Year A: Twenty-Second Sunday Ordinary Time
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself
Matthew 16: 21-27
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.”
- In your experience, does fidelity to following Jesus always involve personal sacrifice? Explain.
- Is suffering in your life something you grudgingly endure, or consciously lean into as a path toward transformation? How do you go about denying yourself and taking up your cross to follow Jesus? Explain.
- Jesus tries to help us understand that following him looks like loss, but is really gain. When have you experienced a loss that led to discovering yourself in a deeper relationship with God?
- Can you name a time when you personally or professionally stood against unjust power in support of Gospel values, ethically following Jesus? If so, what happened.
Matthew 16: 21-27
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ
Though we don’t hear the first four words as a part of the Gospel passage this Sunday, Matthew 16:21 begins “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem” (emphasis added). Those first four words were important to Matthew because they signaled a turning point in his Gospel. Things were getting more intense, and Jesus was going to concentrate his teaching ministry on those closest to him, trying to lead them to understand him more profoundly, and thus, strengthen their faith in God. Today’s Gospel presents the first of Jesus’ three specific predictions about the suffering and death he was to undergo. While those three differ in the details, they all end with the promise that he will be raised “on the third day.”
Between the time in the desert when the tempter offered Jesus three ways to betray his vocation and this announcement of the passion, we have a few hints about how Jesus grew in understanding what his faithfulness would cost him. Earlier, he had warned his disciples that they would be persecuted (Matthew 10). He encouraged them to become as simple as doves and shrewd as serpents. Most of all, he taught them that the powers of evil might be able to kill the body, but that they have no power over the soul. In the language of the day that meant that the powers of this world can injure and even destroy the body (soma), the physical, ever-changing, perishable dimension of the human person. But the psyche or “soul,” the real self where conscience, decision and relationships reside, is beyond the power of evil.
Jesus told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, to the confrontation between the kingdom of his Father and kingdoms of this world. To avoid that confrontation would have amounted to a passive approval of the rule of the religious and civil authorities who were so threatened by him that they were determined to eliminate him. Refusal to face them down would have affirmed the superiority of their power. Jesus had to face them to be true to himself. He had to risk his body to save his soul.
Peter’s response to Jesus’ plan seemed to make very good sense: “God forbid!” Peter was operating on the level of safety rather than salvation. Unwittingly, he echoed the desert tempter whose every suggestion attempted to sway Jesus from being true to his vocation. Jesus replied with the harsh retort: “Get behind me!” Peter the “rock” was putting himself in Jesus’ path as a stumbling block, and Jesus will not fall for it.
There’s no collegiality here, no room for debate. Jesus has discerned the necessary path, and his disciples can only choose whether or not to follow him as he carries it through. Will they get behind him? Are they committed to follow him? If so, they will have to do it in his style, leaving behind their visions of a mythic messiah who would overpower the world on its own terms. If they were planning on a victory that reflected the values of their society, Jesus was offering something entirely different, something far more costly and far more rewarding.
The incident we witness here between Jesus and his disciples gives plot, characters and script to what John’s Gospel says so succinctly with the proclamation: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). The first issue in Matthew’s scene is truth, most specifically, Jesus being true to himself, to his Father and his vocation. Jesus presents and represents truth and all its depth in stark contrast to the mendacity and superficiality of his adversaries. Jesus invites his disciples to follow him in the way of truth which means to be willing to risk their own lives rather than lose their reason for living.
This is a turning point in Matthew’s Gospel. Immediately after Peter spoke for the disciples and acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, Jesus began to intensify his teaching about what was implied in following him. As always, his primary way of teaching was through his behavior. His words simply explained what he was doing.
We come to the liturgy to hear this Gospel, not as a scene from the past, but as a challenge to decide whether or not we are willing to follow Christ on the way to Jerusalem today and be ready for all that will demand of us.
Crucifying our Programs for Happiness
Fr. Michael K. Marsh
Do you want to know how I got to be so smart?” That’s the question a friend of mine has recently begun asking me at the end of our conversations. He is not only a friend. He is also, for me, a teacher and mentor.
He and I often speak about life, prayer, theology, and relationships. I always come away from our conversations with new insights and truths about my life. He opens my eyes to things about myself that I either did not or would not see. He offers me a larger vision of my life. Then he laughs and asks, “Do you want to know how I got to be so smart.” I always say, “Yes, tell me”, and he always gives the same answer. It never changes. It’s just one word. It’s always the same word. Suffering. “Michael,” he says, “most everything I’ve learned in life, I have learned through suffering.
That’s not what I want to hear. I don’t like his answer, but I have begun to recognize that he is telling me the truth. It’s the same truth Jesus speaks in today’s gospel. Neither my friend nor Jesus are talking about suffering for suffering’s sake. They are speaking about a different kind of suffering. It is the kind of suffering that happens when our home made, self-created, programs for happiness no longer work.
We all have our programs for happiness. These programs for happiness underlie the expectations we have for ourselves and others. They are the illusions that distort our thinking and seeing. They are the delusions that we readily accept and refuse to question. Our programs for happiness are designed to ensure our survival and security, to give us esteem and affection, and to put us in power and control. They’re the means by which we try to protect ourselves and get what we want. Most of our programs for happiness focus on love, reputation, success, accomplishments, predictability, and getting our needs met. They are the programs of “those who want to save their life.”
Our programs for happiness work fine until they don’t, and there will be a day when our programs for happiness fail. On that day we come face-to-face with our own powerlessness. We recognize that we are not and never were in control. We realize that we are unable to save ourselves or anyone else. On that day we suffer. That suffering can, however, open our eyes, hearts, and minds to another way, a new way, a different way.
It’s not hard to discover our programs for happiness. Look for the places of fear in your life. I don’t mean just any fear. I’m talking about the kind of fear you feel in the pit of your stomach, the kind of fear that keeps you awake at night and enveloped in darkness, the kind of fear that stalks you in the daytime. That fear is telling you that one of your programs for happiness is being threatened.
Look for the places of anger. What are the things that push your buttons and cause you to react in a way that leaves you wondering where that came from? Are there some people with whom you seem to have the same arguments and the same conflicts over and over again? One of your programs for happiness is being challenged and is at risk.
Do you ever feel as if you are just out of sorts, you’re all wound up, and you’re just not yourself? Somewhere in that, one of your programs for happiness isn’t working.
In all of these examples someone is messing with your program for happiness. That’s what Jesus is doing in today’s gospel. He is messing with Peter’s program for happiness. Jesus messes with all our programs for happiness. He tells us the cross is the way to life. And that makes no sense to most of us. It doesn’t fit in our programs for happiness.
God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you,” Peter says. We might also add in parenthesis,” Or to me.” Peter is trying to protect his program for happiness. He has his mind set “not on divine things but on human things.” Peter wants Jesus to be a part of his program for happiness rather than becoming a part of Jesus’ program for life. How often do we do that? Peter correctly named who Jesus is, but he misunderstood with that name entails. To deny the way of the cross is to ask Jesus to leave us and the world unchanged. It means we are willing to settle for moments of happiness. Christ offers more.
We can never really understand what it means to believe in, confess, or follow Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” until we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. The cross is not usually a part of our program for happiness. It sure wasn’t a part of Peter’s program. The cross stands as a sign of contradiction to our programs for happiness. God does not give us crosses to bear. The burdens, difficulties, losses, and frustrations we encounter every day are not our cross. They are just the circumstances of life. Taking up our cross is not the means by which we are made good, acceptable, or lovable in God’s eyes. They’re not God’s punishment for our sins or his test of our faithfulness. The cross does not justify our sufferings in this world, it transforms them.
To deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ means that we are willing to let go of our self-created programs for happiness. It means we are willing to exchange our programs for happiness for abundant life and to forego “the taste of death.” That’s what my friend has learned and that’s what Jesus is teaching Peter and us.
What are our programs for happiness? What will we do with them today? Tomorrow? The next? Do we want to really live, or do we just want to try to be happy?
Reflection excerpt from Interrupting the Silence. Fr. Michael K. Marsh https://interruptingthesilence.com Used by permission.