Homily for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time: Year A

Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27
Theme:   The Cost of Discipleship

Poor Peter! In last Sunday’s gospel reading, we saw Jesus declaring him blessed and naming him the rock on which he intends to build his church.  Today’s gospel reading presents us with a very different portrait of Peter.  Instead of being the ‘rock’  upon which he will build his Church, Jesus now calls him a tempter, an obstacle in the path he must take to fulfil his mission.  What a ‘put down’ for Peter! He must have been ‘on a high’ after the extraordinary accolade he had received from his Master. How could this passionate and outspoken disciple now suddenly become a stumbling block for Jesus?

While Peter had recognised and openly acknowledged that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah, the One sent by God to establish his Kingdom on earth, he did not understand, any more than his companions, what this would mean for Jesus.  He expected Jesus to defeat the enemies of Israel and become King of a free and sovereign people.  So, when Jesus tells his disciples that he ‘must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’ (Mt 16:21), Peter is shocked.  His very human and understandable response is to try and persuade his Master from risking his life.  Peter’s words almost sound like a prayer: ‘Heaven preserve you, Lord, this must not happen to you!’ (Mt 16:22).  But Jesus emphatically rejects Peter’s natural concern for his Master’s safety: ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way, but man’s’ (Mt:16:23).

If we are honest with ourselves, it is the vehemence of Jesus’ reply rather than the Peter’s words that we find shocking.  Would we not, like Peter, be similarly concerned for the safety of those we love?  We wouldn’t want them to become hapless victims of their enemies’ evil designs.  Why, then, does Jesus react so strongly to Peter and call him Satan?  To understand his reaction we need to recall an earlier scene at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry where he retreats into the wilderness to prepare for the mission entrusted to him by his Father.  There he rejects the temptations of Satan who promises him victory over the world through wealth and power.  From that moment, Jesus knew and accepted that his mission would involve suffering and death.  Now, Peter unwittingly becomes an ally of Satan in seeking to deflect him from his chosen path, the path that would lead to the Cross. Hence his vehement rejection of Peter’s plea.

Jesus’ knew that to establish God’s Kingdom from on earth would entail the defeat of the powers of evil in the world. But those powers would not be overcome by military might but by enduring their destructive force with love, thus exposing them for what they were.  Peter and his companions wanted a kingdom without suffering, glory without the Cross.  Jesus wants his disciples to be under no illusion about what following him will mean.  It will be no ‘primrose path of dalliance’ (Hamlet), but a costly discipleship involving self-sacrifice and the cross:  ‘If anyone want to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me’. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Mt 16:26). 

These words are as challenging for us today as they were for Peter and his companions.  They shake us out of our tendency to settle for a comfortable and conforming religion.  They unmask our evasions, our double standards, our desire for ‘cheap grace’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer), our reluctance to involve ourselves in sacrifice.  The renunciation Jesus is calling for goes much further than our annual Lenten observance of denying ourselves our favourite foods or taking on a few penitential practices.  It involves, as St Paul reminds us in our second reading, developing a new way of seeing life, and changing our behaviour accordingly.  The instruction of Paul is clear: ‘Do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change, modelled by your new mind’ (Rom 12:2).

Becoming disciples of Jesus means learning to think the way God thinks, rather than the way we usually think.  And that will be for us, as it was for Peter and his disciples, a life-long process of ups and downs, successes and failures.  There may be times when we will feel a bit like Jeremiah in our first reading today.  Chosen by God to be his ‘prophet to the nations’ (Jer 1:5), fidelity to his calling ‘made him a daily laughing-stock, everybody’s but’ and brought him ‘insult and derision, all day long’ (Jer 20:7-8).  Though tempted to stop being a spokesman for the Lord, he could not give up because, as he states, ‘there seemed to be a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones’ (Jer 20:9).  Jeremiah had been, as he states, ‘seduced’ by God, and he had let himself ‘be seduced’ (cf. Jer 20: 7).  In other words, he had fallen in love with God so that nothing could stop him from doing God’s will, no matter where this might lead him.  The example of Jeremiah prompts us to ask ourselves the question:  Have we let ourselves be seduced by Christ so that we persevere in following and serving him, regardless of the consequences?

Michael McCabe SMA

To listen to an alternative Homily for this Sunday, from Fr Tom Casey of the SMA Media Centre, Ndola, Zambia please click on the play button below.

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