First reading: Jeremiah 20:7-9.
Psalm: Psalm 62(63):2-6, 8-9.
Second reading: Romans 12:1-2.
Gospel: Matthew 16:21-27.
Link to readings.
Today’s Gospel strikes a sombre note. Jesus, whose true identity Simon Peter has just acknowledged (“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”), goes on to make the first of three announcements concerning his destiny to suffer and die.
The Lectionary provides a way into this paradox by introducing as First Reading a passage from the prophet Jeremiah, 20:7-9. It is this prophet’s painful destiny to have to prophesy the coming of “violence and ruin” to a people who—understandably—wanted a more positive message. Jeremiah’s attempt to resist his prophetic duty by simply remaining silent led to an anguish within him that was even more painful—“ a fire burning in my heart”. The Lord has led him into a relationship and a vocation from which there is no escape. Hence his striking complaint, “You have seduced me, Lord”. There is no more poignant portrayal of the prophetic vocation than this. Virtually by definition, a prophet’s role is to unmask the subterfuge and excuses through which people and indeed whole societies seek to hide painful truth from themselves.
The anguish and tension experienced by Jeremiah is apparent also in the Gospel, Matt 16:21-27. Peter has just given expression to his God-given insight concerning the identity of Jesus and received in response blessing and appointment to a leading role in the church that Jesus will build. But when Jesus goes on to announce that, Son of God though he may be, he is destined to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die, Peter, who had so conspicuously got it right, equally conspicuously stumbles at the truth now being revealed: the more closely as “(beloved) Son” Jesus is related to God, the more closely he must be aligned with the divine will to enter into the pain and suffering of the world, to be the Son of Man who came “not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (20:28).
There is tension, then, between the understanding of Jesus and that of Peter and the other disciples. But, like Jeremiah, Jesus himself is not immune from feeling that tension. Peter’s remonstrance is not harsh but subtle, “God forbid, Lord. This sort of thing is not for you”—that is, not for “the Son of the living God!”. The suggestion is a real temptation, an echo of the third temptation (4:8-9) when Satan had tried to lure Jesus away from his God-given path by proposing an easy route to lordship of the world. Jesus, in fact, turns on Peter here in terms very similar to those with which on that earlier occasion (4:10) he had dismissed Satan: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me”. Ironically, the “Rock” has become a “stumbling block”; the recipient of divine revelation is now setting (his) mind not on divine things but on human things”. The strength of Jesus’ response suggests that the temptation still lingers. It will emerge more powerfully still when, in the garden of Gethsemane, he stands immediately before an extremity of suffering (26:36-46).
Once again, then, we see combined in Peter insight and leadership, on the one hand, and capacity for failure, on the other. His understandable human desire to preserve the Master from suffering actually aligns him with the demonic in a way that would thwart the entire mission. It is no kindness to Jesus—or to the world that he has come to save—to deflect him from the path the Father has set before him.
So, speaking more generally to all the disciples, Jesus goes on to lay down the conditions for any who want to follow him: it means taking up one’s own cross and losing one’s life in order to find it. This is the path that Jesus must go and the path that all who would seek association with him must also be prepared to embrace. The fact that the so recently exalted Peter had so much difficulty with it and even that Jesus had difficulty with it should be for us all a source of comfort. Christian discipleship is not Stoic indifference. Both Peter’s remonstrance and Jeremiah’s complaint will often echo in our hearts in the daily struggle to go with Jesus along the costly prophetic way.
St. Paul’s appeal in the Second Reading, Rom 12:1-2, is quite close to this. Our “bodies” in Pauline usage refers not simply to our physical bodies but to our whole pattern of bodily life, everything we do or say. To “offer (our) bodies” in this sense as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” entails a similar preparedness to discern and follow what is not the way of the world but the way of God.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media