Commentary on the Readings
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – September 3, 2017
OFFER LIFE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO LOSE IT
"In the days of trouble" (Ps 77:3) we call upon the Lord, because we are convinced that “he gives life and breath and everything else to everyone” (Acts 17:25). We appeal to the saints, visit shrines, kiss relics, make novena .... always to have life.
The crowds were seeking Jesus, "they tried to dissuade him from leaving” (Lk 4:42). They touched him "because of the power that went out from him and healed them all” (Lk 6:19). They approach him for life. "I have come—he said—that they may have life, life in all its fullness” (Jn 10:10).
Yet in his proposal, there is something of a paradox, indeed, absurd. To achieve the life it is necessary to lose it, "I lay down my life to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down freely” (Jn 10:17-18). He justifies his choice of comparing himself to the seed: "Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit " (Jn 12:24).
It really takes a lot of faith to be convinced that, in order to have life, you have to "give it up to death" (Rev 12:11). Strange, disconcerting logic! God assures Abraham a posterity as numerous as the stars in the sky ... and asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac, who should make the promise a reality. A test like this may well be faced only by one who firmly believes, like Abraham.
Jesus promises to introduce the disciple into life. "The one who follows me will have the light of life ... will never see death ... will never experience death" (Jn 8:12.51-52) ... and goes toward the cross; he plunges into the waters of death.
But "he will re-emerge" on Easter Day. Blessed are those who have the courage to follow him: he will give them to eat of the "tree of life" (Rev 2:7). They will be with him forever (1 Thes 4:17) and they shall see God as he is (1 Jn 3:2)
To internalize the message, we repeat:
"Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. "
"Trust in Him and let him act and he will make the justification of your cause bright as the sun” (Ps 37:5-6). It is what a wise old man suggests to his disciple. At the end of his upright life, he is convinced that God has lavished favors and blessings for his righteousness.
"God is good with the just, with people of clean heart" (Ps 73:1). This is the traditional doctrine of Israel, the indisputable truth of just retribution. Yet, faced with the denial of the facts, too often incomprehensible, all the dogmas of the faith seem ingenious statement, drivel, sometimes even mockeries and provocations.
In the reading, the desperate reaction of a man who, faced with the absurdity of his life, turns to God a reckless, almost blasphemous, accusation: "You have betrayed me!" It is Jeremiah, the prophet who, for being faithful to his mission, faced persecutions, mishaps, troubles of all kinds. At one point he could not bear any more, and cried out to God his complaint.
Here are the facts: we are in Jerusalem during the dramatic years preceding the destruction of the city and the deportation to Babylon. The country is on the brink of disaster and the king Jehoiakim, a cowardice, is more interested in the construction of his luxurious palace than the impending ruin of his people. The priests preach a futile, illusory religion, cold execution of external rites and ceremonies which do not correspond to the change of heart and a life according to God's law.
It is in this situation that God called Jeremiah: "Go whatever be the mission I am entrusting to you, and you will speak of whatever I command you to say.” The prophet gets scared; he is young; he does not know how to speak but the Lord assures him: “Do not be afraid…for I will be with you to protect you…They will fight against you but shall not overcome you, for I am with you to rescue you” (Jer 1:7-8.19).
How can we not believe him? Jeremiah agrees, but then misunderstandings come. Contrasts and oppositions arise; conflicts with the king, the commanders of the army, and the religious authorities explode. Even the people, angry and disappointed, ask the prophet to be silent. The avowed enemies can no longer tolerate him. They collect evidences against him, have him arrested. They beat him and get him subjected to a process by which, luckily for him, he will be acquitted.
The worst seems to be over, although tensions, anxieties, discomfort have marked his life deeply and shook his psychological balance. It is at this point that Jeremiah raised his lament to God, mentioned in today's reading.
It opens with a very lively image, the most daring of the entire Bible: "Yahweh, you have seduced me and I let myself be seduced” (v. 7). The prophet likens his vocation to a seduced girl who, having been flattered by the sweet words of a young man and having succumbed to his proposals, she is abandoned to her fate. She has nothing more but to curse the moment she believed in a false love.
Here's how Jeremiah feels: alone against all, object of ridicule and violence on the part of the people. Why did God call him for a mission that is proving to be a failure? Anguished, he wonders how he allowed himself to be seduced. Why didn’t he stay tranquil with his family to work in the fields of the peaceful town of Anatot?
In his despair he exclaims: "I'll think no more of God and speak no more in his name" (v. 9). It is the cry loaded with anger and bitterness of a lover who tries to to cut off the stormy and troubled relationship in which he was involved.
But, as it happens to one who has experienced an overwhelming affection, Jeremiah fails to free himself of the Lord who has seduced him. The passion burns in his heart like a fire that is impossible to extinguish. Despite the excruciating pain and disappointment that he undergoes, he cannot give up his mission.
Do our liturgical celebrations that are not accompanied by works of love interest God? The prophets said it and Jesus recalls it very often: God "desires works of love, not pratices of worship" (Mt 9:13).
The first words remind us that the solemn liturgies of the temple are replaced by a new way of praising God: the sacrifice of one’s own life offered for the brother and sisters (v. 1). If our liturgies do not celebrate a life of love, they are reduced to an empty ceremony, without content, pure exteriority, needless formalism.
Paul continues advising Christians not to comply with the "mentality of this world." In the language of the New Testament this expression does not have a temporal reference, but qualitative. It is the dominant mentality; it is the way of thinking considered normal, prudent and sensible by all. This logic easily penetrates the mind and heart. It is assimilated and, without even realizing it, also the Christians end up thinking like the others and adapt themselves to the current morality. This mechanism of integration is devious and dangerous. One needs to become aware and be vigilant in order not to get sucked in.
That's why the Apostle invites all to have a renewed mind to discern at all times, what is the behavior acceptable to God, even if it is incomprehensible to people.
The Jews of Jesus' time lived in expectation of a better world, the "century to come," full of peace and justice. Basing themselves on Ezekiel 49, the rabbis announced for the "last days," a miraculous transformation of the earth. In the days of the Messiah—they assured—Palestine will be transformed into a garden and the gardens will become forests; the soil’s fertility will be multiplied by thousands; there will be abundance for all and all goods abound, as in the heavenly period of the beginning.
The apostles also cultivated these hopes. They were convinced that the coming of the kingdom of God was imminent. They have realized that their master was the Christ, the long-awaited "Son of David.” They had followed him to see realized their dreams of glory. The only question which, according to them, was still pending was to determine who would be entitled to the first places (Mk 9:34).
It is in the context of these expectations that the first of the three announcements of the Passion, found in the Gospel, is placed. In the middle of his public life, Jesus is aware of having to decisively correct the convictions of his disciples. He does not want them to follow him lolling in vain illusions. To avoid any ambiguity, he openly declares that he is not walking towards triumph, but he is going to Jerusalem to suffer a lot, to be killed, and be raised again on the third day (v. 21).
The human logic cannot but feel upset in front of such a proposal. The disciples cannot understand; they learned from the scribes that the Messiah cannot die. It was taught to them that, at his coming, the righteous who lie in their graves will rise to take part in the joy of his kingdom, and Peter, in the name of all reacts (v. 32-33). He is not afraid of sacrifices. One day he’ll be able to give proof of risking also his life if necessary (Jn 18:10), but he is not willing to commit himself to an absurd project. He does not accept to stand on a road that leads straight to failure. He would like that also Jesus should know it and change his mind.
The scene that follows is very significant and realistic. Peter takes the Master apart, as to cheer him up in a moment of despair. It is as if he makes him understand that, in a moment of confusion, it is understandable that an unfortunate phrase may also escape.
The reaction of Jesus to the attempt to dissuade him from his path is hard, almost irritated: "Get behind me, Satan," says our text, but the translation is not exact. Jesus does not intend to dismiss Peter, but put him on the right path. "Get behind me”—he says—follow my steps, do not try to precede me, as one who claims to lead the way. This is drawn by the Father and you Peter make a proposal that comes from worldly wisdom, from human foolishness that are senseless in God's eyes.
Peter is not committing a simple mistake. He is moving in the direction opposite to that of the Lord. He is acting just like Satan who tried to convince Jesus to focus on the domain, on the conquest of power. He had led him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, saying, "All this I will give you, if you kneel down and worship me” but Jesus had decidedly reacted: "Be off, Satan" (Mt 4:8-10). Now the same temptation—advanced by Peter—cannot but be responded with the same hardness.
The scene described in today's gospel forms a diptych with that of last Sunday. Simon had been named by Jesus as the living stone of the church because he had received the revelation of the Father, had accepted His plan of salvation and had professed his faith in the Son of the living God. Now he becomes a stumbling block because he lets himself be guided by human reasoning. It aims to glory, successes, honors which are obstacles in the path of the Master and his disciples.
After having rebuked Peter, Jesus turns to all (vv. 24-27) and unequivocally puts forward his demands. There is no attempt to mitigate them, to make them more acceptable. If the Master has chosen to give life and if "the disciple is not above the master" (Mt 10:24), the path will have to be the same.
Three imperatives characterize the radicality of a choice that does not admit delays nor second thoughts: "Deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me."
Deny yourself means you stop thinking about yourself. It is the reversal of the principles in this world governing relations between people. It is the rejection of those that all believe to be positive stimuli because they push to action: the pursuit of one’s own interest, the will to achieve gratification, acknowledgements and benefits. Even in the most pure acts of love there is often some veiled forms of selfishness and ambition.
The disciple of Christ is called, first of all, to give up any personal gain, even the spiritual one. He does not do good to accumulate merits in heaven, to take a step up in spiritual progress. He acts thinking only about his brother and sister. He does not minimally take into consideration the positive impacts that the good works have on his person. He loves freely, in pure loss, as does the Father.
The second imperative, take up your cross, does not refer to the need to patiently endure the small or big tribulations of life, even less, the exaltation of pain as a means to please God. The Christian does not seek suffering, but love.
The cross is the sign of love and of total gift. To carry it after Christ means to follow the way he has trodden: to offer one’s life for his same ideals, confront, if necessary, also persecutions and death to remain faithful to the gospel. “Carry the cross” who sacrifices himself to do good, to make someone happy .
The third imperative, follow me, does not mean "take me as a model," but share my choice, take part in my project, bet your life on love, together with me.
The concluding verses (vv. 25-27) present three reasons with which Jesus tries to convince his disciple to accept the three difficult conditions he has just put forward.
The first: the one who gives his own life, actually, does not lose, but gains it (v. 25). Who holds tight in their own hands the grain of wheat, who consumes it for himself, who hides it dissipates it. Only one who has the courage to lose it, throwing it into the ground "preserves" it "recovers" it. It also happens with life: to earn it "one must lose it". It is necessary to expend it for the brothers and sisters.
The second reason (v. 26): the life of this world passes quickly. It is transient, fragile, precarious; it is not worth clinging desperately to it as if it were eternal. Here the numerous sapiential reflections on the transience of life ring out : "You allow me to live but a short span; before you, all my years are nothing. Human existence is a mere whiff of breath. Humans are mere shadows that go about rentlessly. Being but a breath they toil and rake in wealth, not knowing who will take it next” (Ps 39:6-7)
The third reason (v. 27): the ultimate reward. The scene of judgment occurs often in the Gospel of Matthew. It is not as a future threat, but as an indication of the wise choices to be done in the present. What can one avail to present to God at the end of life? Certainly not the money accumulated, the pleasures enjoyed, awards and career. At the end, the Lord will not look at the titles of honor that we will be able to put in front of our name, but the works of love that will follow the name.
When the spotlights that dazzled the scene of this world will be turned off, when the deceptive glitters of idols that enchanted and seducted many persons are extinguished , then only the light of God will shine and the true value of each person will appear.