The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Jeremiah 20:7-9 ─ Romans 12:1-2 ─ Matthew 16:21-27
August 28, 2011
“You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” [Matthew 16:23]
When you were little, you probably played “King of the Hill”. Of course in our part of Kansas you don’t find too many actual hills, but for the purpose of playing the game, just about anything will serve as a “hill”: a shed, a junk pile, a van. The point of the game doesn’t rely on what the hill is. The goal is to bring down the king, so a better king can climb.
Among adults, this same game takes many different forms. You can read or listen through mass media every day about elaborate games of “King of the Hill”. Some of these games are played in Washington, D.C. (or on a smaller hill, in Topeka). The history of politics, both in our own country and in every form of government through the ages, is full of examples of espionage, blackmail, and even murder in order to bring down the one in charge. Julius Caesar, Charles I and Abraham Lincoln all paid with their lives because others wanted to bring them down by whatever means necessary. Brutus, Parliament, and John Wilkes Booth imagined that a more virtuous emperor, a wiser king, and a more loyal president could ascend to power in the stead of those they brought down.
Fortunately for you and me, most of life is not as tragic as the downfall of Caesar or Lincoln. But it is tragic that one of the surest proofs of Original Sin is the pleasure that human beings take in seeing the mighty fall. This is part of the popularity of tabloids, showing as they do how the famous of Hollywood have faults, failings and sins like the rest of us. Even professional sports are filled with stories that capture the attention of those who don’t even care for sports. Think of the sport that’s considered by many to be the most gentlemanly: golf. In spite of the sport’s genteel manner, what sort of media circus exploded to cover the downfall of Tiger Woods?
Our wiser and older members who grew up in St. Mark’s will tell you that the German word schadenfreude means taking pleasure in the downfall of others. Maybe this tendency comes from wanting there to be a level playing field, where we tell ourselves that the great and mighty are not really any greater or mightier than me [sic]. But what schadenfreude overlooks is the fact that there really are hills in this world. It’s true that every human being is certainly equal to every other human being when it comes to dignity, intrinsic worth, and love in God’s sight. But God has not given equal gifts to all his children.
This very plain fact—that God has not given equal gifts to his children—is sometimes obscured, however, by one of the most challenging verses of the Bible. It’s not found in any of our readings this Sunday, but it bears directly on the confrontation in today’s Gospel between Jesus and His apostle Simon. This confrontation is all the more astounding because, just moments earlier—in the passage we heard last Sunday—Jesus had given Simon a gift without equal. Jesus, just moments before this tense confrontation, placed on Simon’s shoulders the gift of leading Jesus’ Church following His Ascension.
In giving this gift, Jesus had even changed Simon’s name. Jesus gave Simon the name “Peter”. You know that the name “Peter” literally means “Rock”. But think about the significance of Jesus giving him this name. Every time that someone addresses him by name—every time that someone calls out “Peter!”—his mind is going to flip back in time to that moment we heard of last Sunday, and to the One who declared: “I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church….”
And so Simon, having been given a new name and gift, shows us today that he is unworthy of and unready for both. Last Sunday Jesus declared, “I will build my church.” This Sunday He begins to build. How does he build? With stone and mortar? With brick and wood? With books and maps? No. It’s just two verses after Jesus says to Peter, “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,” that “Jesus began to show his disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly…and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
This is the bedrock on which the Church’s foundation is set. Here is the foundation of following Jesus. But Peter does not want to follow Jesus. Peter wants to stop Him. Peter refuses to accept that His Master must…suffer greatly…and be killed. It’s easy to imagine that Peter didn’t even hear the words “and on the third day be raised.” Jesus’ proclamation of His coming Passion and Death is a stumbling stone for Peter. Peter refuses so strongly that he cries out, “God forbid!”
We have to imagine that Peter spoke these words in all charity. It’s clear that he spoke in ignorance. Peter does not see that Jesus was building His Church: that the Passion and Death of Jesus are the bedrock on which the Gospel will rise. There can be no Resurrection if there is no Passion and Death. There can be no forgiveness of sins if there is no Resurrection. And if there is no forgiveness, there can only be eternal punishment for all mankind in hell.
We have to grant that Peter does not hear the full Gospel. Peter’s mind and heart are stuck on hearing that Jesus must suffer and die. Peter loves his Master. Peter is unwilling to accept the price. Peter is unwilling to see that Jesus’ Passion and Death are the price for the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life.
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“More is demanded of those / to whom more is given.” What has Jesus given you? If you don’t know what Jesus has given you, you can’t understand what Jesus is demanding from you. The two always go together, and that’s why this verse is one of the most challenging in the whole Bible.
Peter doesn’t know what Jesus has given him, so he doesn’t understand what Jesus is demanding. Peter doesn’t know the Gospel of salvation, so he doesn’t understand how to be the Rock of Jesus’ Church. Peter imagines that he’s doing good when he cries, “God forbid!” He doesn’t understand that these words are a stumbling stone. Peter is playing an old game. He wants to bring down the King from the hill of Calvary. Peter imagines that he himself is being more virtuous, wiser and more loyal to God than Jesus. “God forbid!” “Abandon the plan to scale Calvary, Jesus!”
“More is demanded of those / to whom more is given.” What has Jesus given you? Jesus has given Peter the gift of leading His universal Church, and to that gift Peter says, “God forbid!” Against Simon Peter, Jesus applies two salves of bitter medicine. Jesus calls Simon Peter “Satan”, which literally means “adversary”. Peter has made himself Jesus’ adversary in Peter’s game of “King of the Hill”. And so Jesus explains this rebuke plainly, saying, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
The gifts God gives each of us are given for His sake, not ours. God gives us gifts for the sake of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church. When we listen authentically for God’s voice in the Sacred Liturgy, in our personal prayer, and in our conscience, we hear an invitation from Our Lord. Here at the beginning of Peter’s life as “the Rock”, Peter understands poorly what lays before him. But remember the end of the Gospel: in John’s account, in the days following the Resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Peter affirms three times that he does. And Jesus replies to him, “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep. Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this signifying by what kind of death Peter would glorify God. And when Jesus had said this, he said to Peter, “Follow me.”
“Follow me,” Jesus says. “Follow me up the hill of Calvary. Do not ask me to come down from there for you. I will not. I will remain on top of that hill for you, until I have died to take away your sins; to offer you eternal life. Follow me up to the top of Calvary. Follow me to your death, and I will give you eternal life.” This is the Gospel of our lives as Christians.
 Luke 12:48.
 see John 21:15-19.