by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“You pushed me into this, God, and I let you do it. You were too much for me. And now I’m a public joke. The all poke fun at me.” Jeremiah 20, 7-9
“Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for God. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.” Romans 12, 1-2
“All those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. Those who wish to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16, 21-27
Today’s first two readings from Jeremiah and Romans provide a very appropriate introduction to the gospel-reading, for they are about the cost of living with integrity. When Jesus told his disciples about needing to travel up to Jerusalem, he was telling them that that was what his personal integrity demanded of him.
Those of us who went through Catholic primary schools when the Green/penny/Baltimore Catechism was the basic text, learned that “Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God”. It would seem that Jeremiah had learned a similar lesson way back in the 7th Century BC. In today’s first reading we hear Jeremiah being fiercely honest with God, giving God a piece of his mind. We have in English a noun jeremiad, clearly derived from the prophet’s name, meaning a prolonged complaint or lamentation. Disillusioned by the way his life was unfolding, Jeremiah accused God of tricking him into becoming a prophet. All he got in return for speaking the truth to his people were threats to his life and bitter ridicule. In his lament, he told God, with bitter regret, just how miserable his life had become. That was the price Jeremiah paid for living with integrity.
It’s worth recalling the assurances Jeremiah received from God when he was struggling to accept his mission as a prophet:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.”
“”Ah, Lord God!” I said, “I don’t know how to speak; I am too young.”
But the Lord answered me: “Don’t say ‘I am too young.’ To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you”, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 1, 5-8)
Understandably, Jeremiah felt badly let down, when he discovered that even those who knew him well were plotting to murder him. So he did not hesitate to let God know exactly how he felt. The irony, of course, was that the people Jeremiah challenged rejected him in the very same way as they had rejected God over generations. However, having spoken honestly to God, he realised that God’s word had so overwhelmed him that he could not step away from it: “It is like a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones;” (Jeremiah 20, 9) Eventually, he acknowledged that God was really by his side: “But the Lord is with me, like a mighty champion: my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph.” (Jeremiah 20, 11). Centuries later, Paul came to a similar conclusion, acknowledging that he was so overwhelmed by the person of Jesus and his message that he felt compelled to make them known to the world: “Yet, preaching the Gospel is not the subject of a boast; I am compelled to do it and have no choice. I am ruined if I do not preach it.” (1 Corinthians 9, 16)
Today’s second reading from Romans echoes the conclusion that Jeremiah had reached and, at the same time, is a preamble to the gospel-reading in which Jesus sets out for Jerusalem to confront the moral bankruptcy of the religious leaders. Paul is urging his audience: “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind and heart…” (Romans 12, 1-2). Letting God into our lives and confronting the abuses and injustices of our world involve a price to be paid, and that price might well be criticism, personal discomfort and rejection.
The account of Peter’s profession of faith in last week’s gospel-reading marks a turning point in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew now puts the focus on Jesus’ efforts to prepare his disciples for the mission he will entrust to them just before he is executed. His first lesson is all about living with integrity. Jesus knows only too well the risks involved in travelling to Jerusalem to confront the religious leaders. Peter senses the danger and his attempt at intervention meets with a stern rebuff from Jesus, who interprets it as an effort to stop him from being true to himself. Peter’s words are an echo of the three temptations from the devil which Jesus experienced in the desert just before he had begun his ministry. That explains his spontaneous, almost reflex, reaction: “Get out of my way, Satan. You have no idea how God works.” (Matthew 16, 23). Failure to confront the religious leaders in Jerusalem would, in the mind of Jesus, be equivalent to tacit agreement with what they were saying and doing. Surrendering to Peter’s advice would have meant for Jesus a denial of the mission he had grown to appreciate came from God. If we are to be participants in this gospel-reading, we have to discern what being true to ourselves demands of us in the current circumstances of our lives. Any attempt to proclaim in words anything we have failed to integrate into our lived lives is bound to be empty rhetoric.
Jesus summed all that up in the concluding lines of today’s gospel-reading. He urges us to let go of anything in our lives that is empty, of little substance or self-centred, so that we might grow into a way of living that is nourished by the love of God. That, of course, means letting go of things like unhealthy anger, self-pity, and needing to be in control. It will be then that we will discover that we can emerge stronger from the hurts and disappointments that come our way, and that we will even grow to be a little wiser in the wake of our failures and mistakes. Of course, that kind of growth will come only if and when we put our trust in God. Living true to ourselves, living with integrity requires patience, trust in God and commitment, and comes at a cost. Today’s readings ask us if we are prepared to pay that cost.