Fr Martin OSB | 30 Aug 2020
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) 2020
In last Sunday’s Gospel, we heard Jesus ask the disciples who did they think he was. The fisherman then known as Simon stepped up and made the astonishing declaration: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. Jesus praised him and God’s work in him, for his inspired and beautiful – and correct – answer. He called him by a different name: ‘Peter’, meaning ‘Rock’. He renamed him as the strong, solid and lasting foundation on which the Church would be built.
Today’s Gospel picks up exactly where we left off last week. Having confirmed the truth of who Simon-Peter said he was, and warned them not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah, Jesus began to prepare his disciples for what was to come, trying to teach them uncomfortable truths – that he was to journey to Jerusalem, where he would suffer and be put to death. Once again, ‘the artist-formerly-known-as-Simon’ comes forward with a bold declaration, and once again Jesus responds by calling him by a new name. Hearing the one he proclaimed to be ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ foretelling his own Passion and death, Peter declares: ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you’. It is an understandable reaction. He had just declared his faith and trust in God’s Anointed One. The thought of the Son of God, the earthly revelation of the Source of all life and power, being persecuted and killed – by anyone, let alone ‘at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes’ – is shocking. For Peter, to cite a phrase from Irish political history, it must have been a GUBU moment: Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unprecedented.
But he got it wrong… And the same Jesus who named him ‘Rock’ in last week’s Gospel, called him something quite different in today’s: ‘Get behind me, Satan!’, he said. Imagine being called ‘Satan’ by Jesus… And that wasn’t all. Mixing his geological metaphors, having described Simon as a foundation stone last week, Jesus calls him a different kind of stone in today’s Gospel – a ‘stumbling block’ – an impediment, an obstruction… something that prevents Jesus from doing what he is called to do: a scandal.
Poor Peter – Rock and foundation one minute, stumbling block and scandal the next. That can be your story and my story too. We can believe, profess or say good things a lot of the time, or even most of the time. We can act with justice and integrity and with great generosity a lot of the time, or even most of the time. But sometimes, we get it wrong. Truth can seem a little too challenging betimes. We can find that the Gospel sometimes asks a bit more of us than we are able or willing to give. Our intentions may be good overall. It’s not that we don’t want to do the right thing or that we deliberately choose evil. But sometimes, we relativize and rationalise things and decide that the wrong decision isn’t all that wrong really and persuade ourselves that it’s okay. We forgive ourselves in advance. We have little arguments with ourselves and wrestle with our consciences… and always win….
‘Ah, I’m not really gossiping; I’m only sharing a bit of news with trusted friends’… ‘Of course I’m not bullying that colleague; sure I’m only having a bit of a laugh’… ‘God knows how difficult my marriage is; he won’t judge me for seeking a bit of comfort elsewhere now and again’… ‘I work really hard most of the time; there’s no harm in calling in sick occasionally when I want a rest; the company gets more value out of me than they pay me for anyway’…. ‘I’m always there for other people, helping them and supporting them in their troubles, but there’s never anyone there for me; I’ve every right to feel bitter and angry’… ‘I don’t pray very much, but I’m a good person’… ‘Everyone knows how good a driver I am and there’s never a Garda on this stretch of road; what’s the harm in me exceeding the limit?’… ‘I know that I’m not always honest about money, but I do a lot of good for people apart from that, and that must count for something’… ‘Sure God doesn’t expect me to be perfect and he knows my heart. I’m sure he will forgive me’…
And so on and so on. Compromises both small and great. For Peter in today’s Gospel, the truth of Jesus’s destiny was too awful to contemplate, so he denied it. ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ Just as the devil tempted him in the wilderness, so Peter is seeking to persuade Jesus to avoid his destiny, to use his divine power for his own advantage, in a self-interested way. This was not what the very human Jesus needed to hear as he was contemplating what lay ahead of him. No wonder his response was harsh.
There is absolutely no doubting that God does indeed understand the various difficulties we each experience. There is absolutely no doubting that God will forgive all our sins, both great and small, if we are sorry and ask his forgiveness. If that were not true, God would not be God. Trust in God’s mercy is a virtue, and a tool for the good work of Christian living. But here’s the catch: the fact that God is rich in mercy does not give us a free pass to avoid truth, reality and the challenges of doing the right thing.
When we make excuses for ourselves and relativize things to avoid facing up to the reality of our lives and actions, we are doing like Peter. We are, as Jesus told Peter, ‘setting [our] mind not on divine things but on human things’. So that he doesn’t say the same things to us as he said to Peter, maybe we, like Jesus, need to tell the Evil One in no uncertain terms, where exactly he can go for himself.
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ Sometimes, the Gospel asks a heck of a lot of us. That royal road along which the Lord Jesus calls us to follow him is a hard road. It leads to Calvary. But it also extends beyond Calvary. To the empty tomb and to glory.