ColumnsSunday’s Word

Take up your cross, and follow

August 30, 2020


Jer 20:7-9

Jeremiah’s complaint

Ps 62:2-6, 8-9

My soul is thirsting

Rom 12:1-2

A living sacrifice

Mt 16:21-27

Take up your cross, and follow


Jeremiah was one of the great prophets, He was not the poet that Isaiah was, but few were. Still, he was a memorable writer. He was famously brave. His kind of eloquence is often the result of his pain. In today’s passage he is bitterly complaining about his vocation to prophecy. The passage should be paired with his call in the first chapter. Today’s complaint specifically picks up themes from that passage and turns them upside down. However, his protest today ends in a difficult resolve to continue on.

Both Isaiah and Jeremiah were living at pivotal times in the history of their peoples. Isaiah helped to bring the kingdom of Judea through the difficult times of the Assyrian expansion of empire. Judah survived while the northern kingdom of Israel succumbed.

Jeremiah lived more than a century later, during a new crisis — the Babylonian invasion. His mission affected the continuing survival of the southern kingdom. But Judah was demolished. Jeremiah’s job was not to prevent that, but rather to get the leaders of Judah to realize that the course they were taking was in effect leading to their destruction. He failed to convince them.

In the Gospel of Mathew, we have reached a major turning point in the story. The Galilean mission, which occupies the first half of the Gospel, concluded with the recognition by Peter of Jesus as Messiah. The problem is that Peter’s notion of the Messiah was mistaken. He, like most of the country, is looking for a power figure. Jesus is offering a suffering messiah. It does not make sense to them, for that is not how the promise was popularly configured. The popular vision of God’s people rising to conquer and punish its opponents was not in the plans that Jesus presented to them.

Today’s passage picks up after Peter’s announcement of Jesus as Messiah. Jesus is more wary, will not accept it out loud. And part of the reasons is his interpretation of the role. In today’s passage he says that he must now go to Jerusalem, not to conquer it but to be victimized by it. He must “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” This was not a satisfying answer to Peter and the others. And so he and Jesus get into a dispute. Jesus’ response is week known: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” God has other plans, it appears.

Perhaps the gospel writers are influenced by their knowledge of how this move on Jerusalem turned out. Crucifixion, not conquest. Perhaps they are now learning to find their faith in a Messiah who was crucified. That does not sound like a success to anyone. But their faith finds in the words and actions of Jesus something that they did not perceive in the early rush to judgement. Jesus is a Messiah, yes. But the Messiah is less a dominating king than a fellow sufferer.

Like Jeremiah, Jesus points to a future that does not include punishing one’s enemy. It is beyond that. It is a participation in the fate of those, the many, who are not given to win, to outdo their neighbors. Jeremiah and Jesus both point to the less flashy, less self-satisfying role of comforting the afflicted rather than winning over them. They live the life of the conquered, not the conquerors.

The disciples are finding their concept of faith is undergoing a conversion. It is turning over, and they are finding something unexpected underneath. A commitment to those who suffer from the battles.

For reflection: Pope Francis compared the church to a “field hospital after the battle.”

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.