Commentary on the Readings
12th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
The difficult task of liberators
During a heated discussion in the temple, Jesus says to the Jews: “If the Son makes you free, you will be really free.” To one who was convinced of being a descendant of Abraham and being never a slave of anyone, these words sounded like an intolerable provocation. First they resorted to insult: “So we are right in saying that you are a Samaritan and are possessed by a demon.” Then they passed to violence: “They picked up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself and left the temple” (Jn 8:31-59).
What is most surprising in this episode is what is stated in the introductory verse: opponents of Jesus were not enemies, but those who believed in him (Jn 8:31).
It is therefore possible to believe in Christ and not understand and reject the liberation that he offers. This is because some become easily attached and do not want to leave slavery. They adapt, resign and decide not to embark on a journey foreseen as too demanding. And if someone approaches to help to find a way out he is angrily driven away.
The recklessness and all forms of moral corruption are easily recognized as forms of enslavement. Instead other forms of slavery camouflage themselves by conditions of freedom; they appear rewarding such as the morbid attachment to children, certainty of possessing the truth, the belief of being good people, exemplary and impeccable Christians).
Even practical atheism of one who does not want to call into question his own choices in life is slavery…. They are conditions of “non-life”, and yet one feels annoyed by those who would rid oneself of these impediments.
If Jesus had fought foreign enemies with the sword he would be recognized as a liberator, but he called “the slaves of sin” (Rom 6:20) to free themselves from their wrong life, to let die in oneself what is death. He was not understood. The same fate awaits those who continue his mission.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “I trust in the Lord and he will deliver me from the enemies that make me a slave.”
This passage, taken from the book of Zechariah, is a bit mysterious. He speaks of a just and innocent man who was pierced and suggests that those responsible for this crime were the inhabitants of Jerusalem. But the Lord—the reading says—sent soon to the guilty people a deep sense of sorrow for the evil committed. All repented and looked at the man they had pierced. There was a desperate cry, similar to that of parents who lost their only child, like the mourning when the first born dies, similar to the desperate cries of the peasants of the plain of Megiddo when they invoke the rain from god Hadad Rimmon (v. 11).
Who is this man and why was he killed? The prophet, who lived two or three hundred years before Christ, was referring of course to a dramatic event that happened in his time. We know nothing else. What is important for us is that the Evangelist John has recognized in this mysterious person the image of Jesus (Jn 19:37). To Christ, executed and pierced on the cross, the people of the whole world look in fact as their savior.
The danger of repeating foolish gestures as those made in Zechariah’s time and in Jesus’ time by the inhabitants of Jerusalem is always present. Those who fight for justice and freedom, advocate brotherhood, call for peace, inevitably end up being pierced.
We are always late in realizing that one who seemed to disturb the good order, peace, harmony, holy traditions, actually was a prophet who cultivated the dream of God.
How to recognize the baptized? Simple: by the dress they wear. The Christian—Paul says in today’s reading—must wear a uniform, and this does not consist in a black or red robe, but in the person of Jesus (v. 37).
In the Letter to the Colossians the apostle will clearly explain what he means: you baptized “you have been stripped of the old self and its way of thinking to put on the new” (Col 3:9-10).
Looking at the Christian, listening to what he says, considering the way with which he always tries to understand, to forgive, to help, to reach out to those who did wrong, observing how he also loves his enemies, all must be able to recognize in him the person of Jesus.
Paul continues his exhortation by saying that this dress gives to all those who wear it the same value and the same dignity (v. 28). It erases all differences of class (masters and slaves), nationality (Jews and Gentiles) and sex (men and women).
If the decades of the reign of David and Solomon are excluded, the people of Israel has never played a prestigious role on the international political scene of antiquity. She was always oppressed and dominated by large neighboring nations. In this situation of constant subjection, the prophets’ promise of a liberating Messiah, born of the stock of David, is inserted.
In Jesus’ time the waiting for this savior was acute, eager, feverish. The rabbis taught people to pray thus: “Lord, raise the son of David to reign over Israel. Give him force to tear down the unjust power and free Jerusalem from the pagans. May he destroy the ungodly heathens with a single word of his mouth; the pagans flee before him.”
To understand today’s Gospel we must keep in mind these expectations of the people. The Messiah will be—everybody thought—a hero, a warrior as strong as Samson, a victorious leader like David, a smart and clever politician as Solomon, a miraculously protected king by God as Hezekiah.
Luke notes often that Jesus, before making some important gesture or giving some particularly meaningful teaching, withdraws in prayer (Lk 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:28).
Today’s passage also begins by presenting Jesus in prayer (vv. 18-19). It means that the episode that follows should be considered with particular attention.
Mark and Matthew place the scene around the area of Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8:27; Mt 16:13). Luke purposely leaves out the indication of the place perhaps because he wants that his readers—to whatever nation they belong—feel directly challenged by the questions of the Master.
Jesus first asks: What do people say about me?
The disciples are a bit surprised when confronted with a similar question, because he never gave the impression of interest in what is being said about him. However they respond: some say that you are the Baptist restored to life, others Elijah, still others one of the great prophets.
The people set Jesus side by side with those great characters who—according to the tradition of the rabbis—must precede the coming of the Messiah. That’s who Jesus is for people: a precursor.
They do not recognize him as the Messiah because he does not meet their criteria: he has nothing of victorious and glorious king they expect. So he is a precursor, nothing more. The real messiah is still awaited.
Luke is addressing the Christians of his community who recognize Jesus as the great master who preached love, brotherhood, peace and justice. He knows that they admire him for his choices for the poor, the least, the marginalized. He knows that they appreciate him for the courage, consistency, the nobility, the firmness in the face of death.
However, if these Christians are still fascinated by the triumphs of the Emperor of Rome, if they believe that the future is in the hands of the generals and their legions, if they envy the luxury and pomp of who flaunts immense wealth, and if they pay attention to the hucksters, the demagogues who swarm in every corner of the empire, if they give credit to the auctioneers of myths, then they are placing Jesus among the great figures of world history, but nothing more.
Even those who see in Jesus only a doer of miracles, one to whom they resort to obtain graces and favors, without being aware of it, but in practice they too lower him to the role of a precursor. To him they ask a temporary service, in the hope that able doctors may come to cure all the diseases, scientists who control the forces of nature and perhaps—who knows?—they may discover the drug of eternal youth. Then will they still need Jesus?
The second question requires the disciples to speak out unequivocally: Who do you say that I am? (vv. 20-21).
Peter, on behalf of all, replied: “You are the Messiah of God.” Jesus did not deny it, but he severely imposed on all not to disclose him, not to mention it to anyone.
The reason for this prohibition is simple: the words of Peter are accurate, but the content is completely wrong. Jesus knows what kind of messiah Peter has in mind; he knows what is the dream that his disciples are cradling: they are convinced that it is only a matter of having a little patience and a day—certainly not very far—their Master will decide to get serious and, if necessary, will resort to the use of the sword.
He will be a winner.
This messiah is evil; he is the opposite of the “Messiah of God,” for which Jesus did not want them to talk about him until the events of Easter will not have revealed his true identity. Luke knows how easy it is to take blunders regarding the person of Jesus, as the logic of this world and the way of thinking of people infiltrate among the disciples in the most devious way. Even the Christians of his community repeat in an exact way the articles of the Creed, but they cultivate ideas anything but evangelical. Luke wants to warn them of this mortal danger.
The time has come for Jesus to clear up the misunderstanding by which the disciples struggle to free themselves.
In the third part of today’s Gospel, he shows his identity card: “The Son of Man must suffer many things. He will be rejected by the elders and chief priests and be put to death. Then after three days he will be raised to life” (vv. 21-22).
These are disturbing words: What awaits him is not triumph but humiliation, not victory, but defeat. Why has God chosen this absurd path? It is certainly not because suffering and death are pleasing to him. He is the God of life. Death is the work of the evil one, that is, of all those negative forces that are at work in humans. Why then did the Lord not make his Son triumphant? Why did he allow him to be nailed to a cross?
God respects the freedom of people. He reveals his greatness and his love by not hindering them when they make mistakes, but making use of their own sin to construct his story of salvation.
In Jesus of Nazareth, he showed how he was able to transform the greatest crime into a masterpiece of love. The journey of Jesus in this world ended with death, with defeat, but God had the last word that introduced his faithful Servant to life.
The last part of the passage (vv. 23-24) is an exhortation that Jesus addresses to people of all time: “Now he said to all”—Luke specifies—not just to the disciples and the crowds, but to everyone.
Believing in him does not mean to declare one’s own commitment to a package of truth learned from the catechism, but to follow him, share his fate: “If you wish to be a follower of mine, deny yourself and take up your cross each day, and follow me.”
The Master places a choice before us. He does not invite us to make some sacrifice more than the others, to seek sufferings, but demands not to let ourselves be guided by the pursuit of our own advantage and claim. He asks to stop putting ourselves in the spotlight.
Who wants to follow the Master must, like him, forget oneself, not letting oneself be touched by selfish thoughts.
“Taking up the cross” does not mean to endure patiently the big or small setbacks of life, neither, even less, is an exaltation of pain as a means of pleasing God. The Christian does not seek suffering, but love.
The death on the cross was for Jesus the consequence of his choices of love. He rejected the principles, the values, the parameters of this world and has proposed those of the Beatitudes. He annoyed, disturbed, upset the religious and political structures. He could not but be rejected, persecuted and taken away. The disciples who intend to follow in his footsteps cannot expect applause, consents, approval of people, but must be prepared to face opposition and the cross.
Luke—the only one among the evangelists—inserts in the saying of Jesus the phrase every day (v. 23). The total gift of self involves the disciple every day. Everyone knows how to fulfill an isolated gesture of generosity; everyone can forget oneself for a moment. It is difficult to maintain this provision every day. Luke probably wants to call the Christians of his community to perseverance, to steadiness in the face of difficulties, trials and temptations of the world that encircle them.
There is a video available by Fr. Fernando Armellini with commentary for today’s Gospel: http://www.bibleclaret.org/videos