22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jer 20:7-9; Rm 12:1-2; Mt 16:21-27
Our three readings this morning seem to group themselves around the theme of suffering. And their message seems to be that running away from suffering doesn’t work–we’re better off embracing it and letting it do its transforming work.
Of course, there is suffering that we cannot avoid; and then there is suffering that we can, and should, avoid. I am speaking, obviously, of the former.
In our first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah, we hear the voice of one who has been through the crucible of suffering: “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.” From the far side of the ordeal, looking back, he can now see that God was up to something. He had a plan, something that he wanted to accomplish, something that would make Jeremiah an even better person. But the sentiments in the midst of it were anything but pleasant. He continues: “All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me. . . . the word of the Lord has brought me derision and reproach all the day.”
Jeremiah then tries to flee from his suffering: “I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more.” However, there is no getting away from it; it just burns all the more: “But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.”
There seems to be a pattern of seeing the suffering, fleeing the suffering, embracing the suffering, and then, finally, appreciating the suffering.
Picture being on the beach at the ocean. You’ve gone out in the water and it’s knee-deep. Wave after wave comes in. You’re able to jump the waves and keep your head above them. But as you walk out deeper, you can no longer jump over the waves. If you see the wave coming and try to run away from it, it doesn’t work. The wave just overtakes you and things turn out messy. But if you have faith and lean into the wave when it approaches, you come out the other side in great shape and you’re ready to take on another wave.
In our gospel reading we heard the words: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders.” And what is Peter’s response? True to form, he sees the suffering coming and his instinct is to flee it. He loves Jesus deeply and can’t bear the thought of seeing him tortured and killed. In his care for his Master he blurts out, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” But this only brings down on him the strong rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
I think the key idea here is the contrast of thinking as God does versus the way human beings do. We naturally abhor suffering and try our best to avoid it. While we’re in it, we feel unhappy and sometimes even bitter and resentful. That’s viewing suffering as a human being. God, however, sees it from a much higher vantage point. Although it pains him to see us hurting as we go through it, he has in his sights the growth and maturity and depth that we will have gained when it is over.
The contrast of the two views of suffering is brought out beautifully in Jesus’ next statement: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” What seems absolutely absurd from our human perspective makes all the sense in the world to God.
Take for instance the topic in this gospel passage. The intense suffering of Jesus and the sacrifice of his life, when embraced by him, instead of resisted, accomplished the redemption of the world.
As pointed out already, it is only natural for us to want to flee from suffering and complain while in it. It is comforting to realize that even Jesus, being fully human like us, experienced the same aversion for suffering. In preparing for this homily I was discussing it with one of my sisters. She pointed out that in the painting of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Little Boy Jesus sees the instruments of his torture and flees so fast that as he jumps into his mother’s lap one of his sandals almost falls off. The look on his little face, too, shows that he is not ready to embrace that salvific suffering yet.
In the Garden of Gethsemane we see the same human Jesus struggling with the urge to flee and the urge to embrace. “Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me.” The trial is so great that blood flows from his sweat glands and falls to the ground. But finally he leans into the wave, “Father, not my will be done, but thine.”
Our second reading exhorts: “. . . offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” Who of us does not experience physical ailments from time to time? These can be embraced and offered up to God as a sacrifice, holy and pleasing to him. And St. Paul goes on to instruct us, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” This fits in nicely with a line from our gospel reading, “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” However, going against the current of the world is going to entail suffering. Like Jeremiah in our first reading, it will bring us derision and reproach, we will be mocked and become the object of laughter. If we hang in there, though, the payoff will be well worth it. Our gospel concludes with, “For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”
Perhaps this image might be helpful to illustrate the eventual benefits of suffering. A pearl starts out as a very troublesome and annoying, sharp little rock in an oyster’s shell. Think of times when you’ve had a pebble in your shoe or sandal. That darn foreign object makes the poor little oyster’s life miserable. I’m sure it would love to eject it if it could. But since it can’t, it starts making the best of the situation and begins to slowly enwrap it with some kind of mineral. The end product is a beautiful, precious pearl. That lovely pearl which you see on someone’s neck would never have come about without suffering. We, too, can bring pearls out of our suffering.
While we’re in the thick of it, and no pearls are in sight, it can help to run, like the little Boy Jesus in the painting, and jump into Mother Mary’s lap. She will comfort us and help get us through it. She definitely knows what it’s like to suffer. One of her many titles is Our Lady of Sorrows.
We should also cling to Jesus and unite our suffering to his. As a friend wrote me recently, “There is much meaning around the sufferings that Jesus allows me to endure so when I hang these realities on His Cross with Him I realize that these sufferings are His and mine… I feel then joy in knowing that I am relieving some of His suffering and my rejoicing is doubled because they bond me to our Mother of Sorrows as I do my best to offer her some consolation.”
“I think crying enters into the deepest heart of Jesus and that in itself is a great consolation to me! How blessed we are! What joy to be crying into His heart! I was told “never be ashamed of your tears”. In this sense crying is for me agony and ecstasy all at once! It’s amazing and sounds a bit crazy to find happiness in one’s agony and to want more of it!”
May we too have the courage to lean into the wave and embrace our suffering.