Scripture Readings: Prophet Jeremiah 20:7-9; Letter to the Romans 12:1-2; Gospel According to Saint Matthew 16:21-27
Today’s Gospel passage gives us more insight into who Jesus truly is and what he had to undergo for the salvation of all people. Important to keep in mind is the inspired words of the Prophet Isaiah about the Suffering Servant Messiah, presented so eloquently in his Book, chapters 40 to 55. There we hear of the torture and death that the Messiah will have to suffer, as God’s Chosen instrument for the redemption of God’s people.
Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel today that soon he will be going to Jerusalem, the Holy City, to suffer greatly at the hands of the religious leaders, which included elders, chief priests and scribes. Furthermore, Jesus says, he will be put to death, but would rise on the third day after his death.
No doubt these were difficult notions for the followers of Jesus to grasp, and Peter, as head of the Apostles, takes Jesus aside to say that these dreadful things must not happen to the Master, ever. However, Jesus tells Peter that man’s standards are not God’s standards. Presumably motivated by protecting love, Peter tries to draw Jesus from his mission, the very purpose for which God sent the Savior into the world. The rebuke of Jesus is not so much indignation on Jesus’ part, as trying to set the matter in its proper perspective, of the necessary suffering of God’s own Anointed One, the Redeemer of the world.
What appears to Peter, and perhaps to us as well, that suffering should not be part of Jesus’ mission, Jesus clearly states that in fact all that he must undergo is the wisdom and power of God at work. Taking it a step further, Jesus says that his disciples must follow behind the Master, denying self and taking up one’s cross every day, as a personal love and devotion to Jesus Christ. This means saving one’s life by losing it, the only path to human fulfillment and ultimately spiritual fulfillment as well, eternal life in heaven.
What Jesus is asking of Peter and the first disciples, and of us today, is to find a new center for one’s life. We should understand this as enthroning Christ at the heart and soul of our existence. If we neglect to do so, we fail to take up the cross and actually show that we are ashamed of Jesus and his teaching.
As we have been called and chosen by Jesus, and monks in a particular way in the consecrated monastic life, we’re not simply learning what the Master taught and passing it on to the next generation, but committed to actually giving wholeheartedly to Jesus, in a total and permanent way, what has been called “the Gospel without compromise.”
We look to Jesus not as a model of force or might, but as a supreme example of a profoundly humble attitude, abandoning all to God and trusting in God’s power to save. Jesus is teaching us the path of life, which is not about riches and greatness in the world’s eyes, not about power, but instead, obedience and service, surrender without fear or regret, to God alone. Sometimes, though, this takes a lifetime to achieve.
Saint Benedict expresses it so well in the Prologue of the Holy Rule, when he says: “Look, the Lord in his devotion to us shows us the way to life. Let us set out on his path with the Gospel as our guide, so that we may be worthy to see him who called us into his Kingdom.”
The prophet Jeremiah, in the first reading at Mass this Sunday, attempts to escape God’s call, and struggles between human feelings of repulsion and doing God’s will. The conflict boils within Jeremiah, blazing up like a raging fire. The more he tries to escape God’s will, the more irresistible becomes God’s call. God sends Jeremiah on a mission and this becomes the background for today’s Gospel of following in the footsteps of the Master.
In the very short second reading at Mass, from the Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul also encourages his readers to dedicate themselves completely to God. In response to God’s unbounded mercy, each follower of Christ is to offer a total oblation of self-giving to God. Paul speaks of offering one’s body, which means the entire person in fact, and not doing so reluctantly or half-heartedly, but willingly and joyfully. It is then considered an offering that is living, holy and acceptable to God.
The offering of ourselves to God is not once and for all, but a life-long endeavor and effort, a constant interior renewal, what Benedictines understand by the vow of conversatio morum, usually translated as “conversion of life.” This is closely connected to Christ’s teaching elsewhere in the Gospels about metanoia, a change of direction and a change of heart. That is what Saint John the Baptist taught and Jesus also, who perfectly fulfilled all that had been prophesied about the Suffering-Servant Messiah.
An excellent way to sum up the teaching this Sunday is the phrase “actions, not words.” Our worship of God must be first of all a life of selfless service, inspired by God’s merciful dealings with us, an imitation of Christ, our Way, Truth and Life.
Blessed Sunday and week ahead.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB