Twenty Second Sunday of the Year
Both Matthew and Paul call us to a countercultural passion. Jesus shows that being the Messiah is not how the disciples see it. After proclaiming his faith in Jesus, Peter tempts Jesus to use his power to become a security blanket in the event of suffering involved in following him. Jesus has talked about the suffering that may be involved when following him. ‘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.’ Concern for safety can be a vicious circle. It hinders one’s freedom to give of oneself.
People complain that so many things in our world are going to the dogs. Yet, we find people concerned about change, transformation and refuse to be deterred from their commitment to values, God, people and creation. Jeremiah thought things were going to the dogs when he was not being listened to. He too wanted to be shielded from opposition and ridicule as he confronts his people with a message that puts him on the margins. He prays: ‘I want to quit this ministry, but your word is like a fire in my heart. When I try to hold it in, it explodes inside me. I cannot withstand it! It's about to break my bones!’ He discovers that the Spirit can only confront injustices when he became vulnerable. Like the disciples, he received a new perspective. He was ‘seduced’ by God into an unwanted mindset and course of action but could not refuse. This is the mindset Paul encourages today, ‘…offer your living bodies as a holy sacrifice…… do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change, modelled by your new mind.’ There is nothing pious here. Despite wanting to give up, God will be a tangible presence through his engagement with people as justice enflames Jeremiah’s heart. God is like a burning fire shut up in his bones but life does not become easier. Cardinal Alvaro Ramazzini in Guatemala once told the people that they should listen when they feel anger arise in the pit of their stomachs rising through their throats because it is the voice of God. In Redeeming Conflict, Ann Garrido writes, ‘... when something matters to you, when something is important to you, it will damage both the relationship and your own sense of personal integrity not to at least bring it up. That impulse in our gut that propels us to speak… is an important voice to listen to. It needs to be guided by prudence, but also nurtured with compassion. It is a seed that the Holy Spirit has planted. It deserves water. It requires discernment. And it will come to fruition in time.’ Once our eyes are opened to the reality around us, we cannot then close them and not see. Once we have heard the cry of the poor, marginalised and the oppressed, we cannot unhear their voices or stop listening. Once we know, we have an obligation.
The Gospel invites us to embody the Christ who, like Jeremiah, is on the margins. His work for justice ended in crucifixion but this is where our work begins because people on the margins continue to be ‘crucified’ every day. We are invited to and into the margins. Such courage is evident in people who will give voice to an unpopular message even though many refuse to listen. Jesus’ message was even unacceptable to his disciples then, and still today.
Jesus’ view is that the world is full of sisters and brothers and only by renewing our minds can we be transformed to operating in ways different to the world. This is possible by ‘Listen, Learn, Love’ to use the title of the 2023-2024 Social Justice Statement of the Australian Catholic Bishops. This is how we renew our minds as we listen hard to what is happening when we make distinctions; or fail to see people as sisters and brothers because of our fears, mistrust, or even hatred; when we do not look into the face of another and see their vulnerability that calls out for presence, care, and protection. Our challenge is to be present to people from the margins; to be in the messiness of life; and meet God in the most unlikely people and places.
This is our call. It is not for our comfort because it is the way of hungering and thirsting for justice; of identifying with the poor; of being with those who mourn and grieve; and being a peacemaker. This is the way of Jesus – and it took time for even Peter to understand or accept it. Progress cannot be realised without struggle. People like Peter may try to divert us and calls us to be reasonable.
Paul acknowledges the challenge of following Jesus and encourages us to live according to God’s mind and heart rather than conforming to a culture that puts profit before people; punishes rather than liberates and rehabilitates; responds to violence with more violence; and a culture of silence that avoids confrontation. Paul exhorts us to not allow ourselves to be conformed to a world view where things done by force, coercion, violence, power trips, money trips, ego trips; showing hatred when we are expected to hate our enemies; of developing always bigger sticks or bombs to use against others; of being suspicious and mean towards the outsider and the stranger. Paul offers an ongoing challenge to allow ourselves to be transformed as we work for the transformation of structures, mindsets, attitudes, and policies that have caused and still cause systemic oppression. Conformity to and being comfortable with discrimination and oppression in any way, shape or form on this planet is not acceptable. All of the readings are a ‘call to action’ which cannot be ignored.
We need to recognise the dangerous toxicity wherever society and church seek earthly power and lord it over others to feel safe. Many Christians who have power forget to follow the vulnerable and nonviolent Jesus. It is powerful people who murder, torture and imprison people such as those who disrupt mining companies that destroy Indigenous ancestral lands; who seek to muzzle people who expose corporate crime and war crimes; who commit genocide; who rip Indigenous children from the arms of their mothers and destroy their culture; who buy and sell people for profit; who commit sexual abuse and cover it up by blaming the victims; who run institutions that neglect the aged, people living with mental illness and disability; who devised and supported the Doctrine of Discovery to steal Indigenous lands and justified in the name of a ‘violent’ God. We are all capable of similar injustices and atrocities where power is sought instead of imitating the vulnerable Jesus.
Our Gospel today tells us that to be disciples means we stop making ourselves the centre of our lives. Jesus came in order to set the oppressed free, to proclaim liberty to captives, to offer sight to the blind, to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. This. This is our call. But we can’t expect the path to be easy. It was not easy for Jeremiah, for Isaiah, or Amos, the apostles, the martyrs, saints, Martin Luther King Jr, and countless others.
The spirit of the world tries to convince us that we need is power over others. It focuses on the self as the centre of activity where we move from the ‘we’ to the ‘I’. This has failed. Let us challenge ourselves to keep learning and growing, allowing God to transform us, so we might act with courage in spite of the obstacles and struggle to bring about a time acceptable to the Lord. So, once again, we are asked ‘Who do you say I am?’ Let us sit with that in prayer and contemplation.