01 September 2020

Homily - 30 August 2020 - The Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time (A) 

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today we heard the Prophet Jeremiah cry out in great anguish, “You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed” (Jeremiah 20:7). These are words each one of us might well have used at one time or another. Jeremiah effectively argued with the Lord, as we all do so frequently. Sometimes we fight with him, we scold him, and we resist him in small matters and sometimes in large ones. 

Jeremiah knew what the Lord wished of him and he did as the Lord asked; the Lord called him to speak on his behalf, to preach a message of doom and destruction upon the house of Israel, a message that was ill-received and brought him great suffering and distress. Nobody wants to hear that they are doomed, and yet this is precisely what Jeremiah was called to proclaim. 

Yet it was to this same prophet that the Lord said these beautiful and comforting words: “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… Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:5-8). Jeremiah was singled out for this special mission and yet his mission was not at all successful because the people, wanting him dead, did not heed his warnings.

So now Jeremiah vents his anger against the Lord. How could the Lord appoint him to a life of misery and failure? How could he be called to preach a message that would be ignored? What was the point? It would bring no good. So Jeremiah says to himself, “I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more” (Jeremiah 20:9). 

He chose now to ignore his God, to ignore the one who continually tugged at his heart, who placed his very words in his mouth. God knew what he was doing when he appointed Jeremiah to this most difficult of tasks, though Jeremiah could not understand it. However, the more Jeremiah tried to ignore the Lord, the more difficult it became for him because we can never truly ignore God; never can we truly or fully block him from our sights. We cannot dismiss the whispers of our hearts for long, and the more we try to do so the louder these whispers become and finally they overpower us, just as they did Jeremiah. Try as he might, he could not say, “No,” to the Lord; he had to fulfill the task given him. “But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart,” Jeremiah said, “imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it” (Jeremiah 20:9). 

Is it not the same with us? Do we not all feel the call of the Lord burning in our hearts? Can we not all say with Saint Augustine, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you?”[1] Indeed, the longer we do not listen to God, the more persistent His voice grows, the gentler and the more enticing it becomes. It consumes our thoughts and is always present to us; we cannot ignore the Lord for long, and we will never be at peace when we ignore the will of God, for we will in fact grow weary holding it in.

If we are honest with ourselves – and honest with God - what the Lord wants for us so often seems at first appearance to be the very opposite of what we want for ourselves. Whereas we focus on ourselves, the Lord calls us to focus on others; we focus on pleasure, and he calls us to suffer with him; we focus on wealth, and he calls us to be poor; we focus on freedom, and he calls us to his service. But as he did with Jeremiah, the Lord knows what he is doing with us; he knows the desires of our hearts better than we do for it is he who has formed us and knit us together (cf. Psalm 139:13). It is he who gives us breath and he who desires only our good, namely, that we be with him forever.

Peter thought he knew better than Jesus when Jesus told him that the Son of Man “must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly … and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21). Peter, only moments before, recognized Jesus for who he truly is and said to him, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Peter knew that the mission of the Messiah was to save his people, not to die. With this knowledge, Peter cried out, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). How could the Messiah die? But what Peter did not know, Jesus did know.

Jesus knew that, as the Messiah, he was to save his people through his death and resurrection; there was no other way to redeem us and save us, which is why Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me” (Matthew16:23)! Peter has heard these words from Jesus before but in a much different context. Spoken in Greek, these words are the very same words used by Jesus when he first called Peter, saying, “Follow me” (cf. Matthew 4:19). In English, it does not work so well. We could not say to somebody on the sidewalk, “Get behind me,” and expect that they would follow us, but in Greek the words are the same: Hopiso mou.

When Peter tried to steer Jesus away from the cross, Jesus commanded him, “Follow me!” But how does one follow Jesus? The requirement for authentic discipleship is simple: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). There is no other way but the cross.

Last week, we heard Jesus say to Simon Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah… And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:17-18). Today – just five verses later – we heard Jesus say to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me” (Matthew 16:23). The Greek word Jesus used - which we have translated as obstacle – is skandalon, a scandal, a rock upon which people trip and stumble. Not only could Peter’s refusal to allow Jesus to take up the Cross for us be a stumbling block for Jesus, but it could also be a rock upon which others trip in seeking to follow Jesus. The same is true for us when we refuse to take up the cross and follow Jesus; we become a rock on which others stumble, a scandal that can keep others from following Jesus. This, obviously, should always be avoided.

When we feel our crosses are too heavy for us to bear, when we see what the Lord calls us to, we may feel, with Jeremiah, that the Lord has tricked us, that he has fooled us. But then, in the end, for one who seeks to follow Jesus authentically, “it becomes like fire burning in [our] heart[s], imprisoned in [our] bones; [we] grow weary holding it in, [we] cannot endure it” (Jeremiah 20:9). So we, then, following after our Lord, must pick up our cross and walk in the footsteps of the one who died for us, who rose for us, who lives for us, and who calls us to be with him; we must follow him, even as Saint Peter, did by accepting crucifixion. There is no other way to salvation. In bearing the cross with the Lord, we will be able to offer our “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God;” having done so, we will be found “good and pleasing and perfect,” if only we do as he says: “Follow me!” (Romans 12:1-2). Amen.

[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, I.1.

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