Twenty-fourth Sunday (Year B)
(Isaiah 50:5-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35)
We heard in the first reading a prophecy of Isaiah concerning the Suffering Servant, the coming Messiah and leader who would deliver Israel from her bondage to sin. He is called Servant because He would be totally obedient to the Lord, the God of Israel and totally devoted to His people; He is the Suffering Servant because it would be by His human sufferings -- pictured so graphically for us by the words of the prophet -- that He would fulfil God’s plans and purposes for His Chosen People, not by any divinely-gifted triumphs of military prowess. Moreover, those sufferings would come His way as part of God’s will for Him -- not by sheer bad luck or as chance manifestations or results of human wickedness -- and for that reason, the Suffering Servant would be remarkable by His constant listening for and to God in order to know His will and walk His way in total and unfailing obedience:
The Lord GOD opens My ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back.
Now, those words of Isaiah characterize Jesus perfectly; for, having come on earth to do His Father’s will, throughout His life Jesus’ constant aim was to look for, listen to, understand, obey, and glorify His Father.
Early on in His public ministry He said to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well:
You worship what you do not know, we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22);
and to Jews asking what work of God they should be doing He replied (John 6:29):
This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.
Approaching His end He declared in prayer:
This is eternal life, that they should know You the only true God and the one whom You sent, Jesus Christ. (John 17:3)
Father, the world does not know You, but I know You and (these My disciples) know that You sent Me. I made known Your name to them and will make it known. (John 17:25-26)
Indeed, His final and supreme prayer was that His own death would serve for the ultimate glorification of His Father:
Jesus lifted up His eyes to heaven, said, "Father, the hour has come. Give glory to Your Son, that the Son may glorify You. (John 17:1)
And so, in order exercise and develop that faith of which St. James spoke so urgently in our second reading, the faith which Our Blessed Lord so exactly defined as bestowing eternal life – ‘that they should know You the only true God and the one whom You sent, Jesus Christ’ -- we, as true disciples of Jesus must, always and ever more diligently, seek to hear, recognize, and respond to, every manifestation of the word of God in our lives as individual persons and catholic disciples. Faith is not something we are born with, it is a gift from God that we make our own by corresponding, with love and humility, to the initiative of the God Who lovingly chooses to address us through His word proclaimed by Mother Church, and in the silent, peaceful, depths of our Christian conscience experiencing life in an alien world.
In the Gospel reading we were told that:
Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ.”
Peter had, St. Matthew tells us, already shown himself to be a model for us, in that, having received and given credence to the Father’s grace in the depths of his heart, in accordance with those words of Jesus:
I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father (John 6:65);
he had, upon hearing the personal call of Jesus by the Sea of Galilee, immediately left his nets and, along with Andrew his brother, followed after Jesus, thus becoming the first disciple of the looked-for-Prophet.
And so also, in our Gospel reading today, being this time uniquely privileged by the Father, and deeply stirred by Jesus’ question ‘Who do you say that I am?, he proved himself the perfect example for us by unhesitatingly recognizing and immediately confessing Jesus as Israel’s long-awaited-Messiah, with the words:
You are the Christ.
And yet, although there can be no doubting Peter’s loving commitment to Jesus, he had not learnt thus far to distinguish sufficiently between the Father’s revelation and his own intense and emotional feelings, for when, on this supremely significant occasion, Jesus began to speak openly and clearly about His own forthcoming Passion, Death, and Resurrection, Peter, perhaps mistaking the strength of his emotions for love-inspired wisdom or a presumption of authority:
Took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him.
I would rather have said that he went aside to join Jesus, but in fact the gospel says that he took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him! Whatever his reasons or intentions, whatever his love or admiration, he completely overstepped the boundary between master and disciple and so:
Jesus turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
What a put-down!! However, lest we think that Jesus’ response was stirred with irritation, annoyance, at Peter’s effrontery, notice what the St. Mark tells us:
Jesus turned around and looked at His disciples
before publicly speaking those words of rebuke to Peter.
Up to that moment what had occurred between Jesus and Peter had taken place in private and it could have remained like that; Jesus could have rebuked Peter, in turn, just between the two of them. However, St. Mark clearly tells us that it was the sight of His disciples that decided Jesus to bring everything out into the open, it was an issue so supremely important for all of them, as it is, indeed, for all of us.
Peter was, at that moment, not able to appreciate that for Jesus, God His Father was in loving command over, and in total control of, every aspect of His life; and also that, such was Jesus’ love, every single aspect of His Father’s Person, word, and will evoked a response of total, like-loving, commitment from Jesus: there was nothing that God could ask of His Son that His Son would not embrace, even to the extent of His Passion and Death on the Cross. Peter’s anxious fear was totally alien to Jesus.
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom do I fear? The LORD is my life’s refuge; of whom am I afraid? When evildoers come at me to devour my flesh, these, my enemies and foes, themselves stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart does not fear; though war be waged against me, even then do I trust. (Psalm 27:1-3)
See how vehemently Jesus rejected Peter’s blind emotionalism: ‘Get behind Me, Satan!’ For Peter, mixed-up and uncomprehending, was actually carrying on, taking over, where Satan in the desert had temporarily stopped: trying to persuade Jesus to seek His own human ends, His own self, rather than follow His Father’s way, do His Father’s divine will.
Then Jesus called not only His disciples to Himself, but also, we are told, the whole crowd of ordinary people who were following Him at that time, because the Church He would build upon Peter, and every single member of it, would have to believe totally and unswervingly that Jesus, the Head of His Body, the Church, was, had always been, and to all eternity would be, one -- totally and completely -- with the Father. Notice: not only those already fully committed to Jesus, not only those seeking to learn more and more about Him and His Good News, but also those ordinary people who were just seeing Him and hearing of that Good News for the first time, all had to appreciate this absolutely fundamental truth about Jesus’ relationship with His Father and commitment to His plan for our salvation:
I and the Father are one. (John 10:30)
Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
Whoever, that is, having heard the Father’s call and come to Me, must realize that, as My disciple, he must follow Me and, in his turn, acknowledge that the Father wills to be -- by the Spirit -- in total control of his life too, and that he, consequently, should trustingly follow the Father’s call wherever it might lead: ‘Whoever wishes to save his life’ -- fearing, that is, that the Father is not willing or not able to do so, perhaps, cannot be trusted to do so -- ‘will lose it’.
One of the iconic pictures celebrating real or imaginary modern advances in social awareness and personal responsibility is that of a young person looking forwards and upwards -- that is, to an ideally bright and better future -- with the words ‘I want to do something worth-while with my life’ on his or her lips. Regretfully, the life in question is almost always a life offered to such young people by the world, the society, in which they live, and consequently a life to be judged according to its correspondence with the world’s common aspirations such as success, popularity, singular achievement, charismatic ability to attract or to astonish people, talent, shrewdness, ruthlessness, endurance, fighting-spirit, and so on, and all of them are to be foisted onto, attached to an individual ego striving to prove itself in so many and varied aspects and avenues of life before the admiring gaze of the world around.
For us Christians and Catholics, however, that is not the life to which we are called:
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Our life is not ours to possess; it has not somehow come to ‘down’ to us from nowhere and with no strings attached, leaving us totally free to do with it, make of it, whatever we will. It has been bought for us by the Blood of Christ, given as a great treasure to each of us, known and loved uniquely, by the God Who made us; it is indeed centred on the heavenly Father and the heavenly home prepared for us; it is to be lived in the company of Jesus, our Saviour, the Glory of and supreme Model for our humanity, He Who is the ‘way’ for all our endeavours here on earth; it is imbued and sustained with the power of His Spirit, our abiding hope and confidence, our strength in trials, our peace through tribulation, and the deep, deep joy of our fulfilment; and on earth it is to be lived and celebrated together with all men and women of good will with whom we aspire to work for the glory of God and the salvation of mankind.
Today Catholics and Christians generally make great efforts to speak with, respond to, the world around us; we are so anxious, too anxious at times, to be able to reply to the latest philosophical ideas or scientific claims, that we tend to discuss on the world’s terms, using the world’s definitions and assumptions, and so are in great danger of failing to understand aright with Peter in today’s Gospel. Jesus’ words to him should never leave our awareness and indeed our conscience since they are essential for our right apprehension and true appreciation of the beauty and fullness of God’s gift of life:
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”