus says: “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

The contrast continues as Jesus instructs his followers on discipleship. “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” And “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?”

Jesus identifies a fundamental distinction between the ways of man and the ways of God. Now Jesus is not saying that man is essentially bad or evil. But he does acknowledge and addresses an instinct in man that turns him inward to focus on himself. Elements of self-preservation, advancement, self-serving choices, the type of independence that tends toward isolation are all associated with this focus.

When choices are made based on this instinct, the results may seem satisfying at first but are not truly life-giving; in fact, they rob one of life. Hence Jesus’ strong reaction to Peter. Jesus’ answer to this is that one should follow him. He too could be tempted toward self. He himself acknowledges this when he tells Peter that he is an “obstacle” (another way of saying this is “stumbling block”).

So his words are not those spoken by one immune to the human condition but by one who knows it well for he is human. Yet he will not give in to this temptation. Rather, Jesus chooses the way of God, he chooses the path of the cross. The cross is not a symbol of senseless suffering but of love. He is willing and does indeed lay down his life in love. He personifies and demonstrates the instruction he offers: the one who loses his life saves it.

Jesus associates the contrast between God’s way and man’s as being a choice between life and death. The image becomes reality in his passion, death and resurrection. While Jesus references the cross and points us in its direction today, he does not do so pointing to a future event. Rather, he is instructing us on how to live now, today.

Every day and every week we make choices and decisions. We do so at home in the context of family. We do so at home in the context of friendship. We do so in our community in the context of citizenship. We do so at work in context of employee or employer.

The decisions we make in all these venues pose an opportunity to take up the cross and follow; to choose God’s way not man’s; to choose life over death.

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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.