Aug 30, 2020: 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Jeremiah 20:7-9

You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped;
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.

Jeremiah lived through one of the most tumultuous periods of ancient Near East history. He witnessed the fall of a great empire (Assyria) and the rising of one even greater (Babylon).

Yahweh called Jeremiah to be a prophet to Judah and to the nations during this time of great upheaval. He served during the reign of the reformer King Josiah and during the time that led up to the sack of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile. His ministry lasted about forty years, from 627-587 BC.

The words of complaint we hear from Jeremiah in today’s first reading consist of some of the most pathos-filled sentiments of all his writings.

You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.

The verb pātâ can mean both “duped” and “enticed.” The first meaning suggests God misled the prophet when he was called to deliver the word of the Lord. Jeremiah did allow himself to be misled, but this only happened because he was inexperienced and naive. God had promised to be with him, and Jeremiah took this promise seriously (see Jeremiah 1:5-8).

The second meaning of pātâ carries the meaning of seduction, of being overpowered. It is used in this way in Exodus 22:15, in the case of a virgin being seduced by a man. While there is no sense here of sexual exploitation, the text does state that Jeremiah struggled to withstand God’s power but was unsuccessful. It may not have been a physical struggle, but there was certainly coercion.

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;

With the death of King Josiah, many of the abuses he had tried to erase returned. It was Jeremiah’s job as a prophet to warn the people that their infidelity to covenant love would result in disaster. Jeremiah’s message is “violence and outrage” because he is warning the Israelites that suffering will be the inevitable result of sin.

As if delivering a message of doom to his own people was not enough, he must also face the ridicule of his compatriots. They mock him because they arrogantly relied on the promises God had made to the house of David, that it would endure even if it had to be chastised (see 2 Samual 7:14-16). Jeremiah’s oracle of doom is therefore viewed with disdain, and they consider him a laughingstock.

Like Jesus, Jeremiah knows full well that fulfilling his vocation as a prophet will lead to great suffering for himself.

The word of the LORD has brought me derision and reproach all the day.

Jeremiah is caught between fidelity to his God-given mission and his own natural inclinations. He did not seek this calling. In fact, he resisted it from the start.

I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more.

Jeremiah is finding his vocation so painful that he is tempted to stop. Under the strain of this terrible burden, he decides never again to speak in God’s name.

But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.

However, Jeremiah remains faithful. Like a roaring fire, God’s word seems to burn within him. He cannot restrain its fury; he must speak.

Jeremiah does not want to suffer, but he accepts suffering as the unavoidable consequence of acting in fidelity to God’s will. He can neither determine the message he is to proclaim nor decide whether or not it will be proclaimed. He is simply the messenger; all he can do is complain.

Jeremiah is indeed a man of sorrows.

2nd Reading – Romans 12:1-2

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.
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.

We continue our study of the book of Romans. Today’s reading follows immediately after the song of praise to God for God’s great goodness and saving power that we read last week. Paul has been lamenting how the Jews have failed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, but at the same time rejoicing that the Gentiles serve as the means to bring the whole world to salvation.

I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God,

The plural suggests the multiple manifestations of mercy he has described in chapters 9 through 11.

When Paul issues an ethical injunction, he usually grounds it with an appeal to his apostolic authority. That is not the case here, nor is it based on moral principle; instead, Paul appeals to the mercies of God as the basis of his admonition.

to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,

Paul makes a veiled reference to the sacrificial system of ancient Israel. (Remember, his audience is the Christians in Rome.)

The Greek word for “body” (sōma) refers not only to the person but to that individual’s corporeality or concrete relationship with the world. It is because we have bodies that we are able to experience this world. Yet it is precisely this experience that Paul is exhorting the Christians to offer up as a living sacrifice — a disciplined life, not a sacrificial death.

holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.

Such an offering will be holy (i.e., set apart) and pleasing to God because it is a total gift of oneself. Although Paul is not requiring a holocaust of the physical sōma, he is asking for an offering no less demanding, no less total. Rather than a bloody sacrifice, this offering will be a spiritual (logikós) service (latreia).

The very language used points to the cultic character of what Paul is describing. This suggests the worship he is recommending is as efficacious as were the sacrifices that ancient Israel offered to God.

“Paul pleads with them through the mercy of God, by which the human race is saved. … This is a warning that they should remember that they have received God’s mercy and that they should take care to worship the one who gave it to them. God’s will is our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3), for bodies subject to sin are considered not to be alive but dead, since they have no hope of obtaining the promise of eternal life. It is for this purpose that we are cleansed from our sins by God’s gift, that henceforth we should lead a pure life and stir up the love of God in us, not making His work of grace of no effect. For the ancients killed sacrifices which were offered in order to signify that men were subjected to death because of sin. But now, since by the gift of God men have been purified and set free from the second death, they must offer a living sacrifice as a sign of eternal life. For now it is no longer the case that bodies are sacrificed for bodies, but instead of bodies it is the sins of the body which must be put to death (John 8:34-36).” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 413-426), City of God 10,6]

Do not conform yourselves to this age

The strongest exhortation of the passage is the one he frames negatively: Do not conform yourselves to this age.

Paul regards this age (in other words, this world) to be passing and imperfect (1 Corinthians 7:31). Through faith in Jesus Christ, the Roman Christians have entered into the eschatological age of fulfillment, having been saved through the blood of Christ.

but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,

In order for the Romans to offer such a sacrifice, they will have be to transformed into the body of Christ, by way of the Holy Spirit.

“The fashion of this world is groveling and worthless, and temporal as well. It has nothing noble or uplifting about it but is wholly perverted. The second part [of the verse] may mean either that we should be renewed, in order to learn what is expedient for us, or that if we learn what is expedient for us we shall be renewed. Either way, God wills what is expedient for us and whatever He wills is by definition expedient for us.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 391), Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans 20]

that you may discern what is the will of God, 

Paul is teaching the Romans the same thing Jesus will teach Peter in our gospel reading: They must put aside the standards of this world in order to take on the standards of God. In other words, they must think as God does, not as human beings do.

Fidelity to the will of God will always involve self-sacrifice, but it will also always lead to eternal life.

what is good and pleasing and perfect.

Paul returns to the language of the cult. This offering of oneself will be good and pleasing to God and perfect.

We obey this command to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice at Mass when the priest says, “Lift up your hearts”,  and our reply is, “We lift them up to the Lord.”  We are placing our lives on the altar along with the offering of bread and wine, so that our lives, along with the bread and wine, can be transformed by God into something even more pleasing to him.

Gospel – 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.”

Today’s gospel reading is a continuation of last week’s reading. Peter has just professed his faith that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus has just complimented Peter on the revelation that he received and has given him “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19a). Now that story takes a dramatic turn.

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly

Jesus begins to instruct his apostles about what is to happen to him: his passion and death. He underscores the necessity of this (dei) and that it must take place in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious and political life.  Jerusalem is the city where the prophets die (Matthew 23:29-39).

from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, 

These three groups compose the Sanhedrin, the highest court of the Jewish nation, which with permission from Rome, was allowed to exercise religious authority.

We must be careful in our interpretation of this passage. Too often the opposition of the Jewish leadership to Jesus has led Christians to hold an attitude of anti-Judaism. Instead, we should recognize this as the gospel writer’s way of showing that Jesus was rejected for religious as well as political reasons. The unrest he caused may well have been a political threat to Rome, but the bold claims he made greatly troubled the religious leaders.

and be killed and on the third day be raised.

Imagine the disillusionment of the disciples at this point: Jesus has just been revealed as the Messiah, but instead of military victory and prosperity, he is speaking of suffering, rejection, and death.

Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”

Jesus’ insistence on this understanding of the Messiah jeopardizes his acceptance by the people, exemplified by Peter’s rebuke.

Peter may have recognized Jesus as the Messiah (Matthew 16:13-20), but he had not yet learned how Jesus was going to fulfill this role. Peter, like most Jews of the time, believed that the Messiah would conquer the Roman occupiers and make it possible for Israel to be an independent kingdom. The ideas that Jesus is the Messiah and that Jesus will be defeated and killed by his enemies are completely incompatible. They cannot both be true. That is why he protests so forcefully: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”

Peter wants a theology of grace and glory, not suffering and death.

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.”

According to Jesus, that is precisely Peter’s problem: he is speaking from a human point of view and not from the perspective of God. He rebukes Peter with the harshest words spoken in the gospels.

Why would Jesus say such a thing to his chosen Peter? Peter is trying to persuade Jesus that he need not suffer. Jesus’ sole desire is to do his Father’s will. Jesus would have had to put self-preservation before fidelity to his mission to avoid the suffering he knows is coming. Like Jeremiah in our first reading, no psychologically healthy person wants to suffer, including Jesus. Jesus experiences Peter’s words as a temptation, and so he calls him Satan, the one who acts as an obstacle (skándalon) to the unfolding of God’s will. (Remember, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Satan urged him to avoid suffering and seek worldly power.)

With deep irony, the one Jesus had dubbed “Rock” had now become a stumbling stone.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,

Jesus then goes on to teach the disciples yet another lesson about discipleship. Those who follow him must, like him, deny themselves of self-interest and self-fulfillment.

To deny someone is to disown them (Matthew 10:33; 26:34-35). To deny oneself is to disown oneself as the center of one’s existence.

take up his cross, and follow me.

This is not an allusion to Jesus’ crucifixion, but a way for Jesus to amplify his command to deny oneself. The horror of death by crucifixion was common in antiquity and the cross was a term for suffering and agony; the call to discipleship demands that one completely abandon the natural desire to seek comfort, fame, or power.

The Roman method of crucifixion included the custom of compelling those that were condemned to be crucified to carry their cross. Their fate is sealed, their sentence has begun. Similarly, those who take up the cross of discipleship must do so realizing that one never puts down the cross again.

For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

This is a play on the words “save” and “lose.” Those who selfishly save themselves from the sufferings of the cross actually lose in the arena of eschatological judgment, while those who unselfishly offer themselves are saved from this judgment.

This is what it means to follow Jesus. It is in following the Father’s will, no matter where that leads, that one finds eternal life.

What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world

That is, acquire great wealth.

and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?

The seriousness of this choice is seen in the fact that it will determine one’s final judgment.

For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct.

As the passage ends, Jesus uses apocalyptic imagery to describe the rewards of discipleship. The “Son of Man” will ultimately judge each human being according to that person’s conduct. Here Jesus once more identifies himself with the messianic figure in Daniel, the “son of Man” to whom God gives authority over other nations (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus is the “Son of Man,” but he is not the victorious political figure that Peter and the other disciples expected. Jesus’ victory will not be over the Romans, but over sin and death.

The disciples may not fully understand what Jesus has just told them, but both his and their destinies have been laid out before them.

Connections and Themes

A suffering Messiah.  The one who fed the multitude, who calmed the waters, who broke down social barriers by healing the daughter of a Canaanite woman is also the one who will suffer greatly and be put to death.  Throughout his encounters with the leaders of the people, Jesus always prevailed.  As he enhanced his honor, he put them to shame.  It is understandable that their wrath against him would have been inflamed.  Still, all of his wondrous deeds demonstrated the extraordinary power that was at his disposal.  Why would he not use it in his own defense?  Perhaps that is the key.  The power was meant for the upbuilding of the reign of God, not for his own self-aggrandizement.  As difficult as this may be for us to fathom, Jesus is going to be killed.

The gospel does not say Jesus will gallantly step forward and take suffering upon himself.  This would be a demonstration of his power.  Instead, his fate will be a demonstration of vulnerability.  He will be taken forcibly and will suffer at the hands of others.  He will do this willingly, but as a volunteer.  Jesus will be a victim.  The manner and extent of his torment will be decided by someone else.

Follow me. As we saw in previous Sundays, our christological understanding carries implications for discipleship.  Today Jesus is very explicit about this.  Whoever follows him must follow him to the cross. If we participate in his success we must also share in his shame.  Disciples have a choice to follow or not to follow, but if they choose in his favor they must be ready for suffering and humiliation.

Paul exhorts us to reject the standards of the world.  This is a very difficult path to follow, especially when it seems that those who do conform to this age prosper much more than we do.  Furthermore, following Christ can place barriers between ourselves and others.  If we no longer share their values and their interests, we may feel alienated.  Suffering is bound to invade our ministerial lives as well.  we must remember that Jesus’ message antagonized many people in his day.  Those who proclaim the same message in their own contexts must be prepared for a similar reaction.

Have we been duped?  After witnessing all the marvelous feats Jesus accomplished, we discover he is going to suffer and be put to death.  How can this be?  With Peter, we protest.  With Jeremiah, we wonder: Have we been duped?  Perhaps the “high christology” is meant to enable us to commit ourselves to him in his suffering.  The realization that we too will have to suffer becomes a crucial test of our faith.  As we reflect more deeply on this mystery we may discover it is not God who has duped us.  Rather, the power Jesus demonstrated so captured our imagination that we have duped ourselves.  We may have expected the same manifestation of power, the same miraculous interventions in our lives without realizing that his power may take a different form with us.  Rather than transform the circumstances that cause us distress, it transforms us by enlightening our minds and strengthening our hearts.

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