Lectionary commentary: twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary time

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"Get thee behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me."


READINGS

A reading from the prophet Jeremiah, 20:7-9

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 63:2-6. 8-9. R/. v. 2

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 12:1-2

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 16:21-27


That I did always love
I bring the Proof
That till I loved
I never lived – Enough –

That I shall love always –
I argue thee
That love is life –
And life hath Immortality –

This – dost thou doubt –
Then have I
Nothing to show
But Calvary –

Emily Dickinson

There is a time to live and a time to die. Christian faith is founded on belief in a loving God and, strangely, on the death, by divine decree, of a blesséd Son. The contradiction inherent in a faith that adheres to a God of the living — creator, sustainer, destiny — and a faith that proclaims a death in its central act of worship, needs, if it is to be a faith of hope and love, to be resolved. We stand at the foot of the cross. But we must be aware of the nearby empty tomb. The death of Jesus cannot be separated from the fat that God raised him to eternal life. But we must not rush to sing Alleluias. As St. Paul shouted from the rooftops, we preach Christ crucified (I Corinthians 1:23).

Mary’s instinct was to ponder these things in her heart, an instinct that issued, but only after careful scrutiny, in a willing assent of the mind and in a glorious outpouring of prayer. Such wisdom from one who knew the heart of the matter should not be passed over lightly. For when we last see her she is standing silently at the foot of a cross, not at the empty tomb.

To stand with Mary at the foot of the cross of death is to be in the right place, the first place, to hear the Word of God clearly and unambiguously, and to be empowered by God’s holy words, to cleave to them as the very stuff of life. To stand at the foot of the cross is to resolve the paradox that out of this death living becomes possible. No other place clarifies the steadfast love that defines the very being of God. No other place clarifies the very being of men and women as loved people.


A reading from the prophet Jeremiah, 20:7-9

O Lord, you have deceived me,
and I was deceived;
you are stronger than I,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all the day;
everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I cry out,
I shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.

The word of the Lord.

In our Sunday Lectionary there are 74 extracts from the Book of Isaiah. Though the Book of Jeremiah is somewhat longer than Isaiah (and a lot longer than Ezekiel), Jeremiah is allowed a mere 17 passages.

To be sure, the pages of Jeremiah do not often sing songs of joy. Page after page is full of lamentation. Every page is haunted by the catastrophe of conquest inflicted by the imperialistic ambitions of Babylon, following quickly on the heels of Assyrian cruelty and tragic exile. The ambitions of powers to the north always sought to control Egypt, the breadbasket of the middle-eastern world. Little Israel was in the middle of tramping armies going north or coming down south, as the poet said, “like the wolf on the fold”. Jeremiah thought that Babylon was the least bad option. Many powerful people in Israel preferred the ambitions of Egypt. So in the shadows of conquering world powers, little Israel suffered from internal strife. When the Egyptian forces were routed in the battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C., Judah was subjected to Babylonian rule. It continued to suffer grievously from internal divisions.

In 597 B.C. the little kingdom of Judah revolted against Babylon with disastrous results. The same thing happened in 587 B.C. The forces of Babylonia destroyed the tiny palace of the king. They battered the city of Jerusalem to the ground. But worst of all, the Temple was reduced to ruin, not a stone left standing on a stone. The Presence of God was lost, the centre of worship and prayer was laid waste, and many people were exiled from their country and from their God, unable to sing their songs in a strange land.

The miracle is that, if you look hard enough, Jeremiah speaks of healing and hope, of new future for God’s people.[1] But by chapter 20, from which today’s reading is taken, God has ceased to speak. Up to this point God has warned, and counselled, and invited a return to faith. But faith was abandoned. Yet God’s door remained open:

Return, faithless Israel.
declares the Lord.
I will not look on you in anger,
for I am merciful,
declares the Lord,
I will not be angry forever,
only acknowledge your guilt …

Jeremiah 3:12-13

Warnings there were aplenty:

Hear this,
O foolish and senseless people,
who have eyes, but see not,
who have ears, but hear not …

Jeremiah 5:21

But the ears are deaf.Judgement is God’s last word:

But my people have forgotten me;
they make offerings to false gods;
they made them stumble in their ways,
in the ancient roads,
and to walk into side roads,
not the highway,
making their land a horror,
a thing to be hissed at forever.
Everyone who passes by it is horrified
and shakes his head.
Like the east wind I will scatter them
before the enemy.
I will show them my back, not my face,
in the day of their calamity.

Jeremiah 18:15-17

So God has walked away: I will show them my back.

The prophet of the Lord is undone. Not only is he scorned, a laughing-stock the livelong day, the butt of every jeer and joke.

Not only is he despised by the people and beaten by the priests. The result of all of this is the exile of the people and the broken-heart of the one who “was formed in the womb” by God, the one known, consecrated, and appointed prophet to the nations before he was born (Jeremiah 1:45). What Jeremiah is mourning today is not that he has been thrown aside by priests and people. What has broken his heart is that he has, it seems, been abandoned by God.

It is difficult not to love Jeremiah.



Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 63:2-6. 8-9. R/. v. 2

R/. O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you.

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. R/.

So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you. R/.

So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips. R/.

For you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me. R/.

In the desert, in fear of enemies, David, the would-be king, turns to prayer.Flesh and spirit (his whole being), reach out to God, yearning for the protection of God’s strength and the comfort of God’s glory.

David imagines himself present in a future Temple of God where he might stand in the presence of God’s glory, wrapped in God’s steadfast love, his joyful lips singing hymns of praise.

Eagle wings figure prominently in the Bible’s meditations upon God’s protective instincts.Just as the mother eagle protects her young under her wings and bears them up when they make their first attempts to fly, so God is ever watchful of his people.

David, a man of violence in life and in death, is glad that God’s right hand, no doubt bearing the divine sword, may be counted on to be on his side.Our Responsorial Psalm rightly leaves out the bad bits.David was not one to love his enemies, not one to pray for his persecutors:

My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
they shall be given over to the power of the sword;
they shall be a portion for jackals.

Psalm 63 8-10


A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 12:1-2

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The word of the Lord.

In his first sentence of his letter Paul set out his intentions in writing to little communities of Christians in Rome. He wanted outline in detail “the gospel of God”, a gospel disclosed in the Holy Scriptures in the writings of ancient prophets. At the very heart of the story is the very being of Jesus empowered by the Spirit of Holiness. The fullness of holiness that came to earth in the Son is clear in the fact of the resurrection of Jesus. The purpose of God’s work is to bring about faith among all the nations.

His first eleven chapters set out how out of the chaos of disobedience God brought together Jew and pagan by means of the obedient ministry of the Messiah, the Son. These chapters explain what God has done. Chapters 12 to 16 teach how these blessings of God are to be lived. How must we live to experience the love of God?How must we live what we have come to believe as we listened to Paul’s teaching of God’s saving love?The “therefore” in the very first phrase of chapter 12 carries the power all of that has gone before. What we have heard must be turned into action. Not only do we hear the gospel of God. We must live it. The bothers and sisters who have listened and learned must become living embodiments of all that they have heard.

The very first word παρακαλῶ (parakalō) is a verb: I appeal to you … .[2] His appeal is not a polite request; it has imperative force. I hesitate to use the phrase “If you know what’s good for you …”. But that is the force of Paul’s appeal. He has been at pains to explain in detail the mercies of God, a veritable downpour of mercies. Recall words of Scripture that Paul himself has used to telling effect:

And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.

Exodus 33:19 and see Romans 9:15

These “mercies” signify the abundance of God’s steadfast love, the “riches and wisdom and knowledge” that Paul glories in in Romans 11:34-36, our reading from Paul last week. Paul demands that people who have come to faith and who have grasped the depth of his teaching must offer to God their whole selves. God in the Son has offered lasting love to the world. The only way to acknowledge love is to bring to your worship of God all your soul, all your heart, and all your mind, worshipping God with all your being.

Yet living the likeness of Christ Jesus is not only a matter of worshipping in church on a Sunday. True worship is being in every way Christ-like for every minute of every day and carrying that service to the Sunday altar as an offering of ourselves. Indeed, true worship is a presentation of a life lived in Christ. How we live must be a living sacrifice of praise.

Those who have become Jesus people are, Paul argues, not people who are living in conformity to the ways of the world. Already in alignment with Christ (baptism), one has begun a transformation that is life-long and with an eternal destiny. It is not the past or the present that that shapes genuine Christian living. It is the future. God’s love affair with humanity is everlasting and Christians must live the present as a period of transformation until we are brought to the perfection of the life to come. Paul insists that we must endeavour to get our minds around the fact that love is demanding. To be loved as God loves us imposes a duty to discern whether each day’s words and actions conform to the life we live in Christ and thus to future glory. All that we are and do must point to the stars.



A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 16:21-27

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.

The Gospel of the Lord.

Matthew was, and remains the most influential Gospel of the four Gospels bequeath to Christians by the Holy Spirit. Given that each copy of his Gospel was carefully written by hand, it is amazing that it was widely disseminated throughout the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire and quickly became known in Rome and some of the provinces to the west.

Matthew’s Gospel came to be known as The Catechism of the Church. It earned the title because, more than the other Gospels, it concerns itself with some organisational issues and with a detailed outline of how Christians must live. It settled the burning and divisive issues as the terms on which pagans were to be admitted to the Christian family. It clarified the extent to which the Law (Torah) given to Moses on Mount Sinai was binding on Jews who joined the Christian movement. He outlined a coherent missionary programme, inaugurated by the Risen Lord commissioning just eleven disciples to baptise and teach the world. The sure and certain fact is Immanuel would be with them forever and a day. And, of course, it is important to remember that it is Saint Matthew’s Gospel that gives us our prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, as a sure and certain guide from here to eternity.

So much is new and fresh, so much is cautionary and challenging in Matthew, that it is difficult to believe the truth of the matter. Yet Matthew was utterly dependent on the little booklet written by St. Mark. That’s the pamphlet that, in my imagination, sat on Matthew’s desk. We can trace how he re-shaped what he found in the first Gospel to be written all the better to reinforce his determination to create solutions to the problems tearing the Christian communities in Antioch apart.


A healthy diversion

Mark’s little book had its own healing agenda. What Matthew did was adapt that agenda to meet new challenges in order to heal and to set out a new way forward for the churches committed to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. We can see what Mark wrote and what Matthew changed by comparing what we find of in today’s Gospel and what lies ahead in the Year of Mark when we listen to Mark’s version of the same incident. Ponder the changes, little and large, between the two versions of the same story. It is a useful exercise in the business of trying to understand these ancient and complex texts. Well over 90% of Mark turns up in Matthew and tracing what Matthew made of what he found in Mark’s pamphlet is an enriching experience, best done in a little community of people seeking to turn Gospel words into the Word of the Lord.

Jesus speaks of his death and resurrection

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Saint Mark

MARK 8:31-38

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew

MATTHEW 16:21-28

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you. But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.

It is a profitable exercise to compare and contrast. For example, notice how, in Mark, Jesus rebukes Peter. This is the very verb Jesus uses throughout this Gospel to cast out demons and to still the demons of the deep when a great storm threatens the life of his disciples. Matthew softens the words of Jesus. He calls Peter “Satan” more as a dramatic flourish than a charge of being demon-possessed, as Mark insists. Notice that in Mark Jesus calls the crowds to hear what he is saying to his disciples. Matthew omits this detail. It is important for Matthew to insist that the words of Jesus concerning his death are for the ears of disciples only.

We can learn from these differences. They illustrate the concerns of the communities from which they come. In other words, our Gospels are pastoral documents. They seek to teach, to admonish, to facilitate change, and to preserve what serves the good of the people for whom each was written.

Mark’s wording of the three predictions of his death voiced by Jesus serve purposes far removed from those of Matthew. They are related to the tragedy that befell Christian communities in Rome following the burning of that city in July, 64 A.D.

Matthew has entirely different concerns. He seeks to negotiate peace among conflicting allegiances that threaten to tear the churches in Antioch apart. Jew and Gentile are divided as to what is demanded of them by the ancient covenant revealed to Moses. Matthew also insists that all that is to happen in Jerusalem is in the hands of God. He protects the standing of Peter who actually came to Antioch and was an important influence on the development of Christian witness in that city.[3] All of Matthew’s concerns are related to solving the pastoral problems endemic in the Christian communities in Antioch.

Above all, though Mark and Matthew use the same material from the details of the life of Jesus, there are great differences in the purposes these details serve in each Gospel. Each seeks to confirm faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. But a keen Gospel hearer and reader will have an indispensable motto: vive la différence.


Matthew's version

On three occasions in his Gospel St. Mark records that Jesus confronted his disciples, specified as the Twelve, with the fact that he would be put to death and that he would rise again (Mark 8:31-33; 9:30-32; 1032:34). Matthew likewise (Matthew 16:21-23; 17:22-23; 20:17:19). There are subtle differences in the details of these sad announcements. Both are careful to record that it is the disciples to whom these predictions are made. In Mark they do not understand a word of what is being told to them.[4] In Matthew they are distressed. Matthew even stresses that it was “the twelve disciples” (Matthew 20:17) that alone were told of what would happen in the city of Jerusalem.

Both Gospel writers insist that both Jewish authorities and “the Gentiles” participate in the business of the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus. Jewish authorities and Roman power put Jesus on the cross at the Place of the Skull. Thus by exaggeration, the whole of humanity, Jews (clergy and crowds) and Gentiles (Pilate and soldiers), is found guilty of the death of the Son of Man. Peter, the rock on which so much will be built” is the one who conspicuously denies all knowledge of the man who saved him from the terrors of storm on the Sea of Galilee and from his inability to walk on water. Yet, of the three Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, the Gospel of Matthew alone has a meeting with the Risen Lord on the mountain of God, the very mountain where God established the faith of Israel’s people. Matthew gives assurance of Immanuel’s Presence among them throughout the ages. Mark ends with frightened women fleeing from the empty tomb and saying nothing to anyone.

Of all that is to be learned from the tiniest details of how our Gospels and, indeed, St. Paul, understood the death of Jesus, one thing that stands out from the midst of disagreement is this: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). In noting the insistence of Mark and Matthew (and Luke - see Luke 9:21) on humanity’s voice among the mocking crowds around the cross, it is Paul who provides the earliest and the last word:

For God has consigned all to disobedience that he may have mercy on all.

Roman 11:32

Paul puts in a sentence what the Gospel-makers enshrine in story.


Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.



[1] The history of these dark days provides historians with endless discussion and often-contradictory interpretations of what happened. The summary here is by no means a sure and certain account of the details of history.

[2] Visitors to Greece soon learn to say “parakalo”, “Thank you”, when they wish to be polite. Paul was not being polite.

[4] See Mark 9:32.