Twenty-Second Sunday of the Year, A: September 3, 2023

Matthew 16: 21-27

Fr. John Tran

The tables have turned on Peter: last Sunday, Peter was at the top. Simon was renamed Peter, the rock upon which the Church would be built, and he was praised by Jesus for his insight into Jesus being the Son of the living God. Yet, this Sunday, Peter is addressed as ‘Satan,’ a name meaning ‘Adversary,’ and told that he had become a stumbling block, instead of the Rock upon which the Church would be built.

So, right after Peter was given the grace to make his profession of faith in Jesus as the Son of the living God, something changes. When Peter heard that Jesus said that he must “go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day raised up,” Peter told Jesus that these events simply could not happen to him. At these words, Jesus said to Peter that he had misunderstood everything about Jesus’ mission. Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Literally Jesus said, ‘begone behind me, Satan!’ Where have we heard this phrase before? “Begone, Satan!” Didn’t we hear it in Chapter 4, verse 10 of Matthew, perhaps in Advent? Remember the great 40 days of temptation when Satan had tempted Jesus with great power, riches, urging Jesus to reduce his standards so that many people would follow him? Satan tried to present to Jesus the image of a Messiah that was the common hope of Israelites. One where the messiah would rise up as a political King and regain the power of Israel.

Imagine Jesus’ disappointment. A short time before Peter had seemed to understand who Jesus was and hopefully what he was doing. Then, Peter, out of his love for Jesus, cannot imagine the scene that Jesus is showing the disciples. It was not the mission that they had placed their hopes on. They could understand that Jesus was the Son of God, but that he would suffer and die did not compute. It seems that neither Peter or the other disciples could hear the last part of Jesus statement: “and on the third day be raised up.” They did not hear this at all. And even if they did, what in the world could such a statement mean to them? The disciples and Peter could well have said the phrase of Jeremiah in the first reading: “You have duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you are too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the day I am the object of laughter; everyone mocks me.” That is what the may have thought would be waiting for them if what Jesus predicted was to come true. And what does ‘to be duped’ mean? It means to be taken in by a be led along thinking one thing and only too late, to find out that the reality was not what you thought at all.

But this incident does give Jesus the chance to clear up any misunderstandings. Now, Jesus can be sure that the disciples know what he was really about, and what it would mean to be a follower of Jesus. He says to them and to us: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” What does Jesus mean by this statement. It must have seemed to Peter and the disciples to be crazy. All this work of following him, depriving themselves of good jobs, homes and families, and now the only reward is to be subjected to more suffering and ridicule. How much they would have to stretch to accept what Jesus said. And what about us? How much do we have to stretch? How hard it is to leave our comfortable lives and be put out of our way by the gospel?

So, what are we called to do? First, we are called to deny ourselves. Jesus does not mean that we are simple to give something up for a few weeks so that we can help a worthy cause, like the local soup kitchen or Habitat for Humanity. We certainly are called to do things like this, but they are only a small part of what is needed. To deny oneself is more radical. It means that from the moment we become disciples, we are to say no to self, to our own good, and say yes to God. This is easy to say, but it is quite something else to really live in the particular everyday life.

Next, we are to take up the cross of Jesus. To embrace Christian life is to take on a life of service where our own ambition is not the main undertaking or concern of life. It may mean that what is most needed from us by our Lord is not convenient, and does not fit into our game plan or our budget. You may know the thrilling story of Glen Cunningham, a young man whose legs were so badly burned when he was a boy that doctors said he would never walk again. However, this determined champion went on to win an Olympic gold medal as a miler. Even more importantly, Glen Cunningham devoted his life to helping troubled young people. Once, his wife asked, “Glen, why do we have to give so much more than others? No one else is doing what we are.” — Glen answered, “That’s the reason, Ruth. No one else is doing it.” But for a disciple our reason giving to the full is, more importantly, what Jesus asks of a disciple.

And finally, we must follow Jesus. This sums up the previous two points and is perhaps the most difficult thing. It means that we are never really in the driver’s seat. We are never really in control or following the path that myself choose to walk. But this does mean something extraordinary for each of us. It means to live life rather that simply to exist. It is funny isn’t it? We stop simple existing and begin living only when we are involved with something or someone larger than ourselves. This is what the example of Glenn Cunningham inspires us to do and to go beyond.

So, it is true. In order to really live, we let ourselves by duped, just like Jeremiah. We forget about ourselves and let ourselves be taken in and tricked into real life. But this concept is not so hard to understand is it? What parent among you does not forget about self when a child is in need? How often have you put off something you need or what to do, so that a son or daughter can grow? Which one among you does not go our of your way for a friend who needs your help, your support, your comfort, your presence? What priest or religious is not familiar with putting the needs of the people or community before one’s own? The real trick is that in following Jesus It is not just those close to us who deserve this kind of treatment: it is every human being which God puts into our path. And if we are faithful, then, “the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory and repay all according to his conduct.”