Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 31, 2014
Jer 20:7-9, Ps 63, Rom 12:1-2, Mt 16:21-27
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
Peter’s Becoming an Obstacle rather than a Rock
There’s a dramatic turnaround from last week’s Gospel. As we saw seven days ago, Jesus called Simon 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!,” he shouted. “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, without realizing it, playing the part of Satan the tempter, effectively trying to steer him away from doing his Father’s will. The reason why Jesus 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 thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
As challenging as that was, Jesus then upped the ante. It was tough enough to accept “the way God thinks” when that meant 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 told us at the end of today’s Gospel, “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. But we cannot be his disciples unless we do what Jesus indicates — deny ourselves rather than affirm ourselves, pick up our Cross daily, and follow Jesus rather than doing our own thing, which means thinking as he thinks, willing as he wills, choosing as he chooses, serving as he serves and loving as he loves.
Are we judging and living by God’s standards or by the world’s?
St. Paul echoes Jesus’ call to begin thinking according to God’s logic rather than our own in today’s second reading. “Do not conform yourselves to this age,” he wrote to the Romans, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, pleasing and perfect.” His words lead us to come face-to-face with one of the most important issues in the spiritual life: Do we think as other human beings do and conform ourselves, our thought patterns, our way of life, to the customs of the world and of our age? Or do we seek to think as God does, to discern what his will is, and to allow him to renew our minds with his holy wisdom?
One of the most effective litmus tests to determine whether we’re conforming ourselves to the Holy Spirit or to the spirit of the age is with regard to the Beatitudes, Jesus’ recipe for true happiness, which couldn’t be in greater contrast with the standards of the world. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” those who put their treasure in God; the world says, “Blessed are those who are rich.” What do we think? With regard to our material possessions, are we judging by God’s standards or by man’s? 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, those who teach others lessons and give them what they think they deserve. With regard to power and control, with whom are we aligned, God ‘s standards or man’s? Jesus declares, “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 Hugh Hefner and the author of Fifty Shades of Grey? In perhaps the most profound contrast, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, … blessed are 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 and likes you, when you have no suffering at all.” With regard to suffering on account of our faith, are we judging by divine or human standards?
This last point is a clear allusion to the Cross Jesus mentions we must embrace if we’re going to live a truly Christian life in accordance with his wisdom. 2000 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, we are not shocked as St. Peter was when Jesus gave the first of three prophecies of what would happen to him on Good Friday, because we know that it turns out well three days later. But most of us are still shocked when Jesus says to us that in order to be his disciple we must deny ourselves, die to ourselves through the Cross and follow him along the path to death in order to live. And we’re even more shocked when Jesus asks those we care about to follow him along the path of suffering. We still are tempted to say, “God forbid, Lord, that any such thing as pain and suffering, of the Cross, happen to me or my loved ones!” Because we struggle to think as God thinks, we’re tempted to water down what Jesus says are preconditions to being his follower. We think all Jesus is asking us to do is to “offer up” daily contradictions and hardships, but his first listeners would never have missed what he was saying when he mentioned that the only way they could follow him is through denying themselves to the extent that they would pick up their Cross. It would be as if he said to us today, “Strap yourself into the electric chair!,” because in the ancient world, the cross was used exclusively for the gruesome capital punishment of crucifying someone. For Jesus to say that they needed to pick up the Cross and follow him meant that they need to die to themselves on the Cross just like Jesus did on his. As St. Paul, who picked up his cross every day after his conversion 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), Jesus 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, it’s only when we’ve “lost” our life for the sake of Christ and his Gospel, that we will “save” our life and be able to follow Christ to the joyful risen existence he suffered and died to give us. This is certainly not man’s wisdom, but it is God’s wisdom!
What this is all about is that ff we’re going to live as a Christian, if we’re going “to discern God’s will, what is good, pleasing and perfect,” we need to grasp and live the meaning of Christian suffering. Those who are conformed to the world do not understand suffering. They thinks it’s exclusively an evil to be eliminated in the pursuit to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, but a Christian looks at suffering not simply as pain but as suffering that can redeem us and others. The world looks at the Cross as a way of abnegation, of giving up good things, of losing out on good experiences, but a Christian sees it not so much as a path of renunciation and agony, but a way to unleash love, to make us humble and form us to be Good Samaritans when we see others suffering. The way of the Cross is fundamentally a yes, not a no. Just as by Christ’s stripes we were healed (Is 53:5), so by our own stripes, our own crosses, we can make up what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the sake of his body the Church (Col 1:24).
For what or for whom will be give our life?
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, power, pleasure and prestige. Jesus is telling us that even if we were able to have all of these in abundance and more, it wouldn’t be worth it if in the process we squandered our soul. This is the great “Faustian bargain” — to use the image from the 19th century German poet Goethe — the quintessential 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 the same with 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, to live for the present rather than forever — just as Satan tried to do to Jesus in the desert. Jesus makes plain that it profits a person nothing to gain everything the world can offer if he forfeits his eternal life in exchange.
Earlier this week we celebrated the feast of St. Louis, the great 13th century King of France, who on his deathbed wrote a letter to the son who would succeed him and inherit the kingdom. In the first paragraph of that last will and testament, he reminded his son of a more important kingdom that he should never forsake for all the kingdoms of the world: “Keep yourself, my son,” St. Louis said, “from everything that you know displeases God, that is to say, from every mortal sin. You should permit yourself to be tormented by every kind of martyrdom before you would allow yourself to commit a mortal sin.” Two weeks ago we pondered Pope Francis’ challenge to young Korean Catholics, and through them us, when he asked what would they die for? Would they die for Christ like so many generations of great Korean lay martyrs? St. Louis would ask us in the same vein what he asked his son: Would we die a thousand martyrdoms rather than sin? There’s an infamous joke that basically was loosely made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore that tells the story of a rich man who propositioned a beautiful young woman married to a man who was having financial difficulties whether she would sleep with him for a million dollars. She thought of all that she would be able to do with that much money and agreed. After the adultery, the rich man gave her a five-dollar bill. The woman responded angrily, “We agreed that you would give me a million dollars. What kind of woman do you think I am?” The rich man replied, “We’ve already established what kind of woman you are. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”
The question for us is whether we have a price for which we would sell our soul by committing sin? Would we voluntarily miss Mass for a million dollars? (Many take the deal for far less, just overtime). For a million dollars, would we bear false witness against an innocent person framing him for a crime? Would we take someone’s life for a billion? Would we act in a filthy movie or watch it even once for a trillion? There are many in the world who would sell out Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, but Jesus is telling us that to be his disciple we need to treat him as priceless, we need to be willing to die rather than to sin knowing that every sin led to his crucifixion, we need to respond to his help to deny our lower appetites in favor of our higher spiritual desires, we need to act according to grace and be crucified to sin and to the world if we’re really going to live (Gal 5:14-16). As Jesus stresses with us that it’s not worth gaining the whole world to lose our soul through sin, he’s also telling us on the flip side that it profits us everything to forfeit the whole world if in the process we can save our soul. As we heard earlier this summer, the kingdom of heaven really is like a treasure hidden in a field worth selling everything we have to obtain (cf. Mt 13:44). Rather than hungering and thirsting for mammon, for power, for pleasure, for fame, the Christian says, in the words of today’s Psalm, “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord, my God,” “for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like a dry weary land without water.” The more we think like God, the more we will see this truth and experience this thirst!
Our Counter-cultural Vocation
It should be obvious that Jesus’ and Paul’s words today about judging as God does rather than man, about not conforming ourselves to this age but being transformed by the renewal of our mind to discern God’s will, means that as Christians we are going to be counter-cultural. To be a faithful Catholic signifies that, as our world is becoming less and less Christian, we’re going to stand in greater non-conformity with it in the hope that others may learn from our example the truth of God’s wisdom so that they, too, can experience salvation through embracing it and living it.
Pope Francis talked about the missionary importance of this Christian non-conformity today in his Angelus meditation in St. Peter’s Square. “We Christians live in the world,” he said, “fully integrated into the social and cultural reality of our time, and rightly so: but this carries with it the risk that we might become ‘worldly’, that ‘the salt might lose its flavor,’ as Jesus would say, that is that the Christian will be watered down, will lose the aspect of newness that comes from the Lord and the Holy Spirit.” He went on to say, “It’s sad to find ‘watered down’ Christians who seem like watered down wine so that we can’t tell whether they are Christians or worldly, just like in watered down wine sometimes we can’t tell whether it’s wine or water. This is sad. It’s sad to find that Christians are no longer the salt of the earth, and we know that when the salt loses its flavor, it’s no longer good for anything. Their salt has lost its flavor because they have given themselves to the spirit of the world and become worldly.” Pope Francis says that the way Christians should be in the world is the “opposite: when the power of the Gospel remains alive in Christians, it can transform mankind’s criteria of judgment, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life, which are in contrast with the Word of God and the plan of salvation.” He says that by reading and meditating on the Gospel, by participating in Sunday Mass, by prayer, days of recollection and retreats, we Christians “do not conform ourselves to the world but to Christ and follow him on his way, the way of ‘losing one’s life to find it,’ losing it in the sense of giving it, offering it for love and in love.”
Jesus called us to be “in the world” but not “of the world” (Jn 17:5), to live in the midst of others but rather than becoming watered down wine, rather than losing our salt, to maintain our bond to Christ so that we may bring others into that saving bond. The real test that that we’re in comformity with Jesus and non-conformity to the world — rather than in comformity with the world in non-conformity with Jesus — is whether we suffer for living according to God’s standards instead of the world’s. Jesus was crucified because of his lack of conformity with the religious totalitarianism of his day and he was goodness incarnate. If we’re bound to him, we will suffer on account of him. This is what Jeremiah describes in the first reading. He said, “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.” We will experience the same derision because of our conformity to Jesus and dissent from worldliness.
If we are united to Jesus in his teaching about the dignity of every human being and say together with Jesus and the Church that it is always and everywhere wrong to murder an innocent child made in his image and likeness in the womb through abortion, people will curse us as being mysognist and of “waging a war on women.”
If we’re united to Jesus in his teaching about marriage, that it is the lifelong fruitful and faithful union of one man and one woman, we will be accused by some judges, politicians and celebrities of being “homophobic bigots,” even though we as Catholics ardently love our brothers and sisters with same-sex attractions and sacrifice ourselves for their salvation.
If we’re united to Jesus in his teaching that whenever we welcome a stranger, we welcome him, and treat immigrants, whether they’re legal or illegal as if they’re brothers and sisters, many will accuse us of being “anti-American.”
Our conformity to Jesus’ counter-cultural teachings will bring us, like Jeremiah, to be reviled, to have people utter all types of things falsely against us on Jesus’ account, but Jesus tells us today, paradoxically, that this path of self-denial, this way of the Cross, this following him down the trail of truth, is the way to life. We will experience what Jeremiah mentioned at the end of today’s first reading, 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.” A truly Christian conscience is like that burning fire in our bones compelling us to give witness to the truth of God’s wisdom. And if we do so, then we may experience some suffering like Jeremiah, but we will also be like him an instrument of conversion and hopefully salvation of others.
The only worship that makes sense
This path of the renewal of our minds so that we might begin to think as God thinks, this path of self-denial, assumption of the Cross and following Jesus even and especially when it’s hard, is something we need to do more than think about. It’s something for which we need to prepare and something we have to choose freely. It’s not something that’s supposed to “happen” to us, but something that’s supposed fully to engage our freedom, something for which we thirst like a desert for water, and burn from within our bones. Just as Jesus, looking ahead to what would happen to him on Calvary, said in his Good Shepherd Discourse, “No one takes my life from me; I freely lay it down,” so each of us is not supposed to be a “victim” of the Cross but someone who eagerly and freely lays down our life in accordance with divine logic for God and for others.
This is what Paul calls us to do at the beginning of today’s second reading, which may be one of the most important phrases in all of Sacred Scripture. He says, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.” Jesus’ call to self-denial, crucifixion and to following is meant to lead us to offer ourselves wholly and entirely to God as an living sacrifice, not just later in the “supreme moment” of a fierce test but every day. St. Paul calls this our “spiritual worship,” which is an insufficient translation of the words he uses in his Greek original, “logike latreia,” something that is better rendered “the only worship that is logical,” “the only adoration that makes sense.” The sole response to all that God has done for us is to give of ourselves wholly and entirely. Our worship, as Pope Benedict wrote back in 2006, is meant to be a “total self-offering … [that] includes and transfigures every aspect of life.” The worship God wants of us is not to be merely a few prayers said before we go to bed, it’s not merely avoiding breaking the ten commandments, it’s not giving God an hour on Sunday mornings. The only worship of God that makes sense is for us to offer all we are and have to God, to deny ourselves anything we selfishly desire, to die to our ego, and to follow Christ freely along a path of total self-giving, of making of ourselves a holy, pleasing, living sacrifice to God and in him to others. When we begin to think as God does, this is what a Christian thirsts to do.
And the way we prepare to make that “total self-offering that includes and transfigures every aspect of life” is here at Mass. It’s here that God seeks to renew our minds with the holy Word of God. It’s here that we offer our bodies to God as sacraments of our entire being, body and soul. The prayers of the Mass are explicit elaborations of the “logike latreia” that St. Paul mentions. During the offertory, the priest prays that “this sacrifice, yours and mine, will be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father.” Later the priest asks God the Father “to bless, acknowledge and approve this offering in every respect [and] make it spiritual and acceptable” (EP I) as we offer him “in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice” (EP III). This points to the truth that it’s through this Eucharistic self-giving together with Jesus that we’re strengthened to live our life in conformity to Him rather than the world. It’s here where we gain the strength to choose him over every other thing in the world combined and to have his very own life ignite us from within like fire in our bones to go with him and help him save the world. Let us ask God the Father today to give us all the help he knows we need to think the way he thinks, to discern his holy will and do it, to be willing to sacrifice everything for him, so that we may not be called “Satan” but “beloved sons and daughters,” as we seek to give him here at Mass and throughout the liturgy of our life the only worship that makes sense, the total holocaust of ourselves to him and for others in response to his love in giving himself totally for us and our salvation. This is what it means to conform ourselves to the way God thinks. How blessed will we be if we do!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.
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 word of the LORD has brought me
derision and reproach all the day.
I say to myself, I will not mention him,
I will speak in his name no more.
But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart,
imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.
PS 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
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.
R/ My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
Thus have I gazed toward you in the sanctuary
to see your power and your glory,
For your kindness is a greater good than life;
my lips shall glorify you.
R/ My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
Thus will I bless you while I live;
lifting up my hands, I will call upon your name.
As with the riches of a banquet shall my soul be satisfied,
and with exultant lips my mouth shall praise you.
R/ My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
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.
R/ My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.
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.
Jesus began to show 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.
Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him,
“God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
He turned and said to Peter,
“Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Then Jesus said to his 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.
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?
For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory,
and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”