An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Second Sunday of Year A, Matthew 16:21-27, August 28, 2011
Almost a decade ago, June 19, 2002 to be exact, even as then US President George Bush prepared to make a major Mideast policy statement, an Islamic extremist detonated nail-studded explosives in a Jerusalem city bus crowded with students and office workers, killing himself and 19 passengers, injuring 55 people, sending bodies flying through the windows and peeling off the roof and sides. This was the deadliest attack in Jerusalem since February 25, 1996 when 26 people were killed in a bus explosion. According to the report of the Associated Press, Hamas, an Islamic militant group, claimed responsibility for the blast, identifying the assailant as Mohammed al-Ghoul, 22, from the Al Faras refugee camp near the city of Nablus in the West Bank. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, said that their goal in these suicide attacks was the withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as they did not have the power to liberate all Palestine through such attacks, although one remembers that Hamas leaders in the past used to say that their main objective was the destruction of Israel. Anyhow, though one must condemn such form of violence, one can only remark at how relentless Palestinians stick with their goal. They could even sacrifice their lives in pursuit of that objective.
Would that Christians were as relentless in their pursuit of Christian objectives! For it appears that the exercise of our being Christian leaves much to be desired. For some, being Christian means professing the Roman Catholic faith against every effort of born-again Christians to demonstrate how false the Roman Catholic Church is—it is being a catolico cerrado, even though one does not notice how well they exercise their profession of faith. For others, being Christian is identified with doing what the so-called practicing Catholics are supposed to do—go to Mass on Sunday, abstain on Friday, go to confession and receive other sacraments, and die Catholic. This brand of Catholicism, one notices, is often extremely individualistic, without regard for the common aspiration of the community of Christians, like the parish or the diocese. Against this background, one cannot therefore fail to notice what is remarkable with the Hamas! One can only hope that Christians are as unyielding in their enthusiasm for Christian values that the community needs—like peace and justice.
Still, being Christian is more than that—it is more than an ideology to pursue. In today’s Gospel, Matthew outlines for us the basics of discipleship. First of all, it is a profession of Jesus as the Messiah, as was seen in the Gospel last Sunday. But not just any kind of Messiah—he is a crucified Messiah: “From then on Jesus [the Messiah] started to indicate to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly there at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and to be put to death, and raised up on the third day” (Matt 16:21). The first reading gives us a model of what it means to accept the implication of a profession of faith. Jeremiah’s faith in a God who placed his words in his mouth, setting him over nations and kingdoms to root up and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant (Jer 1:7-10), brought him derision and reproach, making him the object of laughter and mockery (Jer 20:7-8). Similarly, a profession of belief in the messiahship of Jesus entails a living out of that faith in sharing the life and death of the Messiah. Just to make sure that this is not misunderstood, Matthew tells us that when Peter remonstrated Jesus that the Messiah could not suffer and die, tagged him—this man Peter who a moment ago was called blessed—with a harsh appellation, “Satan,” who was trying to make the Messiah trip and fall (Matt 16:22). Matthew seems to portray the apostle Peter as adhering only to a theology of glory and power. That is why Jesus corrected him by offering him a theology of the cross. To profess belief in the messiahship of Jesus is to share in his life and destiny.
How does one share in the life and death of the Messiah? Jesus explained to his followers the practical implications of the theology of the cross: “If a man wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and begin to follow in my footsteps” (Matt 16:24). In Filipino popular religiosity, self-denial is sometimes identified with being an ascetic, or engaging in self-flagellation, as is done in some parts of Luzon during Holy Week. Still, one can be an ascetic or a self-flagellant and still remain self-centered. Such a view of self-denial could justify and encourage various forms of oppression. Rather, denying oneself on the one hand implies the affirmation of one’s being a child of God and therefore subordination of his will and desire to God’s will as expressed in the life of Jesus. Obviously, this entails negation of self-centeredness, a complete severance from what people crave after—all forms of self-seeking and self-promotion. It means death to pride, selfishness, and lust for pleasure and power. It means no to self-assertion. On the other hand, it means replacing one’s very “I” with Christ, who alone is the real wealth, all others being counted as rubbish (Phil 3:8b).
In saying that one must take up the cross, Jesus did not mean that this has to be done literally, as do some flagellantes during Holy Week, although it could lead to that. What is meant here is the acceptance of suffering entailed in following Jesus—the rejection and ridicule, opposition and sacrifice of one’s very life, which could literally include carrying the cross and being crucified in it, though today there are other ways of doing this. In following the Lord, one is formed in the pattern of his death. In the words of St Paul, I wish to know “how to share in his sufferings by being formed into the pattern of his death” (Phil 3:10). That way, one carries in his body the death of Jesus: “We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; full of doubts, we never despair. We are persecuted but never abandoned; we are struck down but never destroyed. Continually we carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may be revealed. While we live, we are constantly being delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our mortal bodies” (2 Cor 4:8-11). This mystery of the cross is likewise reflected in a deutero-Pauline letter; “Even now I find my joy in the suffering I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church” (Col 1:24).