by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Jesus 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…Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow me.” Matthew 16: 21-27
I’d like to suggest that today’s readings offer us two clear messages. One is about how developing a trusting relationship with the God who loved us into life can free us to pray not only with openness and honesty but from the depths of our being. Jeremiah gives us a wonderful illustration of that kind of prayer in today’s first reading. Today’s gospel-reading combines with the second reading from Romans to stress that living with integrity (not dying) is indispensable for anyone who claims to be a disciple of Jesus. But it’s only when we live with integrity that we discover that there is a fairly heavy price to pay.
At first sight, it looks as though the words we hear from Jeremiah were a lament that God had hood-winked him into becoming a prophet. The essential meaning of the word “prophet” is that it was/is the designation given to a person who was courageous enough to speak the truth despite the consequences. There was a long line of prophets in the history of Israel and the Bible records how they were punished for their honesty and integrity by their own people who refused to hear the message God had appointed them to deliver. Jeremiah acknowledged that he had been so captivated by the story of God’s love for the people of Israel that it became a fire within him, so intense that he could not extinguish it. He found God’s actions and words so attractive that he came to identify himself with God’s mission to the people of Israel. Earlier in his writings he had stated how intense was the impact on him of God’s message. But, in the same breath, he had pleaded with God to protect him because he, too, had met with the same kind of rejection as had been directed at God: “You know where I am, God! Remember what I’m doing here! Take my side against my detractors. Don’t stand back while they ruin me. Just look at the abuse I’m taking! When your words showed up, I ate them, swallowed them whole. What a feast!! What delight I took in being yours, O God!…But why now this chronic pain, this ever-worsening wound and no healing in sight? You’re nothing God, but a mirage, a lovely oasis in the distance – and then nothing!“ (Jeremiah 15: 15-18).
Was there ever a prayer like that? Perhaps Job had a relationship with God to equal Jeremiah’s. Could you and I pray like that? Or do we think that to express the depth of our feelings might somehow alienate us from God? Maybe we have to remind ourselves that God is big enough to cope with anything. Jeremiah was humble enough to share God’s response: “Take back those words, Jeremiah, and I’ll take you back. Then you’ll stand tall before me. Use words truly and well. Don’t stoop to cheap whining. Then, but only then, you’ll speak for me. Let your words change them. Don’t change your words to suit them.” (Jeremiah 15: 19-20) To be able to act as God’s prophet, he had to swallow God’s word. In return, God’s word swallowed him. Even though he was tempted not to speak God’s message or even speak God’s name, God’s attraction was irresistible. Those who could see nothing but a list of woes emanating from Jeremiah’s mouth invented the word jeremiad to encompass his complaint. It is still to be found in our dictionaries. Yet his prayer expressed his honesty to the core and his faith remained unshakeable. To walk in the footsteps of Jesus is to journey into a relationship with the God he came to know, and to experience the kind of rejection meted out to him for taking up the mission God entrusted to him – the same mission he, in turn, has entrusted to us. Centuries later, Teresa of Avila, faced with the mission of refounding and reforming the Carmelite Sisters, echoed the sentiments of Jeremiah. After a day of frustration when she had failed to get a convent of sisters to embrace her programme of reform, she was caught on her way home in torrential rain. She lost her footing on a slope and fell face down into the mud. As she got to her feet, she said to God: “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.” In 1970, Pope Paul VI proclaimed St Teresa of Avila as the first female Doctor of the Church.
While Jesus did not resort to whinging and whining to God, he came to much the same conclusion as Jeremiah: that to accept God’s mission of proclaiming to the world the message of God’s love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness would lead to rejection, opposition and persecution. That’s why, in today’s gospel-reading we hear of him telling his disciples of his intention to go to Jerusalem where he sensed further rejection, and the threat of violence and death awaited him. For him, to act with integrity meant being true to the vocation God had given him. That involved speaking the truth even to people whose comfort and closed minds he knew he would disturb. Indirectly, he was telling his disciples that to walk in his footsteps and to keep his mission alive would be a risky business.
The message of Jesus and the Gospel will always be a challenge to abusive power. While Jesus was not intentionally embarking on a suicidal mission, he was not prepared to devalue or compromise the power of God’s message to the world. To dodge what he saw was his responsibility would have been to put self-interest first. That would mean compromising his integrity. Still, when he was eventually falsely condemned and crucified, he, like Jeremiah, felt that the God he represented had forgotten him: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Peter’s advice to Jesus not to take an unnecessary risk made good sense, and Jesus’ response seemed overly harsh. However, his equating Peter with Satan was, in Matthew’s mind, triggered by a flashback to the temptations Jesus had experienced in the wilderness prior to embarking on his vocation and his launching into public ministry. With those three temptations, Satan had tried to convince Jesus not to pursue the vocation he had discerned God was inviting him to take up. Jesus finally dismissed his tempter with these words: “Be off, Satan! For scripture says: You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone” (Matthew 4, 10) Jesus must have heard Peter’s advice as an attempt to sway him from what he had discerned was his true vocation. It touched into his memory of his struggle with temptation in the wilderness. Moreover, he took the opportunity to stress that he was stepping into his role of leader and making sure he was true to himself, his vocation and his God. If the disciples were really intent on following him, they would have to commit themselves to doing likewise. For Jesus action spoke louder than words.
The message for us, of course is that we have been invited to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to reflect with integrity something of the love, mercy and compassion of God and to challenge in word and action power that disregards and abuses our sisters and brothers. That will inevitably bring us into conflict and be a cause of pain, humiliation and rejection. Are we prepared to take the risk of pursuing such a course? If so, to take that course will bring us a cross of some kind every single day.