in Ordinary Time
September 3, 2017
A Homily - Cycle A - 2016-2017
by Deacon John P. Allen
First Reading - Jeremiah 20:7-9
Responsorial Psalm - Psalm 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
Second Reading - Romans 12:1-2
Gospel - Matthew 16:21-27
Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
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 then 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."
I want to share a news item published several years ago. "The Church of the Holy Cross in Midtown Manhattan has just been broken into a second time. In the first break-in, thieves stole the lock box containing donations for the needs. Three weeks later, the church has been burglarized yet again. This time robbers took a 4-foot tall, 200-pound plaster statue of Jesus that they had ripped from the cross. For some unexplained reason, they left the cross behind! When interviewed by the media, the sacristan expressed bewilderment about what had happened. "They just decided, 'We're going to leave the cross and take Jesus.' We don't know why they took just Him. We figure if you want the crucifix, you take the whole crucifix." "It doesn't make sense" he said. "If you want Jesus, you take His cross too."
Reading between the lines of today's gospel suggests that Our Lord Himself would have agreed with the sacristan in seeing this theft as truly unusual.
Today's gospel continues last Sunday's reading. We are invited to look more deeply into who Jesus is. Last Sunday we heard Him lavishly praising Peter for recognizing Him as "the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." Today the situation has turned a hundred and eighty degrees. Jesus criticizes Peter in perhaps the harshest words that He probably ever spoke "Get behind me Satan."
What has changed about Peter between last week and this week? The gospel itself gives us the reason for Jesus' sharp rebuke. Peter has rebelled against Jesus' announcement that He must suffer greatly and be killed. At this state of Peter's discipleship, such an idea is incomprehensible and unacceptable to him. We can feel for Peter. He deeply loved his friend and teacher. Wouldn't we expect him to recoil at the prospect of Jesus in agony and in death?
Up to now, Peter has had no reason to expect that this would be the fate of the long-awaited messiah. As a Jew, he would likely assume that the messiah would deliver him and his countrymen from their enemies - many of the Jews were anticipating a messiah more in the mold of David or Moses - maybe even someone like the mysterious "Son of Man," alluded to by the prophet Daniel or the good shepherd described by Ezekiel. Contrary to popular belief, as messiah, Jesus would not be establishing a new earthly kingdom. Instead, He would humiliated, denied and abandoned by almost everyone in His life, and He would suffer intensely before dying as a criminal.
Peter, like the thieves in the church, wanted Jesus without the cross! We do not know why Jesus reacted so strongly to Peter's words. Perhaps, Peter's suggestion reminded Him of the encounter with Satan at the beginning of His public ministry. Satan had tempted Jesus to choose an easier path for His life, a path that did not require sacrifice. In today's gospel, Jesus tells Peter to "get behind" Him. Following after the master is at the heart of being a disciple.
Jesus then speaks directly to us who now follow Him as His disciples: "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." Many saints - perhaps the great St. Francis Xavier comes first to mind - completely converted their lives because they contemplated Jesus' soul-piercing question that follows next: "What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" The French author Leon Bloy poignantly states why Jesus' message is so relevant to each of us: The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy is life, is not to become a saint."
We all realize that crosses are part of life. As we watched the tragedies and suffering in Houston this past week, we were again jolted by the reality of just how common, overwhelming, and largely unavoidable suffering is.
Jesus also speaks of the necessity for His followers to deny themselves. Of course, we frequently do deny ourselves - dieting, doing homework rather than playing, forgoing sports or a social activity to go to Mass, swallowing our pride and apologizing, biting our lip when we are tempted to blurt out something unkind . . . What is different in Jesus' message today is that He has consecrated our suffering and self denial. He has united them with His own and has thus ennobled them. Jesus privileges us by sharing His mission of the salvation of the world.
Denial of self can take many forms. We deny ourselves of some of our scarce leisure time when we choose to serve others who need us - those who feel lonely, frustrated, dejected, or are hurting in any way. W also deny ourselves when we share our material recourses by contributing to charity, including especially giving to those who are suffering in Houston now or who suffer constantly in so many impoverished areas of the world and even in our own country.
We have probably all commented on the lack of civility and basic decency that are eroding our society. We might consider denying ourselves feeling of self-satisfaction, anger and indignation, even when they seem totally righteous. A friend, who is a deacon in Simi Valley, California, just emailed me a letter that his pastor, Fr. Joseph Shea, sent to his parishioners. The letter speaks eloquently and powerfully about this crisis that threatens the basis of our society. I would like to read just one paragraph of it for reflection.
"The reason the Church names anger as one of the seven "deadly" sins is because it's simultaneously so poisonous, so delicious, and so addictive. Anger congeals quite comfortable into hatred. In C.S. Lewis' novel, The Great Divorce, the damned cling jealously to their anger (among other sins) because it's so reassuring; so satisfying and self-justifying. The point is, people easily begin to like being angry. Wrath feels good, especially when the ugliness of the habit can be dressed in a struggle against real or perceived evils."
Of course, today we have an advantage over both Peter and those who robbed the church in Manhattan. We know that to truly have Jesus is to also have the cross.
Although, He has suffered and died, Jesus has also risen from the grave. The cross has become the well-spring of life over death. We share with Jesus in His suffering and in His victory! This is why we are here celebrating Mass this morning! The resurrection causes Jesus' suffering and death and our own sufferings to all make sense.