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.”
- Do you consider how and when your “human ways” of thinking are not in line with God’s? How is it possible for us to be more in touch with an alternate way of thinking, more in touch with the divine?
- Is suffering in your life something you grudgingly endure or actually lean into, as a path toward transformation and resurrection? How do you take 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?
- Have you ever 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.
Finding and Losing Life
It is a sad but predictable fact that those who stand up get knocked down. Whistle blowers are a prime example. A cop reports that other cops are abusing suspects. He is shunned and punished in very clever—and often violent—ways. A woman reports accounting abuses in a large corporation, her boss thanks her and comments on her courage. Within a week she is downsized for no apparent reason. A priest reports another priest for sexual abuse. The bishop tells him it will be taken care of. Instead, he is taken care of and sent to a remote assignment. Criticism and cover-up go together, and part of the cover- up is to eliminate the criticism.
Jesus was a fierce critic. He pointed out the thoroughgoing hypocrisy of religious leadership. They were taken up with their own importance, loving the trappings of their position rather than its substance (see Matt 23:1-31): They loved money, elaborate robes, the first places at table, salutations in the marketplace, and being called teacher. Image was everything. They polished the outside of the cup and were concerned about weighing the mint and the herb. They kept people from the knowledge that would help them, laid burdens on them, and watched them falter. Jesus saw clearly the organizational abuse and, prophet them falter. Jesus saw clearly the organizational abuse and, prophet that he was, he blew the whistle.
Therefore, Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death was not a supernatural vision of the future. It was rooted in the amply documented tendency of those in power to eliminate those who question it. Today also those who stand against organizations, governments, and institutions—and call into question their unethical practices—know that reprisal is their fate. The rhetoric may be that criticism is welcomed. But the reality is that anyone who questions the status quo will be treated harshly by those benefiting from the status quo. Often this comes down to being attacked with the very practices they are criticizing. If they are pointing to financial abuse, they will be stripped of work and money. If they are pointing to physical abuse, they will be beaten. When leadership does not know what to do, it does what it knows best. What it knows best is punishing dissent and covering up.
Why do people do it then? There are as many reasons as there are people and groups who have walked this lonely path of confrontation. Some say, “I just couldn’t let it go on” or “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do something” or “ This was once a great company [or church or organization or government) and it means something to me.” The reason given in the Gospel is that the deeper life of God depends on it. There is a deeper life of God in us, and this life is nurtured by expressing it in the face of the myriad situations we encounter. If this life is silenced, especially if it is silenced because we are afraid that its expression will mean we will lose our surface life, then this most valuable life is lost. The paradox is that by our silence we have gained some significant footing in the world, but we have lost our soul. As in the Esau and Jacob story (Gen 25:29-34), we have sold our birthright for a pot of stew. In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons (London: William Heinemann, 1960), Thomas More sees that the man who has perjured himself is wearing a chain of office for Wales. It is his reward for lying. Thomas More says to him, “Richard, it does not profit a man to lose his soul for the whole world, but for Wales?’
It is difficult to grasp how spiritually momentous not speaking out is. Ordinary consciousness thinks it is an ethical option. After all, it is not something we are doing. It is something we are not doing. At best, it is a sin of omission. Some may think it is important to confront what is happening. If it is “their thing,” fine. Others may have different business to conduct. In A Man for All Seasons, Thomas Moore also says, “Our natural path lies in escaping.” This is a piece of advice well worth heeding.
However, the Gospels are not that blasé. They think our soul is at stake. So they encourage freely shouldering the cross. “The Cross” is merely what happens to those who persist in righteousness in an unrighteous world. Every time “the Cross” happens, and it happens daily, a double revelation unfolds. Divine love in some finite human person shines forth and human resistance in some hardened persons is seen for what it is. “The Cross” is the symbol of the standoff between divine love and human recalcitrance.
This dangerous possibility of discipleship so terrifies us that we immediately plead for a reprieve. Jesus must take us aside as he took aside Peter. He must explain to us once again how this is necessary, how this is a “must.” Given who God is and who we are, it cannot be any other way. And it is only a seeming terror, for this is the path of finding the deeper life that sustains us. But Jesus the teacher must continue and slowly get us back into his following. He must tell us about the word we cannot hear, the word at the end that was lost because our hearts were pounding at suffering and death, the mysterious word: resurrection.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.