Today the liturgy concentrates on the suffering that is often the result of bearing God’s word to the world. It was the fate of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah whose complaint we hear first. St Paul gives us a lighter obligation, but one that can still feel hard enough, then Jesus has a sombre warning – which ends in hope.
In last week’s mass, we heard Isaiah, a prophet who was mostly silent about his own life. In contrast Jeremiah was one who poured out his soul in anguish. He was a reluctant prophet from the first, as as seen in the opening of the book which tells of his ‘call’ to the mission of a prophet (see 1:4-10). In the words of that call, he had much to ‘tear down’ before there could be a ‘building up’ of a people more observant of Yahweh and his moral law. His message was mostly rejected and he was persecuted. Naturally he found this very hard to bear as shows in today’s selection.
In The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Guy P. Couturier, CSC, has helpful background. ‘Jeremiah lived through one of the most troubled periods of the ancient Near East. He witnessed the fall of a great empire and the rising of one even greater…. The kingdom of Judah, then in the hands of deplorable kings, came to its downfall by resisting this overwhelming force of history.’ His ministry last about 40 years, from his call in 627 until his death in 597 BCE after he was taken away as a captive to Egypt.
This section comes from the middle of the book, probably during the reign of Jehoiachin (605-598 BCE), a king especially ‘deplorable’. He had been put in power by Babylon. Just before our reading begins, Jeremiah had been taken by a royal officer and put in stocks, which explains being made a ‘laughing stock’.
In his bold and outspoken complaint, he uses the image of human love, of being ‘seduced’ by the power of God’s word, which he sees as bringing him to ruin. In sections following this which we do not hear, he shows a return to confidence (verse 12-14) before another period of despair.
The suffering of Jeremiah, and as well some of the other prophets, were background to Jesus’ knowledge of how a righteous messenger might be mistreated and even killed.
Psalm 62/63:2-6, 8-9
The psalm, in contrast, is one of full confidence and longing for God. It expresses the kind of faith that Jeremiah called on his people to return to, and it also fits with the confidence Jesus had in God’s overwhelming love and raising him from death.
Last week we heard St Paul’s hymn to God’s transcendence and wise power. Following that, he takes up what our response should be that love. The sacrifices of the Old Law could be merely external observances. As Barnabas M. Ahern OP, writes: ‘God’s great mercy calls for a return far superior to the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant. The Christian must offer instead his own loving service, his full body-person following the lead of the spirit.’
The people of Paul’s time were like own – surrounded by values of a world seeking riches, power, and often resorting to violence, oppression and persecution of others. It is not always easy to persist in such circumstances, but the Gospel warns some can expect worse trials.
This come right after last week’s selection in which we Peter identified Jesus as the Christ/Messiah and was called ‘happy’ for receiving God’s revelation. Jesus followed that by warning them to tell no one else he is the Christ. He knew how the coming of the Messiah was expected at that time as a victorious king and it is now apparent that the disciples too wanted earthly success. Jesus had to correct this and explain the paradoxical kind of leadership his would be. R. T. France: ‘This is a concept of Messiahship which is going to be very hard to get across.’ Indeed, more predictions of the Passion will come, and even so, the disciples were taken by surprise at the arrest and crucifixion, and did not expect the resurrection.
Remembering the earlier words to Peter helps us to imagine how appalled he was to hear the warning of Jesus’ persecution and death on the cross. Peter’s words are emotionally expressive and well translated by the Jerusalem text (‘Heaven preserve you’) of our reading, like another version, ‘God forbid’, it shows how deeply Peter objected that this predicted fate should not happen.
Jesus’ reply is as strong: the one he had recently called the rock of his church, is now called ‘Satan’ and a ‘block’ that causes stumbling – as in the literal Greek. The meaning of ‘Satan’ is one who tempts or tests, and recalls Jesus in the desert before his ministry, when he used similar words of dismissal to the devil (4:10). It seems that Jesus in the fullness of his humanity felt the same desire to be spared shame and suffering that most have. (This will come out more emotionally in Gethsemane.) But he also shows his absolute determination to carry out the will of his Father: the ‘destiny’ mentioned in our reading has the sense in the Greek of ‘must’ – it is necessary in the overall plan of God’s salvation to submit rather than to resist or give up, trusting in God’s vindication.
John P. Meier sees a word play here: ‘go behind me’ can mean, ‘get out of the way’, but ‘coming’ or ‘following behind’ was also a description of discipleship. And that comes out as Jesus goes further: those who are his loyal disciples must be prepared for the same rejection and persecution and be willing ‘take up’ the same cross. Because we often use the words ‘carry the cross’ symbolically of any trial, we may forget the real horror of such a death – a death which would indeed come to some of the disciples who heard this from Jesus. There is word play about saving life and losing it, the Greek word psyche was used for human life, or ‘soul’ in older translations, but in the context of this exchange, it is the contrast of the true life that will be everlasting. With warnings about suffering – both of himself and his disciples – Jesus again reminds them this is not the last word. He will come with heavenly glory and those who remain faithful to him will have their full reward. The word ‘behaviour’ in the liturgy is a little weak, with the everyday way it is commonly used now. It is a life choice of action, of doing what Jesus the Messiah calls us to do.
Right after this section in Matthew, comes the ‘Transfiguration’ (17:1-8), which we heard recently. When Christ takes Peter and two others to the mountain top and is seen with Moses and Elijah, they are given a glimpse of his resurrected glory. It is another reminder that death and suffering are not the last word. It is for our strengthening too, although we here do not expect the cross of a martyr’s death, we are to be ready for any suffering that comes.