Friday, August 26, 2011

The Cost of Discipleship: Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

If last Sunday’s Readings were a soft-ball pitch, a nice high arc to knock out of the park, this Sunday’s Readings are a wicked curve ball for the Catholic preacher.  Nonetheless, while these readings aren’t the “feel good” homiletical experience of last week’s, the truths are just as important and just as “Catholic.”

We begin with a troublesome passage from the prophet Jeremiah

Reading 1: Jeremiah 20:7-9
You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped (Heb. patah);
you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.
All the day I am an object of laughter;
everyone mocks me.

Whenever I speak, I must cry out,
violence and outrage is my message;
the word of the LORD has brought me
derision and reproach all the day.

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.

What does the prophet mean that the Lord “duped” him?  Does the Lord really deceive people?  Is the Lord unkind and manipulative even with his own servants?

The interpretation depends a great deal on how one translates the Hebrew word patah, which has a wide range of meanings, including “to deceive,” “to entice,” and “to seduce.”

Actually, there is a long Christian tradition which favors the sense “seduce.”  The Hebrew verb patah often does carry this connotation: Exod 22:16; Judg 14:15; 16:15; Hos 2:14; Job 31:9.  The Latin Vulgate renders Jer 20:7 this way: seduxisti me Domine et seductus sum.  In the Church’s spiritual tradition, this verse has often been cited to express the experience of the believer (especially the mystic) who finds him- or herself overcome with passion for God, even despite himself and contrary to his own apparent self-interest.  Those who have entered the contemplative life, for example, have spoken of themselves as “seduced” by the beauty of the Lord, such that they leave the life of the secular world to devote themselves to contemplation.  This past week I had a chance to watch “Into Great Silence,” a fascinating film about the life of Carthusian monks in the Grande Chartreuse, the Carthusian motherhouse in France.  This passage from Jeremiah was frequently shown on the screen to highlight the motif of the interior passion of the monks for God.

Nonetheless, what is Jeremiah saying ?  Does God really “deceive,” “entice,” “seduce” people?

Jeremiah does not speak as a systematic theologian, much less as a moral philosopher.

He speaks as a poet and a mystic, giving voice to his experiences in bold and even hyperbolic language.

Clearly he is passionate for LORD, the covenant God of Israel.  Yet his passion for the LORD leads to conflict with the world, with his nation, his city, his people, even himself.  The ways of the LORD are at odds with the ways of everyone around him, and the result is conflict and suffering.  The prophet would like to avoid this conflict, but cannot, because his passion for the LORD is to great to be suppressed: “it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.”  St. John of the Cross refers to several similar passages of Jeremiah (although not today’s reading specifically) in his masterful treatment of the interior suffering involved in the pursuit of God’s presence, The Dark Night of the Soul.

In the context of this Sunday’s Mass, the Church intends us to see Jeremiah’s words in a messianic sense.  Jeremiah was a type, image, and forerunner of the Messiah.  Jeremiah’s experiences strikingly prefigured the experiences of Jesus.  Both preached against Jerusalem and the Temple (Jer 7 & 11); both were persecuted by the High Priests (Jer 20:1-6); both were tried and imprisoned by a sympathetic but weak-willed civil magistrate (Jer 38:14-28); both descended into the pit and were raised up again (Jer 38:1-13).  In many ways, Jeremiah was God’s suffering servant; in fact, the argument has been made more than once that Isaiah was describing Jeremiah in his Suffering Servant Songs—most recently by Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber.  It is not accidental that in last weeks readings, the disciples tell Jesus that many think he, Jesus, is the prophet Jeremiah.

Like Jeremiah, Jesus is impassioned for the LORD, and his passion will lead to his Passion, as we seen in the Gospel Reading.

The Responsorial Psalm, David speaks of the pain he experiences because he desires God and the experience of God’s presence, and yet currently does not enjoy that experience.  The subtitle of the Psalm in the Hebrew text is “A psalm of David.  When he was in the desert of Judah.”  This may indicate that the psalm is meant to be understood as expressing David’s emotions while he was persecuted by Saul (e.g. 1 Sam 23:25-24:23):

Responsorial Psalm Ps 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
R. (2b) My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
O God, you are my God whom I seek;
for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts
like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
Thus have I gazed toward you in the sanctuary
to see your power and your glory,
For your kindness is a greater good than life;
my lips shall glorify you.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
Thus will I bless you while I live;
lifting up my hands, I will call upon your name.
As with the riches of a banquet shall my soul be satisfied,
and with exultant lips my mouth shall praise you.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
You are my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.
My soul clings fast to you;
your right hand upholds me.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.

We immediately recognize similarities between this psalm and the famous Psalm 42: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.”  This is not about physical thirst but about desire for God’s Spirit: “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst” (John 4:14).  The Spirit is communicated through the waters of Baptism but also in the Body and Blood of the Eucharist: “As with the riches of a banquet shall my soul be satisfied.”  Unlike the Jeremiah reading, this Psalm expresses hope.  The suffering of the one who loves the Lord is temporary.  There will be joy, satisfaction, and embrace.  In the context of Mass, this Psalm serves to whet our appetite for the nuptial banquet we are about to receive.

The Second Reading follows our lectio continua of Romans and therefore was not chosen specifically to correspond with the themes of the First Reading and Gospel.  Nonetheless, in God’s providence, there are important connections:

Reading 2 Rom 12:1-2
I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God,
to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.
Do not conform yourselves to this age
but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,
that you may discern what is the will of God,
what is good and pleasing and perfect.

St. Paul employs priestly terminology here in his exhortation “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.”  His words reflect the belief that in the Church, every believer has come to share in Christ’s priesthood.  We have become the priestly people that God intended for Israel at Sinai, before God’s plans were derailed by the idolatry of the Golden Calf (see Exod 19:5-6; 1 Peter 2:9).  We are not necessarily ministerial priests whose vocation is specifically to preside at the liturgy.  Nonetheless, we are true priests, and our sacrifice, like Jesus’, is our very lives, our very selves (our “bodies” in St. Paul’s terminology).  St. Paul’s urging to give our very lives coincides well with Our Lord’s exhortation in the Gospel Reading:

Gospel Mt 16:21-27
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 and on the third day be raised.
Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him,
"God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you."
He turned and said to Peter,
"Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."

Then Jesus said to his disciples,
"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 will find it.
What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world
and forfeit his life"
Or what can one give in exchange for his life?
For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father's glory,
and then he will repay all according to his conduct."

The contrast between the glorious things spoken to Peter in last Sunday’s Gospel and the sharp rebuke of Peter in this Gospel could hardly be more pronounced.  It is quite intentional on the part of the evangelist, who wants us to observe, almost simultaneously, the divine promises given to Peter and Peter’s human weakness.

The contrast between divine guidance and human weakness is the theme of the history of the Papacy.  Catholics hold that the Pope is infallible in his teaching, not impeccable in his behavior.  The distinction is often lost on non-Catholics, who understand us to believe the Pope is sinless.  Obviously, the Popes have not been sinless, and a few well-chosen historical examples quickly demonstrate the fact.

But we do not hold that the Pope is sinless.  Nor that he always teaches in the best way, or says exactly the right thing at the right time.  Papal infallibility is much weaker than some understand it.  It simply the belief that the Pope is protected from error in his solemn or official teaching.

In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus did not say to Peter: “You will never again sin.”  He said: “What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  We mentioned that “bind and loose” were terms referring to the authority to judge halakhah, the application of divine law to real life circumstances.  The sphere of halakhah is roughly what we Catholics call “faith and morals.”  In the Greek of this passage, Jesus uses future perfect formation.  Literally, “What you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; what you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.”  In other words, it’s not so much that Peter’s decisions change heavenly policy, it is that the policy of heaven will be reflected in Peter’s teachings.

In today’s passage, Peter is not making a decision about halakhah for God’s people.  In fact, the Spirit has not even been poured out yet, and Peter has not formally assumed his role as royal steward, even as Jesus has not yet ascended to the right hand of the Father (see John 20:17; Acts 2:33).  Peter does not give a solemn teaching, he gives an emotional reaction to a hard teaching of Jesus, and Jesus rebukes him sharply. Peter's reaction is wrong. Suffering and death will happen to Jesus.  In fact, almost identical suffering and death is going to happen to Peter himself (John 21:18).  All followers of Christ must be ready to follow Christ to death, including and especially the successor of Peter.  In point of fact, many--probably most--of Peter’s early successors shared his in martyrdom.

This Gospel Reading includes one of the most succinct and challenging formulations of the “Good News” uttered by Jesus during his earthly ministry:

Then Jesus said to his disciples,
"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 will find it.

This is the same Good News that Jesus has been preaching since the beginning of Matthew, where he blessed the poor, the hungry and thirsty, the meek, the persecuted at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.  The poor of the beatitudes are those who have given up their own lives and taken up the cross of Christ.  The call of Christ is so in conflict with the “American Dream” lifestyle most of us in the pews are trying to live.  Maybe the inevitable economic collapse the experts keep predicting will actually help us rediscover what is important in life and what the Gospel is actually about.


Bob MacDonald said...

hmm 2 days later and no comments here. I wrote this comment 2 days ago on the first part of this post of yours.

I like this post and I hope these are our readings as well this morning. I have been particularly struck in the Psalms by the opening of Psalm 18 and the unique expression of the elect for God. Psalm 18:2 I am passionate about you יְהוָה my courage.

The opening three verses are so full of joy. The poet in the name of the king is passionate about יְהוָה. The word is not love but a word derived from the womb רחם (rxm), an intensity of love, a passion. This is more than a superficial zeal (well used in Jeremiah also). It is the only time in the psalms (perhaps even in TNK) that it is used of human love for God. It is used three times (psalms 102, 103, 116) for God's tenderness towards the human. This psalm is paralleled with minor variations in 2 Samuel 22, but that first sentence is missing in Samuel. The most famous passage using this word is from Exodus 34:6 where יְהוָה is proclaimed as a God compassionate and gracious.

John Bergsma said...

Bob: are you following the revised common lectionary at your church?

John Bergsma said...

And, thanks for the notes on rxm--beautiful insights.

Bob MacDonald said...

We have some overlap - I thought it was RCL but today we had Exodus 3 and bits of psalm 105. It was an interim preacher - I bet he dusted off an old sermon :). I went and taught Sunday school so missed half the sermon - but delighted in teaching and hearing a 10 year old singing the Shema for the first time along with the rest of the class. This year one of the young adults is singing in tune with me in the baritone register, his voice just having settled over the summer.

John Bergsma said...

Good stuff!