In his rebuke of Peter in today’s Gospel, Jesus points out for us a contrast between two views – that of God and that of human beings. Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ prediction of his Passion is the example of a human point of view.
Just before this rebuke, Peter was on what we may call a spiritual high. His own Master had declared him blessed by the Father, had called him the “rock” on which he would build his Church, and had entrusted to him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven! (cf. Mt 16:17-19; last Sunday’s Gospel). Peter must have felt proud of receiving such favors from the Lord; he was on a roll.
But today, Jesus adds something Peter did not expect. “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed…” That his Master is to suffer does not sit well with Peter. How could it? Jesus has just acknowledged Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God! What that meant in Peter’s mind was not suffering and death. The expectation among the Jews like Peter in first century Palestine was that the Messiah would be a successful ruler like King David, defeating Israel’s enemies and uniting the Twelve Tribes as one powerful nation. Peter expects Jesus to fulfill these Messianic expectations and to reign in Jerusalem, like David, with power and glory. So, for Jesus to say that, instead of ruling in glory, he will suffer greatly is simply unacceptable to Peter. It is easy to see why, for our own natural reaction to any talk of suffering is likewise that it is unacceptable to us. However, God’s ways are not man’s ways! Jesus rebukes Peter – and us – for “thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
The prophet Jeremiah had a similar rude awakening. His vocation as a prophet had begun with abundant grace, as the Lord told him, “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” (Jer 1:5). But twenty chapters later – as we see in today’s first reading – Jeremiah finds himself complaining to the Lord. Assessing his situation based on human standards, he sees nothing but persecution and hardship all around. Is this what the Lord has in store for his own anointed prophet? “All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me…. the word of the Lord has brought me derision and reproach all the day.”
Jeremiah is tempted to give up. “I will speak in his name no more.” But this option leaves him deeply unsettled. He realizes that to refuse his vocation is not only to turn against God; it is also to turn against himself. As bad as it is to be persecuted for speaking in the name of the Lord, it would be even worse to try to hold back the “fire burning in [his] heart.” Jeremiah cannot endure the thought of it. Turning away from the will of God is a false remedy that appeals to human thinking; it can never give us inner peace.
To view ourselves and our situation from the perspective of God is also part of the message of St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans. In urging us to live according to the Gospel, Paul tells us: “Do not conform yourselves to this age.” That is, do not think only “as human beings do.” Rather, he exhorts us to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. This transformation through conversion is what will enable us to willingly offer ourselves as “a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.”
This is the very call Jesus describes for us in today’s Gospel. After revealing his own path to the Cross and Resurrection, he shows that the path of all who follow him, his disciples, is the same. He teaches us three fundamental elements of the path of discipleship. First: we must deny ourselves. The path of discipleship is a path of self-emptying or kenosis, the way of abandoning all our worldly attachments and standards. We are naturally inclined to choose pleasure instead of pain, convenience instead of service, and self-glorification instead of self-effacement. We must “deny” or counter these natural tendencies in order to be free to follow the Lord.
Second: we must take up our cross. Here the “cross” represents all the sufferings with which our life on earth is filled. The world’s promises that we can escape suffering are empty and false. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to bear our sufferings with grace, regarding the cross not with human thinking but with God’s thinking. To carry our cross with grace is to carry it with Jesus who is Grace Incarnate.
“And follow me” – this third element is only possible when we accept the first two, when we deny ourselves and take up our cross. Then we can follow him; we can do as Jesus does, and love as he loves. He has opened the way for radical self-emptying and redemptive suffering to bear abundant fruit, and he invites us to follow him on this path to glory. Aspirations for a worldly kingdom are obstacles to Jesus and obstacles to our participation in his work of saving us.
All these seemingly upside-down values and counter-intuitive proposals are certainly intimidating to us. We need to keep in mind that it is Jesus himself who is calling us, speaking to our inmost being. He is the One who chooses, blesses, and anoints us, just as he chose the prophet Jeremiah. He is the only One who can quench the thirst of our souls, as today’s Psalm tells us. We believe that the path of discipleship that Jesus sets out for us, while necessarily filled with suffering, leads to our joining in his glorious Resurrection. And so we plead to the Lord, using St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians in today’s Gospel Acclamation: “May the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ enlighten the eyes of our hearts, that we may know what is the hope that belongs to our call.”
What worldly attachments must I work on in order to deny myself? What are the crosses that God is inviting me to carry? How can I conform myself to Christ more and more?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.