Messengers or Obstacles?

Homily for September 3, 2017 (22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 63; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

When we were younger many of us learned the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”  Our parents and teachers taught us that incantation to protect ourselves from the negative spirits that came from everything from gentle teasing to what people today would call bullying.  It was a simple form of what psychologists would call positive self-talk; and it worked—most of the time.

But some names could be especially hurtful and could really stick with us.  So just imagine how St. Peter felt when Jesus called him “Satan!” As far as name-calling goes, it doesn’t get much worse than that.

But Jesus wasn’t commenting on Peter’s moral state or who he was as a human being.  Instead, he was reflecting on the role that Peter had assumed at that moment.  In giving Peter “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” and the power to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19), perhaps Jesus hadn’t expected that Peter would so quickly become an obstacle—in Hebrew a satan (“adversary; one who plots against another”) to his fulfillment of the mission that his Father had given him.  In telling Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus essentially repeated the rebuke that he gave to the devil who tried to tempt him as he was nearing the end of his 40 days of fasting in the desert in preparation for his public ministry (cf. Matthew 4:1-11).

A fundamental struggle in our lives as Christians is whether we will allow ourselves to be God’s messengers (angels) or obstacles to God, whether we will walk with the Lord and work for his kingdom or stand in the way.  Opposing God and standing in the way of God’s will has a cost—an eternal one.  At the same time, today’s readings remind us that there’s a price to be paid in this life for serving as God’s messengers and servants.

Jeremiah was mocked and persecuted for proclaiming a word that the people of his time didn’t want to hear, even if that word came to him from God.  St. Paul challenged the church at Rome not to be content with conforming themselves to this world but instead to undertake the hard work of being transformed by the renewal of their minds, discerning God’s will, and doing it.  Jesus told his disciples that coming after him would require self-denial, taking up their crosses, and following in his footsteps.  Those footsteps would lead to Jerusalem and finally to Calvary.

Tomorrow we celebrate Labor Day.  In a message to factory workers in Italy earlier this year, Pope Francis reminded them that “By working we become a fuller person, our humanity flourishes, [and] young people become adults only by working.”  If that is true of the work we do in the world, how much more so the work of discipleship and living the gospel.  If we are ever told by Jesus, “Get behind me!” let it be only to more closely follow him. +