August 29, 2020 // The Sunday Gospel
Our reward awaits if we follow Jesus even unto death
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Book of Jeremiah provides this weekend’s first reading. Jeremiah was the son of a priest, Hilkiah, and therefore of the priestly caste. He was active as a prophet for two generations. Critics denounced him as disloyal to his people and race because Jeremiah was so blunt and direct. Angry listeners at times went so far as to threaten his life. Once, he was thrown into a cistern and left to die, but he survived.
He withstood these criticisms, and he did not relent in protesting the disloyalty to God.
Jeremiah was eloquent. He describes his vocation as a “fire burning” in his heart.
Never questioning his role as a prophet as resulting from his acceptance of God’s call, he also vigorously complained to God that this divine call had led him into the abuse and rejection that he experienced. He was frank even with the Almighty.
Always, in all his prophecy, Jeremiah believed that the people’s sinfulness would send the entire society to doom. Sinful people brought disaster upon themselves. So, speaking as a prophet whom God had called, Jeremiah could not be quiet as he observed the people’s sinfulness.
St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans offers the second reading. In it, Paul pleads with his readers, the Christian Romans, “to offer” their bodies “as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God.” All around these Christians in the great imperial capital was a culture, let alone code of law, utterly at odds with the Gospel of Jesus. Embedded in this culture were hedonism, gross materialism and idolatry.
St. Paul was no hysteric. Ominous for all believers was the political and legal antagonism against Christianity. People knew what he was predicting for those who kept the faith. Christians were hunted, abused, tormented and executed under terrifying circumstances. Paul himself would be executed.
Paul urged the Christian Romans to resist the culture at all costs. Life with God, eternally, would be the reward.
For its last reading, the Church this weekend presents a passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel. In the story, the Apostles were with the Lord, learning, listening and in dialogue. Jesus foretold the crucifixion and resurrection. Peter exclaimed that nothing like Calvary should ever occur. The Lord reminded Peter that such were human thoughts. Then, Jesus told them that obstacles lay ahead as they pursued their vocations as Christians and apostles. He said that they would be required to take up their own crosses.
It was no figure of speech. They got the message. Crucifixion was a common process of execution under Roman law. Being true to Christ meant the risk, if not the likelihood, of being executed, possibly by crucifixion. The Lord’s kingdom is not of this world. Christian reward will not be of this world, but it will be glorious and brilliant in the world to come.
Many long centuries have passed since Jeremiah. Indeed, almost 20 centuries have elapsed since the preaching of Jesus and of Paul. Regardless of the day or time, however, these readings present realities that human beings everlastingly ignore or defy.
Humans create the circumstances around them; the presumptions, attitudes, responses and the laws. Jeremiah was right.
Strong obstacles press against people when they wish to follow their better judgments by following the Lord and obeying the commandments of God. Humans so easily and inevitably either shrink before hardship or fall for the logic of other humans.
Many early Christians found these hardships in their own crucifixions. They resisted mere human logic. For good cause, Paul continually reminded his audiences to face facts, and to resist these impulses.
Jesus vividly taught in this weekend’s Gospel that while challenges come, a great reward also comes to the devout. But it will be a reward not of this world.
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