Give us this day our daily cross
Reading this week’s Gospel and first reading, hardship and suffering is clearly the main theme. A closer reading shows that it is when God becomes involved in a person’s life that this suffering follows.
This threw up some challenging questions about the nature of God, especially from prophet Jeremiah’s point of view, who accuses God of some decidedly underhand tactics, and Peter’s when he is harshly put down for his well-intentioned attempts to calm Jesus’ worries about suffering and dying.
The end of the Gospel makes clear that if we want to be followers of Jesus, (which we are certain we do), we have to be ready to pick up our cross each day, (which, at the start, we were fairly certain we aren’t).
Q1 How can a well-intentioned Peter be doing Satan’s work?
Immediately after Peter has made his breakthrough and recognised that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, he has to learn what sort of Messiah Jesus will be, (Matthew 16:21-27). To be more accurate, he has to unlearn everything he had been taught to expect. The first lesson Jesus teaches overturns completely Peter’s expectations of a triumphant messiah who will come in power and glory. Jesus makes it clear that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer… to be put to death and to rise up on the third day.’
Peter’s reaction – ‘this mustn’t happen’ – provokes an angry outburst from Jesus. To call Peter Satan, i.e. evil and an obstacle in Jesus’ path seemed to us to be a harsh overreaction, since Peter’s instinct to protect Jesus seems perfectly reasonable. Firstly, he is acting as any good friend in saying ‘we’ll be there to protect you’; secondly, Peter’s understanding of the Messiah involves victory, so his ‘this must not happen to you’ is really saying ‘we can’t let your mission end in failure’. ‘Heaven preserve you’ is as much a statement of belief as it is an appeal to heaven for help.
It is this second reason which Jesus reacts so strongly to. Although acting with good motives, Peter is unwittingly wanting Jesus to act as he thinks a messiah should act, i.e. he is thinking in a human way. Jesus tells him that he must think in God’s way, otherwise he becomes an obstacle and therefore doing Satan’s work.
We did note that Jesus didn’t want to suffer or die, (thinking ahead to his suffering in Gethsemane), and that he had only come to his understanding of God’s way after a huge struggle with the devil in the desert, so perhaps his reaction to Peter was because he heard Satan’s temptations to put God to the side and follow human thinking resurfacing. As a human, Jesus constantly had to struggle with conflicts and temptation. (Although we see his prediction of rising on the third day as Jesus being clairvoyant about Easter Sunday, it is far more likely that he was using this phrase in the sense of Hosea 6:2, where the prophet says that God will strike us but ‘on the third day he will raise us up’. Jesus was, in other words saying that his destiny is to suffer, but he has full faith in God that death will not be the end.)
Q2 What kind of God sends his son to die?
Here and in the other predictions of his death, Jesus is clear that he must die: somehow, his death is a vital part of his mission; he was ‘destined’ to die. This raises the obvious question, why? As we discussed this, it became clear that two very different versions of God emerge from the different answers.
It is part of Christian belief that Christ died for our sins, (1 Cor. 15:3). However, most of those in the discussion were uncomfortable with the idea many had grown up with that this means that Jesus had to die to pay for our sins (and the sin of Adam). As this payment is, apparently, to God, this leads to the conclusion that God is effectively saying ‘the gates are locked until I’m paid what’s owed to me’ – an image that is hard to reconcile with a loving God, the one Jesus teaches about, e.g. in the Prodigal Son, forgiving tax collectors and the adulterous woman etc. etc.
Jesus is aware that his actions and teachings make his death inevitable, but it is humans who will kill him. He is specific that it will be the members of the Sanhedrin who will kill him, in Jerusalem. Again, this is not so much clairvoyance as an awareness of the growing opposition to his teachings and actions, as well as an awareness of history: as he says in Mt 23:37, ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets’. He is fully aware that anyone making enemies in high places will end up being persecuted and killed. He is also aware that it is doing God’s work which will create powerful enemies. Jesus’ teachings that all people mattered and that nobody was excluded from his love challenged the foundations upon which the lifestyles of the rich and powerful are built, whilst his teachings about God challenged the teachings of the religious ‘experts’ to the point where they either had to agree with him or get rid of him. Jesus didn’t have to die; he could have compromised his teachings and actions by thinking as humans do and so avoiding these conflicts (or using power to crush his opponents). If, however, he was to think and act in God’s way, opposition and death were inevitable consequences. This was the common experience of prophets, and was certainly evident in the first reading, (Jeremiah 20:7-9).
Q3 Do those chosen by God lose their free will?
In this first section of Jeremiah’s ‘confession’, he is clearly furious with God, who he accuses God of using his power to seduce him and blames God for bringing so much trouble and persecution on him. In a sense, Jeremiah is right in what he says: doing God’s work has led to all his troubles and to derision. Understandably, he wants to walk away – ‘I will not think of him anymore, I will not speak his name anymore’ – but he can’t: a fire within him is raging, and, try as he might to restrain it, he can’t. Clearly, his whole life has been given to God and he can’t get away. This led to a discussion about commitment, centred on the question ‘Do you envy Jeremiah’s burning zeal, his passion, or do you prefer not to take things too far?’
One concern raised was that this sounded dangerously like an obsession or being trapped rather than a vigorous vocation. The way he talks, (and the way he curses the day he was born in vs 14-18) suggests he has no free will, that his life has been taken over by God. However, this is a man talking in the middle of a deep and painful crisis. It is worth reading the whole of Jeremiah’s ‘confession’ to see how he swings between anger at God and faith that God will not leave him. It’s a good summary of any vibrant, passionate relationship where the two partners are committed to each other! Anyone who is married or who at one stage made a permanent commitment to a person or, e.g. the religious life was free when they did so, but that doesn’t mean they understand what they are letting themselves in for. None of us can know the future, or the turbulent waters ahead. The free commitment is made because of the insight that somehow this person, this way of life, is what really matters. The commitment is not to a known future with guarantees of a smooth ride; it is to a bigger future, to a person or way of life that will take us beyond what we know at present.
Jeremiah has committed himself – freely – to serving God. We felt that the fire within was a sign that he knew he was part of something which mattered deeply to him: like Jesus, it was obedience to God – your will, not mine – which drove Jeremiah. We felt that he was saying, ‘Despite my anger, and all the trouble, I couldn’t give this up for a quiet life.’ He was caught up in God’s passion for the human race, and without this, life would lose its meaning. The bigger life which he’d been called to – being part of God’s work to change human behaviour and free them from their limits – had brought him into conflict.
It was with this understanding that we could approach the second part of the Gospel and ‘pick up our crosses.’
Q4 What does ‘pick up your cross’ mean in our age?
One of the problems with the imagery is that we often hear the phrase, ‘we all have our cross to bear’ used when someone is having a difficult time, e.g. a long-term illness. To Jesus’ audience, the cross was the instrument of oppression used by the all-powerful Romans to keep people in line: anyone who caused them trouble would face this agonising and shameful death. In Galilee where Jesus was saying ‘you must pick up your cross’, memories of the way the Romans dealt with rebellion against the census were still raw: there were so many crucifixions that they ran out of trees.
Jesus was teaching that his mission to establish God’s reign, to bring the Good News, would mean that anyone involved in his work would face the same rejection by ‘the establishment’, (religious and political), that he would. For many, this would literally mean death, but the real focus is not on the reaction but on what Jesus was striving for when he talks of ‘saving your life and losing it’. ‘Life’ has three meanings: living and breathing, the essence of you, (soul) and the life you are a part of. Jesus invites us to follow him into a life of obedience to the infinite God’s invitation to be part of his work of establishing the Kingdom. In saying followers have to ‘save their life by losing it’, he is saying that each of us have to make a clear choice: accept the invitation to live by his new teachings and in obedience to the Laws of love of God and people, or to stick with the old life and ‘fit in’.
His disciples had already made a free choice to follow him in response to his call – kindling the fire within. They became part of his mission to establish the Kingdom of God, which earthly kingdoms would resist.
Whilst we may not be facing persecution, there will be occasions, in daily life and when we come to crossroads, or occasionally our own Gethsemane, where we face the choice of ‘My will or thy will be done’. Choosing human ways of thinking isn’t necessarily bad, but it is limited to human horizons. Choosing God’s way of thinking is to obey the promptings of the Spirit, to become part of God’s work. As his plans for all of us are bigger than anything we could dream of for ourselves, this will mean being misunderstood and being rejected, (the cross). If we avoid this conflict, we will keep our present life, but if will lose a much bigger one. ‘Anything for a quiet life’ means putting the cross down and losing the life that matters.
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