Suffering is essential to his work of salvation
Sunday Homily for August 31, 2008
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (22A)
By Fr. Alex McAllister SDS
Last week we heard in our Gospel reading about Peter's spontaneous profession of faith "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." This was followed by Christ's great mandate to Peter and his successors, "Upon this rock I will build my Church."
And yet here we are with the immediately following text where Jesus calls Peter a stumbling block and says, "Get behind me Satan"! It is hard to credit that these two things should be in the same Gospel, let alone in the same chapter.
Of course, since we are dealing with a period of three years condensed into twenty-six short chapters (excluding the infancy narratives) we are not expected to take the chronology absolutely literally. For the sake of brevity and the need for a flowing text, things that happened at different times and on different days are often placed right next to each other and so we sometimes get the impression that one followed immediately on the other.
However, there are some clues that last week's Gospel text and this week's one did not happen immediately after each other. In the first line this week we are told that "Jesus began to speak" about going up to Jerusalem and suffer and die at the hands of the scribes and Pharisees and then rise again. This is important because it is the first prediction of his passion in Matthew's text.
But we are not given any exact data about the timing. When it says "he began to speak to them" it is not very specific and so we must take it to mean from that time on, not necessarily the very next minute.
Whatever the actual timing, Matthew has deliberately chosen to put these incidents together. First we have the profession of Peter's faith together with Jesus' declaration that it is on the rock of Peter that he will build his Church and then immediately following we have the text today about him becoming a stumbling block and the famous phrase "Get behind me Satan."
Matthew puts these two things together as a warning to us, the members of the Church, the people to whom this Gospel is primarily addressed. It is a warning that we should not take the first part of the text in any sort of triumphal way. We should not become so confident that we are members of the true Church of Christ that we start to believe that this means we can do no wrong.
Actually, what he is telling us is that we have to tread very carefully indeed so as not to become the very opposite of what we are meant to represent.
Peter did not mean to offend Jesus, and he certainly did not want to do anything to obstruct Jesus' plan of salvation; it is simply that he didn't understand it in all its fullness. Peter was simply saying the kind of thing any other human being would say in the circumstances; he can't really believe that Jesus would need to suffer and die. Because he loves Jesus he does not want him to die and so comes out with his statement of disbelief.
One can't help but think of how human Peter was; his very impulsiveness being one of his most endearing characteristics. It seems that in the Gospels he always speaks from the heart even if what he says is a bundle of contradictions.
We find this to be very reassuring. Jesus did not choose the perfect man on which to build his Church. No, he chose a man like us; someone with all the same sorts of faults and contradictions that we recognise within ourselves and yet someone who is essentially good and straightforward.
Even when we get to the moment of Peter's greatest betrayal, when he denies Christ three times, we find that it is not something blatantly bad that he is doing. Actually he is trying to be near Jesus, to find out what is going to happen to him and, one is tempted to think, try to help Jesus if he can.
What happens is that his cover is blown, he is recognised and it is the panic that this induces that causes Peter to deny that he even knows Jesus.
And here in our text today we see that Peter's real intention was not to be a stumbling block so much as to try to protect Jesus from harm. We are inclined to think that Jesus is being a bit hard on poor Peter in order to stress very clearly what is going to happen and that anything that gets in its way is contrary to the will of his Father.
The underlying assumption of Peter is that suffering is bad and it is something that we should be protected from, and this is an assumption that we all share in our everyday lives. Christ, though, tells us something different; he tells us and shows us in his own life that suffering is redemptive. He tells us that suffering is essential to his work of salvation.
One of the greatest problems in the world is that people do not seem to understand this anymore. And indeed one of the most common arguments against the existence of God put forward by ordinary people today is that God allows the innocent to suffer. What they fail to take into account is that suffering has a meaning. They fail to understand that it is often only through suffering and struggle that a greater good can come about.
Now this is not to say that suffering and pain are good in themselves or we would feel obliged to flagellate ourselves every five minutes! No this would be a distortion of God's intention. But we do know that in suffering there is something deeply mysterious, valuable and redemptive.
In time Peter was to come to understand the meaning of the Cross. We know that when faced with his own crucifixion at the hands of the Romans he asked to be crucified upside down because he did not feel worthy to imitate Christ.
There is another tradition which tells us of Peter leaving Rome to escape persecution and as he passes down the Via Appia meets Christ travelling in the opposite direction, towards Rome. He greets Christ with the words "Quo Vadis, Domine?" Where are you going, Lord? Only for Jesus to respond that he was going to Rome to be crucified once again. At which point Peter turned around and returned to the city to face his own death.
This little story might be apocryphal but there is something in it for each one of us. Our following of Christ will inevitably lead to the Cross and it is how we regard the Cross that will determine our response to it. We will then face the moment of truth; which we hope, with God's help, will be the moment of our salvation.