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In Sunday’s Gospel (the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time) Peter makes a mistake that elicits Jesus’s harshest assessment of anyone in the Bible, and then some of his most iconic advice.
Both the correction and advice are meant not just for Peter, but for each of us.
Peter tragically misunderstands his relationship with Christ.
This Sunday’s Gospel follows last week’s, when Jesus told Peter “You are rock, and upon this rock I will build my church” and gave him the keys to the kingdom — making him the vicar of Christ, the first pope.
Next, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly,” says the Gospel, “and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Peter thought that was a terrible idea, and he “took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him,” writes Matthew. The verbs used for “took aside” and “rebuke” here are harsh. He practically manhandles Jesus away from the others to “correct” him.
“God forbid, Lord!” says Peter. “No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
In other words, Peter behaved the way we often do. We know what Jesus said. We think we know better and can rule out the cross as God’s chosen tool of redemption.
We do this whenever we think the rules don’t apply to us because we have a special relationship with God, and he couldn’t really want us to suffer. Surely, the precept “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church” doesn’t apply to this Friday, for me. Surely, Jesus doesn’t mean me when he demands radical commitment to the poor.
We don’t want to give our bodies to the Church’s teaching on sexuality and we don’t want to give our minds to the Church’s assessment of all four sins against God and man — we follow our own preferences in our understanding of sexuality, and we follow our own lights politically.
When we do that, we stop following Jesus and start blocking him instead. Like Satan does.
This is literally true in the Gospel. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny, and Peter is pulling him off the path to tell him not to go, to tell him there is a better way. This is what Satan did in the three temptations in the desert, trying to “correct” Jesus by convincing him that he can get what he wants by giving in to human weakness instead of challenging it.
Peter’s phrase “God forbid” in the original is much what it is in English — a common expression that probably came to his mind without a lot of forethought. But words have meaning, and Jesus takes it literally when he replies, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Jesus told the devil in the desert, “Begone, Satan!” What he says to Peter is different: “Get behind me, Satan!” He doesn’t banish Peter, but tells him to get where he belongs, and follow — with a cross of his own.
It is advice that Peter has heard before — when he reacted to Jesus in his boat by saying, “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man” — and it is advice he will need throughout his life, even in Rome when legend says Peter fled persecution only to return when Jesus passed by, carrying his cross toward the city.
Do not correct Jesus. We need to hear this advice again and again, also.
For us, the thought that it is possible to be a great Christian and maintain a comfortable life is very tempting, and we try to get away with it all the time — giving as little of ourselves to Jesus as possible while trying to give as much of of ourselves to the pleasures of the world as we can get away with.
But “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” Jesus says.
It is not possible to live a comfortable life and then die and go to heaven. Only a life of sacrifice leads to heaven. A life of cozy religiosity is really a life of self-serving pride. St. Paul and the prophet Jeremiah each show us what true faith looks like.
St. Paul points out in the Second Reading that our self-giving of both our bodies and our minds needs to be complete. “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,” he says, and, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
The prophet Jeremiah in the first reading understands the consequences of this self-sacrifice. He complains that “You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped.” He did as the Lord asked and preached a hard message, and the priest Pashuur “smote him” — scourged him or put him in the stocks, such that “All the day I am an object of laughter.”
But Jeremiah still sacrifices not just his body but also his mind: “I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.”
Both Paul and Jeremiah become living demonstrations of what Jesus says: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Ironically, this life of sacrifice is the only way to true happiness.
As St. John Vianney said, “I tell you that you have less to suffer in following the cross than in serving the world and its pleasures.”
To see how this works, think of your life from the position of your deathbed, and compare what losing your life to Christ and his teachings, or not, will look like.
In your 30s, childlessness may seem like a great idea. At your deathbed, though, what will take the place of a loving family?
Or, if children are out of the question, what looks better at your deathbed: The material gains of a life spent serving a multi-national corporation, or the spiritual gains of a life spent serving the materially or spiritually poor in your parish and community?
We grow up with big dreams for our lives. We want fame, wealth and adventure. What we find instead is humility, hardship and responsibility. Only later do we learn, like George Bailey, what a wonderful life that is, and how terrible the alternative is, no matter how materially successful it is.
For “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”