22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
By Msgr. John N. Fell
Our readings this Sunday make it perfectly clear that the way of the cross is the only path for those who desire to follow Jesus. Jesus himself, as well as St. Paul and the prophet Jeremiah were all models of faithfulness to God’s call, and yet each encountered tremendous suffering and resistance here on earth. God promises blessedness, both now and in eternity– not necessarily earthly happiness – to those who fulfill the mission he gives them.
Our first reading recalls Jeremiah’s lament at this situation. Jeremiah found himself preaching in the days just before the Babylonian Captivity, days in which his people had turned to idols and wickedness. He pleaded with the officials and people to repent, to turn back to the Lord that they might avert their impending destruction. The people did not heed Jeremiah’s warning and instead mocked him and even did him physical violence.
Our first reading captures Jeremiah’s thoughts as he grieves over his plight; he cries in anguish, “you duped me, O LORD . . . I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me” (Jer 20:7) — he suffers because he is faithful to his prophetic call. He wants to cease his ministry, but the power of the word inside him impels him to remain faithful. The prophet writes “I say to myself I will not mention him, I will speak 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” (Jer 20:9). Jeremiah realizes the essential truth that holding fast to God’s commission is eternally, entirely compelling, and is, ultimately, worth any price. He teaches us that we may not always like or even welcome the missions which God has for us; what ultimately matters is not our assent, but rather our commitment in carrying out these missions, to satisfy the burning flame of the Holy Spirit within us.
In the second reading, St. Paul is writing to the Romans about a similar issue. He implores them not to let themselves be led astray by the allures of their day. He encourages them to keep themselves pleasing to God, no matter what the cost, urging them to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Rom12:1b). Paul specifically warns the Romans not to lower their standards because of the wantonness they see around them; if they keep the words of Christ foremost in their thoughts, they will be able to judge what is truly “good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2c). Paul’s insight is that fidelity to God will ultimately bring a much greater happiness than that which engaging in fleeting worldly pleasures can achieve.
In this Sunday’s Gospel text from St. Matthew, Jesus confronts the issue of suffering and discipleship directly. On his way to Jerusalem, the traditional place of suffering for the prophets, he tells his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me . . . [but that] whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24-25).
Jesus begins this section of Matthew’s Gospel by making one of the first predictions of his upcoming passion and death. Peter, fresh from his profession of faith in Jesus as the Son of the Living God, finds this all too much. He begins to argue with Jesus that God would surely spare the Messiah such suffering. Jesus rebukes Peter for such sentiments; those who wish to follow God’s commands must be ready to endure suffering. God will not spare his faithful ones from the trials of this earth; such trials are not intended as divine punishments, but are simply indicative of the different paths God has chosen for each person all leading to the same goal, eternal salvation.
Jesus clarifies for the assembled disciples that earthly happiness is not the measure of one’s fidelity to God. He cautions them to strive not for what brings them earthly pleasure, but for what will make them more committed disciples. He assures them that, of course, those who have faithfully served God will be rewarded when the Son of Man returns in glory. Then, and only then, will the faithful be assured of everlasting joy.
This Sunday’s readings encourage us to remain faithful to God, despite whatever hardships we may encounter in our lives. They are meant to calm our fears that suffering is somehow a sign of God’s disfavor or abandonment. Rather, the suffering we endure makes us more poignantly aware of our need for God and also brings our lives more in line with the life of Jesus who suffered unjustly, yet patiently for the salvation of the world. We approach our eternal redemption and subsequent lasting happiness not when we seek pleasure, but only when we seek Christ — completely, faithfully, always. Christianity offers this deep insight into the nature of human suffering — we can lovingly and patiently bear our suffering because Jesus did and in so doing achieved the salvation of the world. We can rejoice in and share the fruits of that salvation in whatever ways we imitate and embrace Jesus — in his hopes, his joys, his compassion, and yes, in his suffering. Inspired by these readings, may we resolve, if called upon, to take up our crosses and follow in Jesus’ footsteps.
Msgr. Fell is a Scripture scholar and pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Bernardsville