DO NOTHING OUT OF SELFISHNESS AND VAINGLORY
Readings: 1st- Ezk. 18:25-28; 2nd- Phil. 2:1-11; Gospel- Matt. 21:28-32
Quite often we hear expressions describing people’s behaviors and mannerisms. We hear expressions such as “she has an attitude,” meaning that the person is ill-mannered in speech or in the way she attends to others. Knowing and understanding one’s attitude is important because it proceeds from one’s mental and cognitive states and extends to the individual’s actions toward others. Yes, an attitude can depict a negative approach or hostile state of mind. It can also be bigger than that as seen in the readings of today. An attitude can represent one’s readiness to respond in a characteristic way to a stimulus, an environment, or a situation. The Christian attitude ought to be the believer’s readiness to respond in the manner of Christ, hence, to live out their baptismal promises. Paul captures it as the standard for Christian living.
In the first reading, Ezekiel starts with the reminder; there’s no middle ground in following God. Either one is in or out, no half measures. In Ezekiel’s time, the people’s mindset deceives them to think of justifying their ignoble actions. The prophet does not cherish that, so he warns them that the virtuous person must always remain virtuous, not go back and forth. If the virtuous person forfeits good and starts to do evil, treating others as inferior, merely having the mental attitude of thinking himself as righteous will not save him. Rather, if the virtuous person turns from evil and restores himself to goodness, the person will live. God’s way is always fair.
In the gospel, Christ uses an open-ended parable to challenge his listeners to examine the source of their thinking. He invites his audience to assess whose will shapes their daily lives. He uses the example of two sons in response to their father’s demands to work in the vineyard. The first son says no to the father but later goes. The second son says yes but does not go. Even though there’s something fundamentally wrong in the two sons’ responses, the second son shows a change in attitude towards the father’s appeal. He represents a repentant heart that appeals to God more; he demonstrates the importance of commitment to the faith. The first son, in that context, is likened to tax collectors and prostitutes categorized as stereotypical sinners within the Jewish community but who eventually repent. The second son depicts religious leaders who agree to work, who seem eager to prescribe divine norms but slow to living them out. Their sense of superiority shows a negative attitude towards the kingdom.
In the second reading, Saint Paul points out how crucial thoughts and attitudes are in the Christian life. Paul uses the Philippian community to exhort Christians on the true standard for good Christian living. He exposes negative attitudes caused by vainglory, then narrates the benefits of Christ’s self-emptying for believers. The key to a healthy community living for Paul is to imitate Christ, be “of the same mind,” be “united in thinking one thing,” for the good of the community. In order to achieve this, Paul invites believers thus, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory.” Vainglory results in self-exaltation, in failure to identify the needs of others before one’s own needs.
On the contrary, true glory comes from humility, the standard set by Christ which Saint Paul challenges us to make the rule of life, “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 2:5) Christ’s self-emptying is exemplary. Christ becomes obedient like a slave. He humbles himself, suffers to the point of dying a shameful death on the cross. Such outstanding humility is something to emulate, “Because of this, God has greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” This is one of the most powerful declarations of the significance of Christ’s death in the scriptures. But importantly, it invites us to understand how to live an authentic Christian life for ourselves and for others.
Hence, it is pertinent to reflect on some personal questions as we leave Church this weekend: how do I think? What informs my opinion about faith and morals? What informs my attitude or outlook about decisions as a Christian?
Think about these words, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory.” This should not just be a rule of faith but a rule of life to ensure the common good. Imagine if politicians do nothing out of selfishness and vainglory. Imagine if teachers do nothing out of selfishness and vainglory. Imagine if doctors do nothing out of selfishness and vainglory. Imagine if businessmen do nothing out of selfishness and vainglory. Imagine if the media do nothing out of selfishness and vainglory. Imagine if pregnant women do nothing out of selfishness and vainglory. Imagine if bishops, priests, pastors, and evangelists do nothing out of selfishness and vainglory. In the family, imagine if couples, parents, siblings do nothing out of selfishness and vainglory. In the global circles, imagine if leaders of nations and continents -the United States, Russia, Britain, Australia, if Africa, Asia, Europe, do nothing out of selfishness and vainglory. Imagine if the rich and powerful do nothing out of selfishness and vainglory. Imagine if everyone does nothing out of selfishness and vainglory; if you, I, all of us do nothing out of selfishness and vainglory. How wonderful this world would be! Such is the attitude of Christ, the standard for Christian living.
This is a strong invitation for each of us to reassess our attitudes and possibly make a change. God accepts us when we change. What God abhors is obstinacy, a sense of consistent self-justification, self-righteousness, and, or exaggerated self-worth that blurs our vision of love and justice. The attitude of Christ is inviting and liberating. The attitude of Christ is freeing. It is the attitude of humility, service, and open-mindedness. Emulating Christ’s attitude merits authentic, true glory; “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue must confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Amen.
THE EVIL EFFECT OF ENVY
Readings: 1st- Is. 55:6-9; 2nd- Phil. 1:20-24, 27; Gospel- Matt. 20:1-16
Let’s say that the three poignant questions by Jesus in the gospel are directed at us today:
- Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
- Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money (what belongs to me)?
- Are you envious because I am generous?
Although each of these questions call our attention to how we think of God in relation to his treatment of others, the last question brings out the poisonous effect of envy regarding how we think about ourselves and others. Envy is defined as a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else's possessions, qualities, or luck. Once a person is envious, she loses focus on self and concentrates on the rewards of another in a self-discomforting manner.
The prophet Isaiah sets the ball rolling in his book of consolation for Israel. The prophet reminds the people of the need to return to the Lord despite their sins. Rather than look at the Lord as being there to punish, he invites them to shun sin and iniquity and return to God’s mercy. The prophet makes it clear that the people’s view of the Lord is distorted by their sinful state. Because the Lord is generous, he forgives readily. But one thing is clear, the people must begin to see God as He is not as they want to perceive him because God’s ways and thoughts are different from those of human beings. There is no need to play smart with God, just return to him and be saved.
In the gospel, Jesus puts forward a parable to provoke thoughts about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus makes the Jews realize that justice and favor operate according to the mind of God. The parable describes a landowner who goes out at different times -at dawn, about nine o’clock, around noon, around three o’clock, and about five o’clock to hire laborers. Rather than have people stand at the marketplace doing nothing, the landowner puts them to work. The landowner agrees to give the usual daily wage to the first group of laborers. This daily wage is not translated into monetary value. To the second and subsequent hires he says, “You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.” It is this sense of justice and fairness that became the source of concern for the early hires at the time of pay.
When summoned to receive their settlement, the expectations of the first are different. Perhaps, the last are not bothered about what they receive. Possibly, they are grateful to be paid at all and for the opportunity to work. It is the landowner who decides equal working opportunity and equal pay for everyone. The first grumble and get envious. They are angry and frustrated. They cannot see the landowner’s generosity, instead they are bothered by what the last group receives. And here’s how they express their feeling, “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who bore the day’s burden and the heat.”
In life, certain people are never satisfied by what they have. They are bothered by what their neighbor has and how much they feel that such persons prosper. In offices and businesses, some persons think about how the boss favors a certain individual and they imagine, “why not me?” They get envious and angry. They complain. Jesus calls our attention today, to the need for openness. He invites us to be satisfied with what we have been given, “Take what is yours and go” (Matt. 20:14).
First, this parable is a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven and points more to the Christian understanding of justice and fairness in God’s eyes. God hires from the moment of our baptism as infants. We are hired for salvation. Still, God does not stop hiring, does not want people to stand idle at the marketplace. God goes out to pull people in at different stages of life, 9am, noon, 3pm, and about 5pm of their lives. That is why we have converts into Christianity and into the catholic faith from time to time. Sometimes, those who are hired have pasts that might seem to make them unfit for the Christian life. Yet God brings them in. Saint Paul writes about his experience, “Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the Apostles,not fit to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:8). Paul fit into the Isaiah’s prophecy today. He understood that his sin belonged to the past, that he could come in as a late laborer but importantly that he needed to seek God’s face. Paul abandoned his evils ways, shunned his wicked thoughts, and embraced God’s mercy.
We are invited to address the problem of envy in our lives. Envy destroys relationships, messes up society and damages family bonds. In the scripture, envy led Cain to anger against his brother Abel and he killed him (Gen. 4:1-8). Envy led Jacob’s sons to hate their brother Joseph and they sold him to Egyptians. Scripture warns against envy in serious terms, “Resentment kills a fool, and envy slays the simple” (Job 5:2). James says, “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (3:16). Peter’s advice is, “rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind” (1 Pet. 2:1).
Envy has caused discord and divisions in many relationships. Envy has led to evil thoughts against one’s siblings. The devil sows envy in human hearts and once it is nurtured, it breeds anger and hatred. Friendships end because of envy. Offices get destroyed because of envy. Institutions collapse because of envy. There’s envy in politics, in the church, in business, in all spheres of life. People are more interested in how others progress and feel terrible about that. They imagine why people should receive benefits instead of themselves. They plot evil as a result. Christ says to you, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Let us learn from the reactions of these group of laborers to redirect our thoughts and feelings. Let us learn to focus on what God has given us. Envy is the opposite of gratitude. A grateful heart thanks is appreciative and open-minded. A grateful heart celebrates with others while the envious heart grieves. Tell God to change the envy in your heart to joy and gratitude. That way, you enjoy the benefits given to you out of God’s love and generosity.
FORGIVENESS IS LIKE A ROUGH FLIGHT WITH A SOFT LANDING
Readings: 1st- Sirach 27:30-28:7; 2nd- Rom. 14:7-9; Gospel- Matt. 18:21-35
We all experience turbulence during our flights, trembling that creates panic and fear. Sometimes, we wonder why we should have flown in the first place at the very moment of such crazy experiences. We remain strapped in our seat belts uncertain of the outcome. Suddenly, the pilot takes control, announces calm, and eventually gets us on ground in a soft landing. Certainly, we remember the turbulence, but we emerge from the aircraft with smiles. “Yes, we made it,” that’s what the feeling is like. The soft, happy landing overrides the turbulence on air. That’s how it feels when we emerge from a tough life experience that put us through the test; when we forgive. The experience is part of our story but we’re not to stay there.
The big question from the readings of today is, could revenge ever be the correct response to a hurt, an offence, or an abuse? Our emotions would say that revenge is okay. It might begin with little things; imagine you’re cut off by a reckless driver on the road, then you go into a frenzy. Instincts say, pursue that driver. You find yourself on a futile chase, to show this driver that you can mess her day up as well. You don’t succeed, you stay in that negative thought and feeling, and your day is messed up. But that driver goes on. That’s how crazy emotions can make us appear. Forgiveness scores low when emotions are in high gear.
Forgiveness does not just reside in the emotions. As an intrinsic part of our faith, the limit to forgiveness is not set by us. It is set by God, hence Christ says, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.” (Matt. 18:35) This statement is in response to Peter’s enthusiastic questions to Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matt. 18:21) Perhaps, Peter thinks he is going beyond the Jewish expectation which says, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” For Peter, seven times is a great effort. Jesus makes him realize that he set the bar too low.
Consider some extreme cases in our inter-human relationships and family lives: a marriage that eventually ends in divorce leaves hurtful feelings; a family feud among siblings breeds hatred; a daughter sexually abused by the step-father carries shame and resentment; a husband caught in affairs leaves anger and hurt in the heart; a foster child verbally abused by mom generates pains. Situations such as these expose the daunting challenge of forgiveness and faith. Yet Christ’s words remain, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Can Jesus not issue a waiver in certain cases, so we take our pound of the flesh? Not the case!
Jesus mentions many times in the scriptures the importance of forgiveness. Why? Why does he keep telling us to forgive over and over? We see the most extreme example of forgiveness by the Lord himself. He was being brutally murdered by people filled with hatred and jealousy for him. Certainly this would seem like a legitimate excuse for unforgiveness. They definitely weren’t sorry for what they were doing! But the very first of the 7 last words (or statements) of the dying Jesus were, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” It seems like He was making excuses for their horrible behavior. Think about this- He forgave them and they mocked and laughed at him. So why? Why forgive even those who aren’t sorry, who hate us? Some of us might feel we have hit the “seventy-seven” forgiveness mark set by the Lord. What’s next? Honestly, Christianity is not for the faint of heart; forgiveness takes us through a rough flight experience.
Some people navigate through trauma, depression, insomnia, as a result of injury by their offenders. Some lose their jobs and valuable resources unjustly. These make forgiveness harder especially counting the losses, trauma, depression, emotional, physical, and spiritual injuries suffered. How do such individuals deal with these situations?
Forgiveness is not just a feeling, it’s a decision. You don’t just say, “I can deal with my feelings.” Oh, sure, but Jesus will deal with your feelings better. We must hand our feelings over to Christ, that way, we know God’s grace for complete healing and forgiveness to happen. Authentic forgiveness turns the situation over to God who’s bigger than we are. Forgiveness says, the Christ in me recognizes (however hidden) the Christ in you.
Forgiveness looks to the future because it is anchored on hope. It does not dwell in the past. It moves on. Unforgiveness blocks our peace of mind, causes depression, anxiety, addictions, family problems and physical illness. Unforgiveness poisons us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. The Lord desires our happiness which is why he instructs us in life-saving forgiveness. It explains His extreme example of forgiving His persecutors – even though they weren’t sorry! Even though they mocked and laughed at Him.
The best approach is to understand that the process of forgiveness begins with inner healing which involves spiritual reconciliation. Saint Paul encourages us to, “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other.” (Eph. 4:32) And Jesus said of the master in the gospel, “Moved with compassion,” he let the servant go. So, it starts with the self, from the inside. You must be moved with com (with) passion (sorrow, pity) for the other right from within. For instance, can you pray for the one who hurt you and not feel bad about it?
One of my good friends in this church shared with me how a school mate who was arrogant and treated him badly in school reached back to him recently, after 15 years. These guys had no connection but the bully eventually sought him out on Facebook and invited him for lunch. This guy never knew why such a nasty person in their school days would be asking him to meet after such a long time. He reluctantly honored the invite. But it turned out that he wanted to say SORRY. It was such a healing moment. They moved on, felt better afterward and are both at peace. My friend said to me, “I forgave him… and I’m happy.”
Because God wants us to be happy. Forgiveness makes us happy, not the other person. Forgiveness leads to the heart of God. If you want true peace in your life, if you want healing, especially the wounds in your soul, if you want to be holy, learn to forgive as soon as possible. Ask God to help you and I guarantee He’ll answer that prayer quickly. In fact, if you’re struggling to forgive and can’t seem to do it yet, your desire to forgive is pleasing God. It’s an essential building block in the spiritual life. This is why Jesus says 70 times 7 times. It’s a phrase for eternally, means uncountable times.
The Lord reminds you today, “Stop that chase! It’s not worth it.” Imagine how the master in the gospel forgave the servant of his big debt. But he continued chasing after the other servant who owed him little. You might have been hurt, bruised, and injured. You might be nursing the revenge of your life, waiting for a good moment to strike. You might feel justified to want retribution. Is it worth it? Revenge is a misfire which destroys the soul.
Lessons about forgiveness:
- Forgiveness is more than what we give to our transgressor; it is what we give to ourselves.
- Forgiveness takes a rough path but leads to a happy ending, a soft landing.
- Forgiveness is not just an emotion, not just an art; it is inseparably linked with faith.
- Forgiveness brings inner healing. Emotionally, it heals depression, anger, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
- Forgiveness tills the soil of your soul allowing other virtues to take root.
- Forgiveness brings peace that only God can give, which by its very nature overflows onto others.
- Forgiveness makes you become a light in the darkness.
- Forgiveness makes you enter into the heart of God. This is the secret of the saints.
- Forgiveness makes you a healer. You heal others when you forgive.
- Grace makes forgiveness possible
Think about someone in your life that you need to forgive. Maybe it’s yourself. Have you forgiven yourself? Maybe it’s another person in your life. Bring that person to the altar at this mass. Say a special prayer to forgive from your heart and ask God to bless that person. Decide for happiness today.
PAYING OFF THE DEBT OF LOVE
Readings: 1st- Ezek. 33:7-9; 2nd- Rom. 12:8-10; gospel- Matt. 18:15-20
On the tv show, Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Altman is one of the doctors who work for Seattle Grace Hospital. A young man is admitted with multiple pathological issues involving pancreas, kidney, heart, and other problems related to his organs. After reviewing his case, the hospital management decides that his insurance won’t cover the necessary treatment cost so they ask him to leave. Dr. Altman presses the chief medical director to give the young man’s case some special consideration and perform surgery on him with a waiver. All her efforts to convince the hospital fail. She goes back to the guy and pitiably narrates the hospital’s decision. They young man decides to leave, perhaps to die at home after a few months. Dr. Altman cries within herself. As she bids him farewell and turns to leave, it occurs to her that she can do something radical. She says to him, “You know I have good insurance.” The guy isn’t sure what that means. Then comes the shock, “I could marry you, and save your life,” says Dr. Altman. In utter amazement this guy responds, “Do you understand what you’re saying?” Of course, she did. She marries him, precisely to save him. The complicated surgery is performed successfully, and the guy lives. The hospital management sees Dr. Altman’s action as foolish. Isn’t that what love does? Love makes you look foolish and unreasonable.
Saint Paul challenges us on what can be described as the debt of love in the second reading of today as he writes to the Roman community, “Owe no one anything except to love one another.” Like Jesus, Paul commands Christians to go beyond seeing love as a mere duty prescribed in the Old Testament. The Jewish law on love says, “You will not exact vengeance on, or bear any sort of grudge against the members of your race but will love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). For the Jews, love was a reciprocal act while the neighbor was a member of one’s group/family. In the New Testament, Christ sums up the entire commandments into two: love of God and love of neighbor. Christ demands, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Paul, in today’s reading dwells on the second part of the commandment and points out the real implications of loving the neighbor as oneself. For Paul, the commandments flow from love - to not commit adultery, not kill, not steal or covet are all aspects of love. Love, in Paul’s terms, is a debt that we all owe, which means we have an obligation to pay it off. The law is meaningless without love. Paul declares, “love is the fulfillment of the law.”
The first reading and the gospel get into the specifics of what it means to practice love in the Christian life. The prophet Ezekiel sees it as interpersonal responsibility, what we call “tough love.” Ezekiel is God’s “watchman for the house of Israel” and must warn them in the manner demanded by God. He must tell Israel the truth that will save them. This is one way to understand our responsibilities to one another. Most times, we shy away from telling the truth to our loved ones in the claims that we love them. That’s fake love. For love to be authentic, it bears responsibility. Love anchors on the truth.
As parents, teachers, pastors, and leaders at various levels, we stand as watchmen. We owe the truth to our subjects and dependents. Parents are watchmen in their homes. Teaches are watchmen in the schools. Priests are watchmen in the church. Politicians are watchmen in the society. Doctors and nurses are watchmen in the hospitals. Friends are watchmen to their friends. Watchmen look after those entrusted to their care. They cover their backs in a responsible way. They protect them against dangers and threats. They show them tough love enshrined in the truth.
The next demand of love is forgiveness and reconciliation. Christ stipulates that if one’s brother offends him, forgive him. If he refuses to listen, go the extra step, take a witness or two. Then tell the church if he refuses further. After all efforts have been exhausted, “treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” But before you sing eureka at that last statement, it is good to pay attention to what Christ means by asking us to treat those who fail to listen to us as Gentiles and tax collectors. Does it mean to cast them out, reject them or take revenge? I’m not too sure about that. Some scripture scholars remind us that Christ treated Gentiles and tax collectors with love. He did not discard them, rather He saw them as lost sheep needing extra care. He went into their homes, dined with them, and brought them back into the fold. How about that? This makes sense if we read through the last instruction in that gospel passage. Christ says to the disciples, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). The big question here would be, can people gather in the name of Christ if they do not love each other, if they are not able to forgive? Can there be a Christian gathering without reconciliation? Can people gather to pray together if they don’t agree?
The debt of love resides therefore, in truth and forgiveness. Let’s take it back to family life. I hear so much about people struggling with their brothers and sisters, with their husbands and wives, with their ex’s, and with their in-laws. Sometimes, it feels that cutting some of these “family members” out of our lives because of their attitude is best. At times, the actions of some of these family members makes the situation exasperating. Some of us might think we have exhausted the options presented in today’s gospel with nothing to show for it. Believe me, it can be hard. Personally, I come from a large family with siblings and in-laws. It can be a challenge to manage the relationships and be at peace with everyone. But the truth remains that to make love reign, we must act like Dr. Altman and be a fool for love. To love like Christ is to be foolish, and as Mother Teresa says, “Intense love does not measure, it just gives.”
So, if Saint Paul says, “Owe no one anything except to love one another,’ the question for us today becomes to discover whom we owe. Who do you owe the debt of love? How long have you owed that person? Think about it from two standpoints- truth and forgiveness. Do you owe the truth, the hard truth to your children as a parent or teacher? Do you watch them derail without saying anything? That’s not love, it’s permissiveness. Do you shy away from informing them about the demands of the gospel, the sanctity of life, the importance of witnessing to their faith out of fear that they might get mad at you? That’s a huge responsibility you have as a watchman or woman.. And God expects you to speak the truth in love. He expects you to speak up, speak the truth.
Do you owe the debt of forgiveness to anyone? Have you been bearing grudges for offences committed against you for decades now? Are you resentful about any member of your family? Are you waiting for someone to come crawling on her knees before you forgive and let go? That’s not the correct Christian way of life. Christ asks you to pay that debt. Dr. Altman was very rational and structured in her practice until she saw that patient. At that moment, she did not count loss or gain, not interested in cost. She just loved. Can’t we love, love and love? “Love counts no wrongdoing but finds its joy in the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6). Today, it might be proper to assess the value of love we’ve shown during this period of COVID as we all were forced into our family circles. My take-home for you today is- offer one loving action each day, say one truth each day, offer one forgiveness each day, and you will grow. And as Mother Teresa would say, “Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.” That’s the best way to pay off love’s debt.
THE RISK OF FAITH
Readings: 1st- Jer. 20:7-9; 2nd- Rom. 12:1-2; Gospel- Matt. 16:21-27
Compare two different scenarios in the readings of today: 1) Jeremiah’s experience with the Israelites and 2) Jesus’ exposition of the meaning of discipleship. The message that stands out is that following Jesus implies a risk of faith.
A brief focus on Jeremiah depicts a story of the supremacy of God’s will for humanity. Following God overrides our human desire. From the start of his prophecy, Jeremiah isn’t ready for the mission. His response to the invitation to prophesy is, “Ah, ah, ah, Lord God, you see, I do not know how to speak: I am only a child!” (Jer. 1:6). But he does not escape it. God pulls him in with the promise to fortify him if he ministers. In today’s reading, Jeremiah laments, “You have duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped, you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.” In the first place, Jeremiah’s message is not palatable to the people. For that he faces ridicule. Yet, he cannot twist this message to suit himself, no, it must be as God demands. He must prophesy the downfall of Jerusalem in the hands of Babylon. He is caught between two forces, withholding the message and having his peace with the people or proclaiming it and being at peace with God. Jeremiah is forced to speak. He takes the risk of faith.
The gospel is more explicit; it challenges the disciples on the true meaning of witnessing. Peter shows up again, this time, not so great in his performance. Still, at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus reveals his mission to go to Jerusalem. The Son of Man is going to Jerusalem to die in the hands of the Scribes and Pharisees. Peter’s reaction is spontaneous. He rebukes Jesus, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Jesus doesn’t take this kindly with Peter, rather scolds him with the words, “Get behind me, Satan. You are an obstacle to me. You are not thinking as God does, but as human beings do.” This encounter raises a few questions here: What changed for Peter? Why does Christ refer to him as Satan and what is the implication of that? How do human beings think?
The first question takes us back to the last experience at Caesarea Philippi (last Sunday’s gospel) when Jesus asks the disciples who the people say he is, then who they themselves say he is. Peter’s response is, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” That response merits Peter an elevation with Jesus affirming that He will establish His church upon the rock that is Peter (Cephas). That’s like the first stage of Peter’s interview for the job as the supervisor chosen by Christ. Peter does well in that first interview, aces the question. Does that performance make him rely no more on divine wisdom but on his human intuition? Certainly, Peter fails to impress His Boss in this second interview; telling Christ that he will not suffer is an abysmal performance. Peter drops down from an A+ in the first interview to an E in this second interview because he is thinking as humans do, not letting God guide. Christ is disappointed; hence, Peter receives the reprimand. The lesson is that we must contemplate God’s will in our actions. We must rely on divine wisdom.
Thinking further about this encounter, we may ask why Jesus doesn’t take back the keys from Peter after scolding him for his careless response. The reality is that Jesus and his disciples teach us great lessons about being vulnerable with loved ones. The disciples have established a relationship of trust with their Master. Jesus is open to them, tells them the truth about his entire life while they expose their weaknesses to him. Jesus uses such moments to teach. This is one of such moments. Jesus admonishes Peter, scolds him, calls him Satan, asks him to get behind him, but does not withdraw his mandate from him. He uses the opportunity to advance his teachings as he would in other circumstances. When the disciples start fighting over positions and power, He teaches them about humility. When they get caught up in fear, He teaches them about faith. Now, Peter is focusing on comfort, Jesus teaches the disciples great lessons about the Cross, about suffering, and about salvation, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” He engages them on the true meaning of followership; they must take the risk of faith.
How do human beings think? Human beings shy away from suffering. Let’s be fair to Peter here, he acts like any of us would do. Tell a friend that you had a diagnosis and that you are waiting for the outcome. The first reaction will be to wish it away, “no, it will come out good.” Tell her that you’re visiting Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or a place where Christians are persecuted and watch the reaction. The question will always be, “Are you sure you want to do this?” In Nigeria, there is a popular slogan that says, “It’s not your portion.” This is a quick way of making what is called “spiritual or religious bypass.” That’s exactly what Peter does here, he wants Christ to bypass the Cross. He is saying to Jesus, “It’s not your portion to suffer.” Peter acts like human beings. He fails to see the redemptive aspect. Human thinking does not look beyond the comforts of the flesh. Humans shy away from the risk of faith.
How many of us are ready to take this risk in today’s world? How many of us are willing to sacrifice our pleasures for Christ and for our faith? How many of us are courageous enough to stand firm for what God wants and not what we want or what society wants? Christ says to us, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Whether it is for economic, social, or political reasons, we must not deny what we believe in. We must stand up for our faith. Sometimes, we are persecuted for that, but that’s precisely how faith operates. Those who follow Christ anticipate persecution. They are persecuted because they don’t compromise on the sanctity of life. They don’t compromise their stand on abortion. They don’t compromise their stand on the meaning of marriage as between one man and one woman. They don’t compromise on educating their children in the way of God. They don’t compromise because of political, economic, or social gains or losses. They head towards Jerusalem, which stands for a place of witnessing. As Paul says to the Romans, the followers of Christ must be willing to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice. In the Christian life, what should concern us is the ultimate gain, not the world’s payoffs. Yes, we may suffer physically, we may be abused verbally, we may be denied benefits, yet we are not at a loss. Christ promises, “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” It is all about taking the risk of faith.