Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 28, 2005
Jer 20:7-9; Rom 12:1-2; Mt 16:21-27
1) There’s a dramatic turnaround from last week’s Gospel. As we saw seven days ago, Jesus called Peter “the Rock on whom I will build by Church” and promised that “the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” Today, Jesus Jesus calls Peter, “Satan,” and tells him, essentially, that the gates of Hell are prevailing against him. Why? Because Peter was refusing that Jesus would suffer, be killed and be raised: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” We might think that this was just the concern of a friend trying to prevent Jesus from suffering harm, but Jesus, the Lord, saw something much deeper. The reason why he called him “Satan,” was because Peter at that moment was effectively trying to steer him away from doing God’s will, as Satan always does. The reason why he said, “Get behind me!,” is because Peter was trying to LEAD Jesus rather than to FOLLOW him, and no creature can ever do that to the Creator, and no disciple can ever do that to the Master. Jesus very directly summed up what was the cause of Peter’s fall: “You are judging not by God’s standards but by man’s.”
2) Then Jesus upped the ante. It was tough enough to accept “God’s standards” that the “Christ, the Son of the Living God” (as Peter confessed him last week) was going to undergo great suffering and be crucified. But Jesus said that if we wanted to be his disciples, we would need to undergo the same. This is God’s standard for us, too. “If anyone wishes to become my disciple,” Jesus said, “he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” We’re here because we are and want to be ever better followers of Jesus. We want our friends and family members to be disciples of Jesus.
a. To do that we need first to deny ourselves, which means not just making small sacrifices like giving up sugar in coffee or foregoing desert, but to deny ourselves just like Peter denied Jesus on Holy Thursday evening: “I do not know the man!” To deny ourselves means to say that we’re not going to make our decisions by what we want, but by what God wants, to decide by his standards, not by ours.
b. The second thing is to pick up our cross. Very often we can minimize what “picking up our Cross” means. We can think it signifies “offering things up” whenever difficulties come. But Jesus meant something far greater by it — something his first listeners would never have missed. It was similar to Jesus’ saying to us today, “Strap yourself in to the electric chair!” In the ancient world, the cross was used exclusively to crucify someone. For Jesus to say that they needed to pick up the Cross and follow him meant that they need to die on the Cross just like Jesus did on his. Every cross given to us over the course of the day is not just something to “offer up,” but rather a gift and a means by which we can die to ourselves so that Christ may live. As St. Paul, who picked up his cross every day and followed the Lord, once wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:19-20). He wants us to be able to say the same thing. It’s only when we have denied ourselves and affirmed God, it’s only when we have in fact died to ourselves so that Christ may live, that we can truly follow Christ to the joyful risen life he suffered and died to give us. Jesus says to us again today, “For those who wish to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Finding our life means first losing it through self-denial and the Cross. This is certainly not man’s wisdom, but it is God’s wisdom!
3) Then Jesus — great teacher that he is — sums up the contrast between God’s wisdom and man’s when he says, “For what would it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” So many in our day strive after money, after pleasure and comfort, after power and prestige, and after sexual gratification. Imagine if you could for a second have ALL OF THIS and more. Would it be worth it, if, in the process, you’d lose your soul? This is the great “Faustian bargain,” the temptation of the devil. Just as Satan tried to tempt Jesus in the desert, when he took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me,” so Satan tries to do to us. Jesus’ response then is what he wants ours to be now, “Away with you, Satan, for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him alone’” (Mt 4:8-10). That’s the reason why Jesus called Peter “Satan,” because Peter was tempting Jesus to put his physical health and temporal well-being ahead of his soul and eternal well-being — just as Satan tried to do in the desert. It profits a man nothing to gain everything the world can offer if he forfeits his eternal life in the process. But the corollary is also true. It profits a woman everything to forfeit the whole world if in the process she can her soul. The kingdom of heaven really is like a treasure hidden in a field worth selling everything we have to obtain (cf. Mt 13:44).
4) Let’s get very practical about whether we judge by God’s standards or by man’s. The greatest examination we could find is in the beatitudes, Jesus’ recipe for true happiness, which couldn’t be in greater contrast with the standards of the world.
a. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” who put their treasure in God. The world says, “Blessed are those who are rich.” What do we think? Are we judging by God’s standards or by man’s?
b. Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek… the merciful … and the peacemakers.” The world says, “Blessed are the strong,” those who finish off any enemy or opponent, who teach others lessons and give them what they deserve. Do we judge by God’s standards or by man?
c. Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure of heart.” The world says, “Blessed are those who fulfill all their sexual fantasies.” Are you and I siding with Jesus or with the Hugh Hefner?
d. In perhaps the greatest contrast, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, … when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” while the world says, “Blessed are you when everyone considers you nice, when everybody praises you, when you have no suffering at all.” Do we judge by God’s standards or by man’s?
5) It should be obvious from the contrast between the beatitudes and prevailing worldly wisdom that to be a true disciple of Jesus, to judge by his standards, means to be counter-cultural. To be a faithful Catholic means that, as our world is becoming less and less Christian, we’re going to stand in greater non-conformity with it. Like Jeremiah in the first reading, we will need to say more and more “I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me… for the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.” But we’re also called to recognize, as he did, that “if I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” St. Paul realized the same truth when he said later, “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). Our consciences should be like that burning fire in our bones compelling us to give witness to the truth of the Gospel for those who need to live by it if they’re ever going to be saved.
6) Therefore, when the world says that it should be a woman’s right to take her own child’s life in the womb, we, judging by God’s standards, say “no it’s not!” — and we will try to do all we can to help women in those circumstances not to make such a tragically wrong choice. When the world says that two people of the same sex can marry, we, judging by God’s standards, say with Jesus that “in the beginning God made them male and female and for this reason a man leaves his mother and clings — not to anyone he pleases — but to his WIFE.” When the world tries to teach our young people that there is no way they could possibly remain pure of heart and therefore hands out condoms to them like candy, we, judging by God’s standards, work to help them to see the beauty and the purpose of chastity and that with God’s help they can save the gift of themselves for the future spouses. When the world tries to tell them “if it feels good, do it,” we, with the light of God, say, “if it’s RIGHT do it!” When the world says that there’s nothing special about Sundays, except perhaps a chance to make overtime, or to sleep late, or to play sports, or watch cartoons or talk shows on television, we say, judging by God’s standards, that there’s never anything more important than the chance to receive God inside, as we have the incredible privilege to do on Sunday through Holy Communion. To be counter-cultural in this way is what Jesus is calling us to do. He did it in his time. Jeremiah did it in his era. Paul and the apostles did it in theirs. So many saints before us and still today are continuing to it, and we’re called to join them.
7) One last application we can make on whether we’re judging by God’s standards or by man’s is how we spend our money. At the beginning of Mass, a member of the parish finance council described the serious financial challenges our parish and school face and what we need to do to meet those challenges. I’d just ask you to pray this week about whether you are spending your money according to God’s priorities or according to man’s. What the finance council and I are asking you to consider is to dedicate your first hour of work a week together and to put whatever pay you receive from that first hour into the basket on Sunday. I know that some people will find this a lot more money than they’re accustomed to giving, but it is still be far less than the average family pays each month for cable television or for many other ordinary expenses that, when we’re thinking by God’s standards, are far less important than the mission and upkeep of the Church Jesus came from heaven to found. The Jews used to give the first ten percent of their income to God (Deut 14:22-28; cf Mt. 23:23). The early Christians used to sell all their property and lay the proceeds at the feet of the apostles (Acts 4:35-37). They clearly were making God’s priorities their own financial priorities. While the financial council and I are asking you, relatively, to do far less than they did, God himself is asking for you to act by the same principle that they lived by — to judge by God’s standards and not by man’s. Please remember you cannot out-give God in anything.
8 ) Saint Paul repeats to us today what he wrote to the Romans twenty years after Jesus died, “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.” This renewal of the mind he describes comes through judging by God’s standards, not by man’s. If we do that, then when the Son of Man comes to repay all according to his conduct, we will gain our life forever.