|Words from Fr. Frank Cordaro|
Sept 1, 2002
Twenty-second Sunday Ordinary Time 2002
Jer 20: 7-9, Rom 12: 1-2, Mt 16: 21-27
What does it mean to do God’s Will? For those who believe in a ‘no-risk’ Christianity, this is a no-brainer. You first must follow the laws and customs of your nation. Then your religion is a personal thing between you and God. Morality is an individual thing. If you follow the clearly marked rules for moral behavior, you’ll do God’s will and be a good citizen, too. In this week’s lectionary text, we discover doing God’s Will is anything but being a good citizen and taking risk is what being a disciple of Jesus is all about.
Jeremiah 20:7-9 YOU DUPED ME, O LORD, AND I LET MYSELF BE DUPED:
In jail, we have a word for guys like the Jeremiah in this week’s first reading, "whiners" - complain, complain, complain. And, yet if I were in Jeremiah’s place, I’ not sure I wouldn’t cry all the more. In many ways, Jeremiah’s laments are mine. In a small measure, I can say I know Jeremiah’s pain.
Jeremiah had the unfortunate prophetic task to announce to the people of Jerusalem the end of their kingdom, the fall of their city, the destruction of their temple. It was not a popular message. He was not a popular guy. To his fellow Jews, Jeremiah’s message was treasonist, tainted with blasphemy. For his efforts, he was ill treated, shunned, arrested, thrown into a dried-up muddy well, and left to die. He was mercifully released into the custody of an Egyptian, ordered to leave Jerusalem on the last caravan out of the city before the Babylonians took the city. Tradition has it he died a broken and lonely man in Egypt.
One of the unique aspects of the book of Jeremiah are the six segments called the "Confessions of Jeremiah" in which the prophet opens up his heart, complains and argues with God about the suffering he has to endure for the sake of the message God gave him to proclaim. I recommend the six confessions as good background reading for this week’s lectionary studies. They are found in Jeremiah 11:18-12:5, 15:10-15, 17:14-18, 18:18-23, 20:7-13, 20:14-18.
This week’s text comes from the fifth Confession. Jeremiah believes that God has tricked him and that he let himself be duped. He complains that his whole life is a focus of communal laughter and mockery. The message God has given him to proclaim is filled with violence and outrage. It’s a bad message and it does the messenger no good.
Jeremiah tells himself who needs this? Let God find some other sucker to proclaim his words. Whenever Jeremiah decides he is going to get out of the prophecy business, he tells himself he is going to just shut up, end his personal misery, stay out of the public eye, be just another private citizen going about his everyday concerns. But then the Word of God "becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I can’t endure it". He must go back into the public arena. He must seek out the religious and political leaders of Jerusalem and every citizen he can reach and tell them what God has commissioned him to say, no matter the consequences. For Jeremiah the suffering and anguish he endured by not proclaiming God’s Word outweighed the suffering and anguish that came with his proclaiming God’s unpopular message. It’s part of what I call the prophetic dilemma.
ROMANS 12:1-2 "OFFER YOUR BODIES -- DO NOT CONFORM YOURSELVES TO THIS AGE BUT BE TRANSFORMED THAT YOU MAY DISCERN WHAT IS THE WILL OF GOD".
In this week’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, he says a lot in two verses, laying out the core theme for this week’s Gospel. Paul tells us we must be willing to offer up our whole lives, our persons and bodies to the Ways of God. Not by following worldly ways but by being transformed of mind to discern God’s will. Paul makes two important points: 1) The will of God cannot be found by following the wisdom of the world, 2) The price for discovering God’s will is our lives, our bodies, souls and spirits. It’s an all or nothing proposition.
MATTHEW 16:21-27 JESUS BEGAN TO SHOW HIS DISCIPLES THAT HE MUST GO TO JERUSALEM AND SUFFER--AND BE KILLED:
This week’s Gospel text is the second half of a two-part segment in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) that serves as a dramatic turning point in the narratives. Last week’s Gospel text was the first half of this segment.
In last week’s Gospel, Jesus stops his miracle-working, mass-feeding, walking-on-water road show and asks his disciples who do they think he is? Peter gives the correct answer: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’. Jesus rewards Peter for his correct and divinely inspired answer by blessing him, renaming him and commissioning him (along with the rest of the disciples) to lead his Church.
In this week’s Gospel text, which immediately follows last week’s text, Jesus begins to explain what his being the Christ (God’s agent) and God’s Son (God’s intimate) is really all about. Jesus begins this reality lesson with giving the first of three predictions of his suffering and death in Jerusalem. The good times of the Galilean Ministry were coming to a close. From now on, Jesus and his disciples turn their attention towards Jerusalem and the final confrontation.
In this week’s first prediction, Jesus names his persecutors: the elders, chief priests and the scribes. The elders are the rich and powerful established families in Jerusalem. The chief priests are the ruling temple clerics including the High Priest. The Scribes are the learned teachers and interpreters of the Law - both secular and religious. There was no separation between secular and religious laws. All three groups made up the religious, political, and economic establishment of Jerusalem. As members of the ruling elite and allies with Rome, they were committed to the protection of the current hierarchical unjust social structures.
Jesus also tells his disciples that after he is put to death, three days later he will be raised. This comment seems to be lost on everyone in the narrative. Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about his rising in three days. By the way the disciples are portrayed in the story, they don’t seem to care about the rising in three days comment anyway. They have more than they can handle dealing with Jesus’ shocking prediction of his death. Put yourself into the disciples’ shoes. Here you are a follower of Jesus, the great miracle worker of Galilee. He cures the sick and expels demons. He can feed thousands with nothing more than a few fish and a few loaves of bread. The man can walk on water and control the weather! He claims a connection with God the Jewish people have not seen since the days of Moses and King David. He speaks and teaches with authority, exposing the legitimate, yet corrupt, religious leaders of his day. Just moments before this bad news, Peter, your spokesperson, proclaimed what you believed privately that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. The person every true Hebrew was looking for to come and save the Jewish nation, to set people right with God and help kick the dreaded Romans out of their country. And Jesus affirmed Peter’s claim!
At that point of the story, being a disciple of Jesus was the best thing that could happen to these common, poor Jewish men and women. They were on the ground floor of a whole new and improved Jewish nation, each one of them looking at a cabinet level, department head position in Jesus’ new world order. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God.
Then Jesus tells them that there’s not going to be any victory and glory ahead, at least any kind of victory or glory that they understand. Instead, Jesus tells them he is heading for Jerusalem to face his own suffering and death at the hands of the leaders of the nation. As a disciple, you have to be asking yourself what kind of Christ is this? What kind of Son of God will let something like happen to him?
Peter, the designated spokesperson for the disciples, takes the initiative. Riding on his newfound infallibility, he takes Jesus aside to talk some sense to him, "God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you". Jesus would have none of it. He turns toward the disciples and says to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do". So much for Peter’s infallibility.
For the disciples, things went from bad to worse. Jesus then tells them that if they are going to be his followers, they too have to give up their lives, take up their crosses and follow in his footsteps. How bad can it get? Not only is Jesus heading for a disgraceful, humiliating, god-awful death on a cross, he expects his disciples to suffer the same horrible fate.
Then Jesus gives some "Zen-like" sayings that frankly don’t make any sense at all. He tells them to save their lives they must be willing to lose it. He asks them where is the profit in gaining the whole world yet forfeiting their lives? And what can they exchange for their lives? Jesus closes this week’s Gospel text speaking of Daniel’s figure of the Son of Man as an eschatological judge, the one who will judge the world at the end of time (Daniel 7:13-14).
At this time in the story, if I were a disciple, I’d be waiting for nightfall to sneak away while everyone was asleep; head back to my hometown, and pretend I never heard of Jesus.
TALKING POINTS: THE CHRIST = THE SUFFERING SERVANT:
The combination of Peter’s Profession of Faith and Jesus’ first prediction of his suffering and death in Jerusalem connects two very powerful and important images. When combined, they reveal the radical core meaning of who Jesus is and whom his Church is supposed to be following. The theological idea of combining the Christ, the Son of God to the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah in the person of Jesus literally redefines the meaning of power, glory, truth, winning and losing, life and death. It gives a whole new understanding of what God looks like in human history, how divine love, forgiveness and justice are put into practice.
By claiming Jesus, the Christ and the Son of God, Matthew attributes to Jesus the divine character of God’s personal agent in human history. The God who is both the all-powerful creator of the universe and the God who has an ongoing history and relationship with the Jewish people, the God who has shown a clear bias for the poor and for justice is as close to Jesus as a father to a son.
By claiming Jesus to be the Suffering Servant Matthew redefines how God’s power and will is exercised in human history. Not by force or violent judgement but by redemptive suffering, self-sacrificing justice, and seeking love.
In this week’s Gospel, we are given an insight on how God is going to redeem and restore our fallen world, how God will bring justice to the oppressed, right all wrongs, defend the poor, forgive the sinner and win the cosmic battle between Good and Evil. Active non-violent resistance through his Son, Jesus, and the followers of Jesus will do it. An army for the Kingdom of God, who are willing to die to see God’s reign made known but never kill, an army whose weapons consist of unconditional love and unlimited forgiveness. People whose compassion for the poor and passion for justice knows no bounds.
In this way, the pithy Zen-like statement that Jesus made at the end of this week's Gospel takes on a whole new and real meaning. When Jesus says Îcross' he is talking about the violent means of repression and force that will be used against those who live their lives and act up as he did for the truth. When Jesus says you must be willing to lose your life to gain it, he's talking about life-taking risk for the sake of Kingdom values in the face of death wheeling Powers and Principalities. When Jesus talks about gaining the whole world at the risk of losing our real lives, he's talking about pursuing the good life, the worldly self-centered secure lives of our First World societies, unconcerned, unaware, unsympathetic for the poor, for non-family members, for non-Christians, for non-North Americans, especially our enemies. Today that means Iraqis, Iranians, Palestinians, North Koreans, Libyans, Muslim Fundamentalists and all those who hate us, including the so-called terrorists. This is how radical the Jesus movement is supposed to be. They way of Jesus was never meant to be popular, nor easy, nor practical to embrace.
REDEMPTIVE SUFFERING VS REDEMPTIVE VIOLENCE:
Somewhere in our history, we Christians flip-flopped on our understanding about violence and killing. I figure the change happened sometime between the Roman Emperor Constantine and the Theologian Saint Augustine, a good 17 centuries ago. Regardless of where you pinpoint the shift historically, somewhere along the line the clear and direct message of non-violent resistance, to seek justice and right wrongs through non-violent means, the willingness to die for the right, but never kill, of the New Testament was replaced. Jesus' living Easter example of redemptive suffering was replaced by something like redemptive violence. It's called the ¸lesser of two evils· way of seeing the world. It reasons sometimes to protect the innocent and in self-defense and only when there are no other alternatives, a Christian may kill for the greater good. And as soon as this happened, we spiritualized and separated Jesus' suffering and death on the cross from the real world of wars, socio-economic and political struggles, giving the State license to kill. If the Church did pick a side, it was mostly the side of the State, the rich and powerful for the status quo. And we Christians have taken to killing our fellow human beings like it was a direct command from God, a Holy Crusade we refuse to lose. So much so, that at the close of the 20th Century, the most war-torn bloody killingest century the world has ever known, we Christians find ourselves the best killers in the world. We kill each other very well and we kill others even better. This switch from redemptive suffering to redemptive violence is the greatest scandal of our Faith. It diminishes, corrupts, and retards our belief in Jesus. Given that the human family's violent ways now pose a real threat to the life forces of the entire planet, the most precious gift we Christians can give to the human family at this critical life and death moment is to rediscover and fully embrace the non-violent resistance spirit of Jesus. It may well be what our fragile world needs to help save the planet, not to mention bring us back in-sync with our founder, Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jeremiah, Me and the Bomb: A wise and learned spiritual director once told me many years ago, ¸Frank, you can't have it both ways. You can't go around saying and doing the things you do, speaking and acting against the Bomb, the Government and the Church and expect people to like you for it.· Like anyone else, I want to be liked, affirmed, and appreciated for who I am and what I do. But that doesn't always happen, especially if you take upon yourself the prophetic edge of the Gospel. I have learned this difficult lesson over the years. I have also learned that if I were to stop speaking out and resisting the Bomb, militarism and the socio-economic and political injustices I see around me, something vital inside me dies. The moral compass upon which I measure my life goes haywire. It gets to the point that I cannot Înot speak' out or risk spiritual death. Before I crossed the line at Offutt last August, I promised Bishop Charron that if I got the six month sentence we expected, I would give the diocese a full two years of priestly ministry before I risked going back to jail again. It's part of the compromise we've worked out together. It's a fair deal, like all good compromises, each of us had to give up something. Still, two years in our world today is a very long time. With the troubles in the Middle East, US military escalation in Columbia, South America, the conflict between Pakistan and India and the so-called War on Terrorism, a lot of god-awful things might happen, demanding a response, an outcry, a call to resistance. 'But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.' (Jeremiah 20:9)