24th Sunday of the Year
In the late 1960’s, I read a book by Father (later Bishop) Trevor Huddleston called Naught for Your Comfort. I have read this book a number of times since 1969. Huddleston was a towering figure in South Africa's struggle against apartheid. This small book was hard to read as it captured the lone voice of a man whom Desmond Tutu referred to as one of the strongest critics of South Africa’s oppressive regime. Huddleston shared his experiences in the shantytowns and of being on the protest lines as church and state clashed over politics. It highlights injustice such as apartheid being met with silence, and the failure of white Christians to come to grips with that evil, and the failure to resist makes one compliant. This book describes how people can mistreat others, and even justify it supposedly because it is for the best.
Mark’s gospel passage begins with a discussion Jesus’ identity. The disciples seem comfortable with their relationship with Jesus and confident that they know him. This was shaken when Jesus asked the questions in the gospel. They lacked understand of the consequences of following Jesus – something that includes us. When Jesus asks, ‘But who do you say I am?’ he was not looking for stock answers. We cannot hide behind the so-called answers others have provided. Our response determines our identity, who we are and how we follow Jesus. According to the gospel (Matthew 25), it means being with and taking sides with the least, last and lost. It is a commitment to carry our cross every day which many people choose in the work for justice and their resistance against human rights violation. It is the cross that says ‘I will be with you’ just as Jesus said through his life and death.
Christian history is replete with examples of people who died giving personal and alternate testimony rather than conform to the status quo. Conformity of thought is an impoverished substitute for a heartfelt story. Isaiah would endure rejection to establish justice. Prophets would be beaten and mocked; spat upon as they sought to give hope and liberation to people. To bring healing and wholeness to the blind, the deaf and the lame, rather than protecting themselves, gave themselves over to the wrath of those who did not share their passion and commitment. People resist the violence and dismissal of people whether they are indigenous people, unemployed, women, gay and lesbian people, victims of violence and abuse, or asylum seekers. Our response to Jesus’ question connects with James who suggests that commitment to Jesus implies a doing life differently.
We see in the Gospel a gradual uncovering and recognition of who Jesus is. He embodies God with us. Peter’s response to Jesus question, ‘Who do you say I am?’ can only emerge from one who has walked, listened to, watched and shared life with Jesus. What others say, whether church, traditionalists, politicians, even parents, may not always cut it. It has to be our authentic response that is then enfleshed in our lives, in actions, in our words. Our response defines where we stand, or sit, in relation to Jesus and the priorities of the Reign of God. Articles of faith and dogmas, necessary as they are, can stop conversation, can be divisive. So, our response affects who we will be with Jesus and how we journey with him towards others. This question can cause the ground the shift as Jesus waits for our response from what is deepest and most sacred within us. It will reflect what kind of face we present to the world; what kind of heart we show to the world – the heart of a loving and compassionate God. This touches on identity which is often the flashpoint of debates and struggles in culture and society today. Politicians have failed to appreciate this because they are so preoccupied with financial and economic concerns. Our lives are more centred on identity and belonging than on ideas or convictions. We see this in Australia as the sleeping dog of the past is waking up and forcing us to reflect on the past sins of colonisation and how much responsibility we have to address those past sings and those that continue to linger. These sins were clearly highlighted in the recent SBS documentary Incarceration Nation. The sins linger in terms of racism, violence, neglect and often looking away. How do we answer Jesus’ question, ‘Who do you say I am’? Do we reveal God’s loving heart or a mean and closed heart that is prevalent in our world that is dominating, punishing, vengeful and violent? Our image of God in Jesus touches on our identity and affects our actions in the world. It determines the kind of people we become where we respond to God who in Jesus suffers with people and the broken Earth is to reflect that in our relationships and justice making. As we watch the events unfold in Afghanistan and many other places around the world where people security, safety, well-being, I would like to ask people like our prime minister, indeed other government ministers, and the US President how they would respond. This especially as we continue to keep to rigid limits on accepting people in our country or when the US seeks only revenge against others. If we pursue forgiveness, reconciliation, nonviolence, kindness and generosity without boundaries or limits, opposition will inevitably arise - unless we back down. The disciples sought another way rather than wanting to accept the consequences of Jesus’ way of service. It’s easier to use a taser rather than doing the bothersome work of talking to people; to suppress or obliterate the so called ‘enemy’ than befriend him or her; to muzzle the dissenter rather than understand; to overthrow those who hurt others rather than exposing injustice, violence, and neglect of the vulnerable in our society.
Jesus urges his followers to take note of the risks in following him. He was not afraid to break the Sabbath when it meant caring for human need; he was not afraid to be seen with and talking with all kinds of women; he was not afraid to be seen with rich people; he was not afraid to be seen with the poor and people marginalised by society. At every turn, Jesus seems to move towards the cross and away from security, safety and comfort. So often, like the disciples, we do not want to know the hard bits of following Jesus. The disciples were, it seems, distracted by the kind of victory where force and violence are the answer. A suffering Christ is unthinkable. For those who take God’s words to heart, there is no escape from vilification, rejection or persecution. As in ancient Israel, the ‘enemies’ of God’s word, especially those in power, stifle prophetic voices and create spin doctors who support the opinions and actions of those in power.
Before Pilate, Jesus said ‘My reign is not of this world.’ These words contrast the nature of Jesus’ non-violent reign with that of Pilate’s violent empire founded on injustice. Jesus’ rebuke to Peter could be seen as raising awareness of seeing that something dies in us when we seek revenge. This can be too much for some, but it is about loving even our enemies. Jesus’ resistance to Rome and those who collaborated with them was to be uncompromisingly non-violent. This was too much for Peter when he tried to deter Jesus. But Jesus doubles down on non-violent resistance. Today, when so many of our politicians and their cheerleaders embrace nationalism as a form of exceptionalism we see another incarnation of Roman dominance and empire. It was exemplified in people such as John the Baptist, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Rachel Corrie, Berta Cáceres as well as the many people who paid the price at the hands of empire and colonisation. Jesus is calling to seek martyrdom but we have to live according the script that follows from saying who Jesus is. It may have nasty consequences – but that is not what wee. The question is, are we up to that challenge? Do we really want to follow a Jesus who says we must take up crosses?
Some days the pain of the world is just too much to fathom, and we need spiritual anchors to strengthen us for the long haul—along with the immediate pain and suffering we encounter in responding to ‘the least of these.’
Today’s readings do not allow us to look away from injustices. They present us, as does the respectable media, of compelling images of the suffering of many at the hands of the powerful. The readings teach us about enduring faith in the God revealed by Jesus is not of the powerful or the comfortable but who walks with people - especially the most vulnerable. This is ‘naught for your comfort.’
teach us to listen as those who are taught.
Save us from the arrogance that thinks we can judge others.
Make your wisdom our constant companion
and gentleness our guide,
so your Church can offer a faithful witness
to Jesus Christ,
the suffering and resurrected one.
Guard our tongues that we may sustain the weary
with words of your love for all.