"FIRST IMPRESSIONS"

22nd SUNDAY (A) August 30, 2020

Jeremiah 20: 7-9; Psalm 63; Romans 12: 1-2; Matthew 16: 21-27

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Judging from the Jeremiah reading, rewards for a job well done don’t always hold for a prophet who fulfills his/her job description. Jeremiah, not one to hold back his feelings, speaks right up to God. "You duped me, O Lord." (The word for "duped" can also be translated, "seduced.") Either Jeremiah feels he walked right into a trap by responding to God’s invitation (1: 5-10) or, he feels that though he tried to resist the allure of God, he couldn’t. In either case, he is up to his neck in trouble. What was particularly hard for Jeremiah to swallow was that he wasn’t undergoing trials because he shirked his responsibilities. He is suffering precisely because he has been faithful to his calling. He has had a tough job to perform. Judah, under strong Egyptian domination, had adopted pagan cults from Mesopotamia and Canaan. The prophet had denounced this false worship and predicted the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. He spoke "violence and outrage" to his own people. Thus, he angered the political and religious leaders of his day and was beaten and jailed. His faithfulness to the message entrusted him by God, was the reason he was treated so harshly by his contemporaries.

It does not appear that Jesus’ disciples understood what they were getting into either, when they first accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow him. Today’s gospel passage reveals that he is getting clearer about his impending suffering. Like Jeremiah, Jesus will suffer for doing exactly what God wanted done. His rejection will come, not only at the hands of political opponents, but also by those religious leaders whose interpretation of God and God’s ways differed radically from Jesus’. Did the disciples realize what they were getting into when they said "Yes" to his invitation to follow him? They are learning that serving Jesus, responding to God’s call, even though this is a good thing to do, does not guarantee smooth sailing.

At first things went quite well for the disciples. Jesus had been the favorite of the crowds. He had attracted people by his miracles and fed the hungry with both spiritual and physical food. With all that success, we can’t blame the disciples for not being able to comprehend Jesus’ words at this moment. Peter says, in effect, "God forbid Lord, that you should have to undergo any suffering. Why should things turn bad when everything has been going so very well?" And don’t we too tend to measure whether we are doing the right thing by how well things turn out? We reason, if I am doing what God wants, then God will "bless" me. Or, if God is on my side, things will turn out well. Jeremiah and Jesus – what great prophetic voices they were! What dedication they had to their vocation, even in the midst of enormous religious and political opposition! Despite this opposition, they stayed the course, were faithful to their assigned tasks, right up to their martyrdoms.

We know contemporary people who have also spoken boldly, faced overwhelming opposition and even died for what they believed. God’s Spirit has not been blown out, but in our times continues to work powerful signs in chosen humans. Oscar Romero, Ita Ford and her martyred companions in El Salvador, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc. (I am writing this on the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe, martyr, his story is worth Googling.) But these greats seem so removed from our lives. We are, we would protest, just "ordinary Christians." Well, if we are listening to today’s readings, as present tense and addressed to us, then we "ordinary Christians" are also called to be "ordinary prophets." The call to follow Jesus and his way is addressed to us and with this call comes the enabling and still-active Spirit who helps us and keeps us faithful.

Do we have a choice, can we reject the invitation to be "ordinary prophets?" Of course we can. What is given to us today is an invitation, not a command. "Whoever wishes to come after me....Whoever wishes to save his/her life...." Jesus wants us to be fully aware of what we are taking on. But we won’t always feel the divine pat on the back for a job well done. Like Jeremiah and Jesus, we may just have to keep going, trusting the call we once heard. It is not that God isn’t the source of our call and our ongoing strength. It’s that we might not always feel it. God never abandoned Jeremiah and Jesus, but they didn’t always experience that presence, they had to keep speaking and acting, meeting severe opposition, all the time trusting in their call and God’s presence with them.

So, Jesus invites us into the same daily journey. If we aren’t prophets with a capital "P", then we are with a small "p" when, in following Christ, we:

-find ourselves at odds with our family’s fundamental choices and criteria or success

-refuse to practice unethical business behavior, even at the risk of our jobs

-choose forgiveness against voices telling us to be "realistic" and not naive

A pastor I know has decided that he will promote the Catholic church’s social teachings in the parish where he ministers. Even though he is a faithful pastor and is always there when parishioners need him, he is still meeting opposition and being accused of neglecting the parish. It seems many in his congregation are "not happy about the direction the parish is taking." It must be particularly difficult for him to meet opposition from people he loves as he tries to be faithful to his vocation. Kind of like being a modern Jeremiah. Or, like Jesus. The pastor must make a daily decision to deny himself and follow Jesus.

As we must in our own place and time.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:

https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/083020.cfm