22nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle A)

Readings:
Jeremiah 20:7-9
Psalm 63:2-6, 8-9
Romans 12:1-2
Matthew 16:21-27

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for mankind.  That is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: Love and Sacrifice
Jesus calls us to love as he has loved us (Jn 13:34).  He demonstrated the depth of His love for us by His sacrifice of self-giving on the altar of the Cross.  He asks us to demonstrate our love for Him by loving one another and by our obedience to His commands (Jn 14:21; 15:9-17; 1 Jn 2:3-5).

In the First Reading, Jeremiah faces not a crisis of faith but a crisis of expectation.  The Lord called Jeremiah to demonstrate his love through his service as God's holy prophet of judgment to his apostate countrymen and women.  God called Jeremiah to his prophetic ministry when he was only about thirteen years old, and he began his prophetic service when he was eighteen.  God had warned Jeremiah about the price a prophet pays for speaking the word of God, but Jeremiah discovered that it was a far more painful experience than he understood when he accepted his divine calling.  In our reading, after Jeremiah experienced the pain of rejection by his kinsmen, he reproaches the Lord.  The pain of his experience is not what he expected when God promised His protection, and he accuses God of not preparing him for the suffering his prophetic ministry brought him.  Jeremiah, however, does not reject his calling.  He admits that the Spirit of God within him is so strong that he cannot reject his mission.  God's prophetic word wells up within him until he cannot hold it back.

The Responsorial Psalm is a prayer recalling David's suffering during the most lonely and fearful time of his life.  In David's prayer, he doesn't reproach God for his painful experiences like Jeremiah.  Instead, he trusts God to guide his life and places his destiny entirely in God's hands.  David's turbulent life teaches us that even God's elect are sometimes called to endure trials and failures.  Suffering can be a test that builds faith or a purifying experience, but in all cases, the suffering of God's elect has a place in the mystery of redemption. 

In the Second Reading, after St. Paul described God's redemptive works in Christ in his letter to the Roman Christians, he defines what should be the human response to God's love.  The right response, Paul writes, is to Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice to God.  Paul reminds the Roman Christians and us that we must not conform to the norms of a sinful world.  Instead, we must be transformed by living in the image of Christ as His witnesses of hope and faith to a world lost in sin.  When worshipping in His Divine Presence, we must be cleansed of all sin (mortal sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and venial sins in the Penitential Rite) so that, as we walk forward in the Eucharistic procession, we are prepared to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to God just as Jesus offers His sinless life to us in the Eucharist.

The Gospel Reading reminds us that Christians must demonstrate an undivided commitment to their divine calling as citizens in Christ's Kingdom of the Church.  In response to Christ's redeeming sacrifice of love, we must willingly take up our crosses of suffering and follow Jesus' example of self-sacrificial giving.  The secret of happiness for the Christian is not to avoid suffering and sacrifice but to embrace God's call to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.  It is a path that ends in Heaven among the congregation of the blessed. 

The First Reading Jeremiah 20:7-9 ~ Jeremiah's Interior Crisis
7 You duped me, O LORD," and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.  All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me.  8 Whenever I speak, I must cry out, violence and outrage is my message; the word of the LORD has brought me decision and reproach all the day.  9 I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more.  But then it becomes like a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.

Jeremiah is the second of the Major Prophets.  In the sixth century BC, God called the young man from a priestly family to deliver a covenant lawsuit and warning of God's impending judgment to the people of Judah and the citizens of Jerusalem.  In our passage, Jeremiah confesses his feelings to the Lord and complains about his calling.  He says that he feels deceived by God because he did not understand the suffering he was required to endure as God's prophet (verse 7).  His emotional suffering caused by the rejection and ridicule of his countrymen and his family, and his physical suffering from beatings and imprisonment has brought the prophet close to the point of despair in a crisis of expectation (verses 7b-8).  He would like to reject his calling and walk away from his mission, but he cannot because God is like a "burning fire" in his heart and he cannot deny his holy mission (verse 9). 

When Father of the Church, Origen of Alexandria (c. AD 185-254), the head of the school of Christian Catechesis in Alexandria, Egypt, read this passage, he asked himself whether God could ever deceive someone.  He explained the passage this way: "We are little children, and we must be treated as little children.  God, therefore, entrances us in order to form us, although we may not be aware of this captivation before the appropriate time comes.  God does not deal with us as people who have already left childhood, who can no longer be led by sweet words but only by deeds" (Homiliae in Jeremiam, 19.15).   St. John of the Cross concluded that sometimes God's purposes are impossible for us to understand: "It is very difficult to attempt to understand fully the words and deeds of God, or even to decide what they may be, without falling often into error or becoming very confused.  The prophets who were entrusted with the word of God knew this well; their task of prophesying to the people was a daunting one, for the people could not always see what was spoken coming to pass" (Ascent of Mount Carmel, 2.20,6). 

When the Christian faces undeserved suffering, it is a test that requires great faith.  We must be like Jeremiah who, after confiding his feelings to God, offered a confession of praise and expressed the confidence that God was with him in his sufferings as he continued faithfully in his mission to call the people of Judah and Jerusalem to repentance.  It is in those times of deep suffering that we must remember what St. Paul wrote: No trial has come to you but what is human.  God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it (1 Cor 10:13).

Responsorial Psalm 63:2-6, 8-9
The response is: "My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God."

2 O God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water. 
Response
3 Thus have I gazed toward you in the Sanctuary to see your power and your glory, 4 for your kindness is greater good than life; my lips shall glorify you.
Response
5 Thus will I bless you while I live; lifting up my hands, I will call upon your name.  6 As with the riches of a banquet shall my soul be satisfied, and with exultant lips my mouth shall praise you.
Response
8 You are my help, and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.  9 My soul clings fast to you; your right hand upholds me.
Response

The title of Psalm 63 is A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.  This psalm, attributed to David, would have been written, according to its title, during the most lonely and fearful time of David's life.  He had to flee King Saul's court to save his life and took refuge as a hunted outlaw and outcast in the wilderness of southern Judah (1 Sam 19:11-12; 21:11-22:1).  Notice in David's prayer that he doesn't reproach God for his sufferings like Jeremiah.  Instead, he trusts God to guide his life and places his destiny entirely in God's hands.  In verse 2, David speaks poetically of his deep love for the Lord and his intense need to be near to God who is for him the source of life and happiness.   Separated from the liturgy of worship in his exile, David recalls the times he has spent in the presence of God, worshipping at God's holy Sanctuary (verses 2-5). 

8 You are my help, and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.  9 My soul clings fast to you; your right hand upholds me.
The wording in verse 8 is reminiscent of the way God cared for the covenant people in their escape out of Egypt when God said "I bore you up on eagle wings," using a metaphor of protection like a mother eagle guards her offspring (see Ex 19:4).  The same imagery of divine protection in the "shadow" of God's "wings" is also found in Psalm 17:8 and 57:1.  These psalms are also attributed to David.  David praises God for His divine protection (verse 8) and concludes his prayer of praise by affirming his confidence that God is with him and will uphold him in all his struggles and sufferings.

David's turbulent life teaches us that even God's elect may experience both emotional and physical suffering.  Personal suffering can be a test of faith or a purifying experience, but in all cases, the suffering of God's elect has a place in the mystery of redemption. 

The Second Reading Romans 12:1-2 ~ The Christian Life as a Living Sacrifice of Love
1 I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.  2 Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.

In this part of his letter, St. Paul summons the Roman community to a pattern of Christian life that is responsive to the teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In Romans 12:1, Paul defines the necessity for that life of holiness in terms of each Christian offering his and her life as a sacrifice acceptable to God: a holy living sacrifice.  Mercy/compassion is the keyword in this passage, for mercy is what defines God's universal plan of salvation.  It is in his or her response to the call of "living in the spirit" that the Christian will fully experience God's mercy. 

Under the Old Covenant, the believer and the community demonstrated submission and obedience to Yahweh in the offering of the required animal sacrifices according to the Law (Lev Chapters 1-7; Num Chapters 29-29).  But neither the life of the animal nor the sacrifice of the life of the believer was a perfect enough offering under the old order (see Ps 14:1; Rom 3:9-10).  No animal was perfect enough, and no matter how hard one tried, one could not live a life of perfect righteousness under the Law of Moses.  Perfection was incomplete because there was no filling and indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Old Covenant believers because they were still under the dominion of sin (Rom 6:8-13).  Even so, God expected the best that one could give from a humble heart and a genuine love of God and not from ritual or rote performance (Ps 51:18-19; Hos 6:6). 

The same is, of course, true for New Covenant believers.  Through the power of God the Holy Spirit, Christians can offer a "living sacrifice" that is acceptable by a way of a life transformed by grace.  But we must remember that what we offer God must be "unblemished."  Our self-offering must be pure and holy, sanctified by grace through the power of the Sacraments for our "living sacrifice" to be clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  This required state of purity and holiness is why we cannot receive communion if we are not in a state of grace.  Simply following the rituals of our faith are not enough now just as they were not enough under the Old Covenant (1 Sam 15:22-23; Hos 6:6).  The result of true worship, as defined for Christians under the New Covenant, is through the acceptable sacrifice.  That sacrifice is Christ's living sacrifice united to our living sacrifice, which has the power to reestablish communion with the Most Holy Trinity in a unity of spirit that comes from circumcised hearts infused with the living presence of the Christ.  It is in this way that we answer Christ's command to "be perfect," meaning to be holy and consecrated people (Mt 5:48; as in God's command in Lev 11:45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; Num 15:40; Dt 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19; 28:9).

St. John Chrysostom identified the necessity for living in a state of grace to ensure the perfection of our personal, living sacrifice: "How is the body to become a sacrifice?  Let the eye look on no evil thing, and it has already become a sacrifice.  Let the tongue say nothing filthy, and it has become an offering.  Let your hand do nothing evil, and it has become a whole burnt offering.  But even this is not enough, for we must have good works also.  The hand must do alms, the mouth must bless those who curse it, and the ears must find time to listen to the reading of Scripture.  Sacrifice allows of no unclean thing.  It is the first fruits of all other actions" (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans, 20)

Therefore, we must be ever mindful that in the celebration of the Mass, once the presiding priest speaks the prayer over the gifts, with his hands extended, greeting us with the words, "The Lord be with you" and we respond in unison, "And also with you," the moment to prepare for the gift of our living sacrifice is upon us.  The priest then invites us with uplifted hands to offer the holy and living sacrifice of our lives with the words, "Life up your hearts," recalling the words of the Book of Lamentations 3:41, Let us stretch out our hearts and hands to God in heaven; to which we respond with uplifted hands and a cry from the heart, "We lift them up to the Lord."  In Scripture, one's heart symbolizes all that one thinks, feels, and believes; the heart represents the total sum of a person.  It is at this moment that each of us prepares to offer himself or herself in a state of grace to the Lord. 

In the heavenly hymn of the Holy, Holy, Holy of the Sanctus, we ready ourselves to stand as a living sacrifice before the throne of God when heavenly and earthly worship are joined in the words of the Consecration.  As the Mass progresses, we wait in joyous anticipation for the words of invitation when the priest speaks the words that recall the words of John the Baptist in John 1:29 when he introduced Jesus to the crowds on the shore of the Jordan River: "This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world," to which the priest adds "Happy are those who are called to his supper," the words St. John heard in his vision of the Wedding Supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9)The priest then repeats the words of Jesus at the Lord's Supper when He first offered the faithful His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.  Our response closely echoes the words of the Roman centurion at Capernaum in Matthew 8:8 who said, "Lord, I am not worthy you that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed." 

Then, because we have fully examined our conscience (1 Cor 11:28) and repented our venial sins in the Penitential Rite, we can process forward, clothed in the bridal garment of grace (Rev 19:8) as an unblemished living sacrifice offered in love to the Savior as we receive Him in the most holy and intimate union of the Eucharist.  We would not dare to go forward to offer an imperfect sacrifice of ourselves, tainted with sin, for to do so would bring God's condemnation upon us (see 1 Cor 11:26-32).  The Eucharist is the sacrificial union of the Bride, who is the Church, and the Bridegroom, Christ, with each given in a perfect unity of love and sacrifice. 

Pope Pius XII's instruction to the faithful concerning this most personal offering of the Bride who is the Church to the Bridegroom who is Christ wrote, "If the oblation whereby the faithful in this Sacrifice offer the divine victim to the heavenly Father is to produce its full effect [...] they must also offer themselves as victim, desiring intensely to make themselves as like as possible to Jesus Christ who suffered so much, and offering themselves as a spiritual victim with and through the High Priest himself"  (Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 25; see CCC# 2099; 2100).

2 Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.
In Romans 12:2, Paul gives two commands.  He tells Christians:

  1. Do not model your behavior on the contemporary world.
  2. Let the renewing of your minds transform you.

The first point concerns our rejection of the standards of the world and our submission to the principles of holiness laid out in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.  It is His teaching in the Beatitudes that defines our living sacrifice.  It is the way we model our behavior that is opposed to the behavioral norm of the "world of the flesh."  However, we must be aware that this refusal to conform to the world's norm may bring ridicule and persecution.  

Concerning the second point: in Romans 8:29 Paul told the Christians of Rome that to live "life in the Spirit," they are called to be conformed to the image of his Son.  In other words, we must all live a transformed life "in imitation of Christ."  Does this mean to live only in the image of His resurrected life?  No, it also means to live in imitation of His mercy, His forgiveness, and His suffering as Paul wrote in 8:17, And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, provided that we share his suffering, so as to share his glory.

Paul advises the Roman Christians (and us) to be transformed into the image of Christ and to make the offering of their lives as a sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel.  In living a life of sacrificial consecration, believers must discern what it is God requires of them.  It is the obligation of all Christians to seek the will of God in their lives.   You cannot discern God's will for your life if sin has a hold on you.  The Christian must discern God's will clothed in the garment of grace, committed to prayer, and in seeking to determine the gifts the individual believer has received from the Holy Spirit.  As in any gift, the genuine value of the gift can only be realized in the useful application of what has been given.

The Gospel of Matthew 16:21-27 ~ Jesus Predicts His Passion and States the Conditions of Discipleship
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that 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.   22 Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, "God forbid, Lord!  No such thing shall ever happen to you."  23 He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!  You are an obstacle to me.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.  24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  25 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  26 What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?  Or what can one give in exchange for his life?  27 For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father's glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct."

Matthew 16:21 announces a turning point in Jesus' ministry.  This passage is the first of three predictions that Jesus gives concerning His Passion in the Gospel of Matthew (also see Mt 17:22-23; 20:17-19; also repeated three times in the Gospels of Mark and Luke).  In sharing this secret with the disciples, Jesus is correcting the common misperception that the Messiah is coming in triumph and glory to vanquish Israel's enemies and to re-establish the political Davidic kingdom on earth, just as it had been in the past in the glory days of kings David and Solomon.  Jesus' revelation of His suffering and death in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecies of the Suffering Servant (Is 52:13-53:12) marks a new phase in Jesus' ministry, as Matthew introduces with the phrase "From that time on ..." (Mt 16:21).

The reference to the "third day" in verse 21, in addition to being a link to the "sign of Jonah" (Mt 16:4), may also intend to recall the prophecy in Hosea 6:1-2 ~ In their affliction, they shall look for me: "Come, let us return to the LORD, for it is he who has rent, but he will heal us; he has struck us, but he will bind our wounds.  He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up, to live in his presence.

Peter resists what Jesus has told the disciples about His suffering and death.  Peter fully understands that Jesus is the divine Messiah.  Peter knows that Jesus is God Himself come to gather His scattered people and fulfill the prophecy of Ezekiel chapter 34 (see Peter's profession of Jesus true identity in Mt 16:16).  Peter knows the Temple hierarchy has no power over the Christ.  Therefore, he cannot comprehend why Jesus would allow Himself to be killed by those in authority over the Church of the Sinai Covenant when He could simply consume them in holy fire like the rebellious priestly sons of Aaron (Lev 10:1-2).  Jesus rebukes Peter because he has voiced opposition to God's plan when he should humbly accept God's plan by assisting Jesus in His mission.

23 He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!  You are an obstacle to me.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.  
Jesus' rebuke is harsh.  The Hebrew word satan means adversary.  In the Hebrew Old Testament, the word satan always appears with the definitive article "the" (ha in Hebrew); the only exception is in 1 Chr 21:1).  Jesus does not refer to Peter as "the satan," and therefore Jesus is not saying that Peter is "Satan."  However, whenever one stands as an adversary to God's plan for mankind's salvation that person is indeed acting as Satan in human form.  Jesus' rebuke of Peter is similar to His rebuke of Satan in Matthew 4:10.

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  25 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  26 What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?  Or what can one give in exchange for his life? 
In verse 24, Jesus uses the image of a cross, an instrument of death in the execution of criminals, as a shocking metaphor for the obedience of discipleship.  Jesus' condition for true discipleship is the willingness to disown one's self-interest to the point of being willing to suffer and even die for Jesus and the Gospel of the Kingdom.  For the righteous to accept suffering united to the suffering of Jesus makes that person a partner with Christ in the mystery of the redemption of mankind.  This partnership applies only to the innocent and righteous that experience undeserved suffering and not for suffering generated as a consequence of sin or as an accomplice or supporter of evil acts.

27 For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father's glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct."
Verse 27 is a prophecy of the Second Advent of Christ (the Parousia) just before the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46; Jn 5:25-29; 1 Thes 4:16).  The phrase the Son of Man coming in his kingdom is probably also a reference to the vision of the 6th-century BC prophet Daniel who wrote: I saw One like a son of man coming on the clouds of heaven; when he reached the Ancient One and was presented before him, he received dominion, glory, and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed (Dan 7:13-14).  Jesus will refer to this passage at His trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin, claiming to the Jewish High Priest that Daniel's vision refers to Him (Mt 26:64; Mk 14:61-64).  At the time of His Second Advent and the Last Judgment, the judgment of humanity will depend on each person's deeds that are individual acts of righteousness demonstrated in works of mercy, as Jesus will explain in His discourse on the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.

Jesus' invitation to discipleship calls for a radical response to the Cross.  The Cross was the unique sacrifice of Christ by which He united Himself to every man and woman ever born, offering "the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery" (CCC 618).  He calls us to "take up" our crosses and follow Him, For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps  (1 Pt 2:21).  The devotion of the Virgin Mary is the best example of the kind of self-denying love that Jesus says is the mark of the true believer.  The Blessed Virgin associated herself more intimately than any other person in the mystery of her Son's redemptive suffering (Lk 2:35).  As St. Paul wrote: The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Rom 8:16-17, emphasis added).  It is, after all, as St. Rose of Lima wrote: "Apart from the cross, there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven."

Catechism References:
Jeremiah 20:7-9 (CCC 2584)
Romans 12:1 (CCC 2031); 12:2 (CCC 2520, 2826)
Matthew 16:21-23 (CCC 554); 16:24-26 (CCC 736) 16:24 (CCC 226, 618, 2029); 16:25-26 (CCC 363); 16:25 (CCC 2232); 16:26 (CCC 1021)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014; revised 2017