Sep. 2, 2017

TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY

THE WISHY WAY, THE WAY OF HUMANS

Readings: 1st- Jer. 20:7-9; 2nd- Rom. 12:1-2; Gospel- Matt. 16:21-27

I’m imagining what kind of shock Peter must have had hearing Jesus address him in those harsh words, “Get behind me, Satan!”. Last week, we heard the same Peter being praised by Jesus after he responded to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” The encounter in today’s gospel is like a total turn around. From Peter the rock, the foundation of Christ’s church, to Peter the disappointment, addressed in such an ignominious manner, “Get behind me, Satan”. What does Jesus mean by that?

Somehow, Peter’s case is like Jeremiah’s in the first reading. The prophet Jeremiah could be described as a stubborn-Old-Testament-prophet. Jeremiah didn’t seem excited when he was called to prophetic ministry. On the contrary, he tried to excuse himself at God’s invitation, “Ah, ah, ah, Lord, you see, I do not know how to speak: I am only a child!” (Jer. 1:6). God insisted on using Jeremiah and mandated him to go and say whatever he would command. Jeremiah’s prophetic experience was replete with struggles against the people, and frustrations because of their way of life. In today’s reading, Jeremiah felt he was tricked by God into doing what ordinarily he wouldn’t want to commit himself in. He laments, “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped, you were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me” (Jer. 20:7). God is always the winner.

The way of God doesn’t bring only pleasures. Being a Christian and follower of Jesus is a tough call. As much as we want the easy way, the burning pressure of the gospel is usually stronger than the human wish. A priest friend of mine resented being priest by all means. This priest was in business and was doing well, yet he didn’t have the peace of mind that he so desired. He was restless. He couldn’t find meaning and comfort in what in human language could be described as a successful business career. He later gave up everything and went back into the seminary. He explained that it was only then that he found true peace. The question is, why should someone abandon a successful business career for the priestly life that sometimes looks dry?

I’m also an example of this because I left the seminary for certain circumstances and went into college to study. I took up a course in architecture but the environment was very unfamiliar and unfriendly. Everything seemed negative. It was the worst one year in my whole life, frustrating, and meaningless. The voice of the Lord was speaking strongly in my heart. The answer to such puzzle is what we find in the words of Saint Paul in the second reading, “offer your bodies as living sacrifice holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship…, be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God” (Rom. 12:1). He says, “Do not conform yourselves to this age”; it is all about the will of God in our lives.

The way of humans is demonstrated in the encounter between Jesus and Peter. The disciples, like the Jews, have the impression that the messiah was going to be strong, perhaps invincible. He was going to be the one to guarantee social, economic and political freedom. That is what, in their minds, Jesus represents, he is the messiah. Unfortunately, here he is telling them that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer greatly and be crucified by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. Here he is speaking about death and resurrection. Is that what they want to hear?

For that reason, Peter rebukes him, saying, “God forbid! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matt. 16: 22-23). Peter must have been disappointed by such statement of suffering and death. He didn’t sign the contract of being an apostle because he wanted to suffer. He dropped his fishing nets and tools because he wanted a better life. Who wouldn’t? He must be saying to himself, “Heaven preserve you from letting us down. Heaven preserve you from making us appear like objects of scorn. Heaven preserve you from suffering”. This is the reason why Christ cautions Peter, “you are thinking not as God thinks but as human beings do”. Jesus didn’t find Peter’s approach interesting, and in turn chastised Peter by calling him, “Satan”, and asking him to get behind him.

The use of the word “Satan” implies no joke. Our attitude as preachers would be to try to simplify its meaning, but that’s wrong. Jesus uses it to show the seriousness of what he intends to communicate. He does not mean to condemn Peter. Rather, he describes Peter as an “obstacle”. The Greek word that translates “Satan” here is “Skandalon” which means stumbling block. Christ tells Peter, “You are an obstacle to me” (Matt. 16:23). It implies a behavior or attitude that leads another to sin, that damages one’s reputation. The reputation of Jesus is that “the Christ should suffer before entering into his glory” (Lk. 24:26). Peter does not understand that, hence he becomes an obstacle. Christ continues by asking Peter to “get behind him”. We also need the courage to tell those who are obstructing our Christian welfare to get behind us, and begin to think the way God desires.

Furthermore, Christ teaches that whoever wishes to follow him must deny himself, take up his cross and come after him. That means, Peter is lucky to be asked to get behind Jesus. Peter must get behind Jesus to understand God’s way. He must get behind to appreciate the meaning of suffering. He must give up his way for the way of God. He must get behind and follow Jesus.

This is a serious call against the seeming flourishing gospel of prosperity. Prosperity preaching has become commonplace in today’s worship that preachers and followers no longer want to talk about suffering. The gospel that sells now is, “It shall continue to be well with you”. On Facebook and social media, the message is, “If you send this to fifty people, you will receive favors, progress, and automatic employment”. “If you type Amen, God will bless you immediately”, and so on. And that is what the people want to hear, the wishy ways. Prosperity is good, sure, everyone likes it. But Jesus reminds us today of the way of God, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”. He invites us to shun the wishy ways of worship and to take up our challenges in a Christ-centered manner.

Let us get behind Jesus if we really want to follow him. Christianity demands that we deny ourselves of pleasures most times and work with God. We must take up our cross in a Christian way. We must see Jesus in our pains, failures, disappointments, ambitions. We must accept God’s ways in our life, pray for God’s will in our desires and choices. If we take up our cross and follow Jesus, the cross becomes meaningful and light. Let’s not be like today’s Peter, wishing away challenges and suffering, otherwise, they come as shock. Let’s pray for good times while being open to the will of God. Only then can our worship be meaningful, Christ-centered and oriented towards salvation.