Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
22nd Sunday - Year A

August 31, 2008

Readings: Jer 20:7-9 / Rom 12:1-2 / Mt 16:21-27

The language of today’s liturgy could be a little too graphic and straightforward for comfort. There is a whole lot of passion and emotion jutting out of every line, particularly in the first and third readings. The choice of words, particularly of Jeremiah, evokes the idea of paradox – two seemingly contradictory things put side by side and still capable of putting forth a meaning that goes beyond both elements of the paradox. Jeremiah’s words remind me of what we do when things do not go our way: we complain profusely. We cry out in protest. We make noise and we clamor for redress. Jeremiah’s language today is definitely one of complaint – and I have it on the authority of those who know Hebrew – rather coarse and brash. “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the day, I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me.” (I was told the better translation has to do with some kind of forceful seduction!) But on the flip side, we are also face to face with a Jeremiah who not only complains, but actually capitulates. “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.” The first reading shows us a man torn between recrimination and resignation. He had strong words for the Lord who seduced him. He had an axe to grind with the Lord who called him to do what he did not originally want to do. He was very literally arguing with God. He showed the two sides of complaint and recrimination, on the one hand; and capitulation and resignation, on the other.

The second reading is another study in paradox, too. On the one hand, Paul speaks of self-offering and surrender; but on the other, he also counsels against being co-opted by the culture of this world, and of this age. At one and the same time, Paul expects his readers to let go, to offer oneself and surrender oneself to the Lord, but he also asks them to stand pat on one’s value systems, and not to be carried away by the ways of this age. Surrender and self-offering on the one hand; severance and distancing of oneself from the prevailing culture, on the other.

But by far, the most intriguing is what the Gospel reports to us today. What a contrast! What a paradox is contained herein! Just last week, Peter was given pretty high ratings. On top of the high marks and excellent rating, he was called petros, (rock), the ground of stability on which Jesus was to build his Church. But today, the petros (rock of stability) has, by an unexpected turn of events, become skandalon (tripping stone, no less). Jesus even calls Peter Satan, and was ordered to get off Jesus’ back., and refrain from testing him. This happened after Peter tried to remonstrate with Jesus, again using language that smacks of argumentation: “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.”

This is a day of remonstrations, protests, complaints and argumentation. But this is also a day of capitulation, of self-surrender, resignation and conformism. Aren’t these two sides of what human beings like us are all too familiar with and capable of? Isn’t this one more example of the “dynamic tension” that we all, as human beings, find ourselves in and, which we need to integrate? Are not these paradoxical – if, contradictory - feelings and experiences part and parcel of our experience as human beings?

I see in all this a picture of who we are and what we are like as human beings. We are often torn between two opposing poles that both claim our allegiance. We often find ourselves between two choices that we both prize and value. And sometimes the choice is not that easy to make.

As one who has been working for vocation development for well over 15 years, as spiritual director and co-discerner to young men who aspired at some point to become religious and priests, I have come across similar cases so many times. As a co-discerner, I ought not to make decisions for my directees. All I could do is to help them, give them guide posts along the way, show them the bigger picture, as it were; or show them certain potential consequences of their choices in the most realistic and objective manner. But there is a point beyond which I cannot go. That point is theirs and theirs alone to traverse – the moment of coming up to a definitive decision, which I cannot do for them. There were surely moments that were agonizing for both the candidate and me (possibly more for me, who have invested so much time, psychic energy and effort to develop the prospective candidate). It was so easy to “paternalize,” be directive, and tell them point blank what I feel is God’s will for them. But alas, things do not work that way! I do not have a hotline to God and I can only give them directions based on what they tell me, or what I externally observe in them. Basically, what I am saying is, in such matters as one’s personal response to the Lord, it is every man’s personal territory. Each man has to find out for himself (always with external help and guidance, of course) what is God’s will for him. Assuredly, there are moments very much like the experience that Jeremiah speaks about. There are moments of tension, when all one can think of doing, at least initially, is to complain to the Lord. The Book of Psalms is filled with so many examples of this complaining, of this recrimination, of this prayer from the depths of one’s heart that does not hide anything, that does not mince words, that does not put up a false image before the Lord. The psalmists, to use modern-day slang, tell the Lord like it is!

But these are also moments of liberating truth. These are moments when our faith is sorely tested and tried. At some point, we are almost compelled to complain and pour our hearts out. And, truth to tell, the same faith comes out, more often than not, as true. When faith is thus purified, we are victims no more, but victors. We are face to face, not with defeat, but with the fascinating and compelling truth that, at bottom, deep within our hearts, we are all thirsting for God. St. Augustine, after years of wrestling with the Lord, - complaining and arguing, if you will – found that out and this he expressed so well in that famous prayer of his: “Restless are our hearts, O Lord, and restless will they remain, until they rest in you.” What is this, but just an echo of that plaintive prayer of the psalmist: “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord, my God.”

Jeremiah’s, Peter’s, and our own private logic, even as we feel so entitled to our plaints and pleadings, our complaints and arguments, turn pale before the Lord’s logic of salvation. The Lord’s arguments overpower us, and, in the words of Jeremiah, God “triumphs” over us. “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me (skandalon).” When and how do we become tripping stones or obstacles to him? When we “think, not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Just look back for a moment at the times you remonstrated and complained to the Lord. Tell me if these weren’t moments when we were really saying in effect: “not your will but mine be done.” In our private logic, marred as it is by original sin, by selfishness and pride, we think we know what is best for us. Not only do we think that way, we also want God actually to agree with us! We want to co-opt him in our plans and works. But we are too deeply steeped (conformed is the word St. Paul uses) in the culture of this age. We are totally taken up by values that are not Godly, and God thus makes a counter-argument through St. Paul: “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.”

The Lord confronts us with a choice. As human beings, to borrow a concept from existentialist philosophers, we are thrown into the world of choices. We cannot not choose. Not to choose is to have chosen. Not to decide is to have decided. St. Paul, Jeremiah and Jesus show us the way. Jeremiah acts on the fire burning in his heart. St. Paul admonishes us not to conform, but decide to be transformed by the renewal of mind, that we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. And the Lord puts before us the great choice, the greatest act open to free believers and followers: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Life puts us face to face with a variety of reasons to complain and argue with God. There is always something that makes us teeter on the edge of our faith, something that makes us even doubt, at times, the same faith. On such occasions, even as we argue passionately in prayer to the Lord, as shown by the three readings of today, we need to listen carefully to who we are, to our nature as human beings created by God, and, with St. Augustine, with Jeremiah, with St. Paul and with Jesus, exclaim in faith: “You have created us for yourself, O God. Our hearts are restless and restless will they remain, until they rest in God.” This is no longer the language of remonstration and argument and complaint. This has been integrated with the language of capitulation, resignation and abandonment. This is the arena of free and responsible choices open only to human beings according to the design and will of God. Even as we are not supposed to deny our right to complain to the Lord, we are invited to affirm our basic choice for Him, our basic orientation to a God who then leads us towards the fullness of life.

Tough teaching that is very difficult to do? Lessons that are hard to understand? Yes, and precisely on account of this, we need to think as God does, not as human beings do.