foundation or stumbling block?

Sometimes, we simply fail to see the forest for the tree. Too often we see only ourselves, thinking only of our needs, our desires, our wants. We look inside ourselves for the answers and when the answers elude us, we blame others, we blame God, but never once do we find fault within our own self.

Get Behind Me, Satan!

We ask ourselves, “Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” and we glibly answer our own question: “Of course he does!” But then, doesn’t that hold true for everyone, not just for ourselves?

If God really wants us to be happy, what should we make of what we hear Jesus say in the Gospel: “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.” Denying one’s self, carrying a cross, and losing one’s life hardly seems the best path to happiness; more a rough rocky road, filled with ruts and potholes, resulting in much suffering and pain.

Perhaps a brief parable will serve to illustrate our self-centered blindness:

A middle-aged man had decided to divorce his dowdy wife after twenty years to marry a much younger, prettier woman. He explained his decision to his devastated wife in this way: “God wants me to be happy,” he told her, ”and I am no longer happy with you. I know I will be happy with her.”

Would not God want his dowdy wife to be happy as well? Yet, it would seem, as far as his wife’s happiness is concerned, the man could just as well have said, “God wants me to be happy, but he doesn’t give a fig for yours.”

The parable illustrates common selfishness, how the callous disregard for the suffering of others too often blinds us to the truth.

Such callousness is all too familiar, such evil surrounds us every day. What should shock us—the callous disregard for human life, the promotion of self-serving, self-centered ideologies, the immorality and evil condoned by the media and permitted by the government—no longer offend us, we have become tranquilized, numb to the pain.

These evils show us the sickness and depravity of the post-fall condition of man. We seek our own happiness, our own power, our own pleasure over the greater good, even at the cost of uncaring cruelty and utter disregard for the welfare of others.

What we would ignore is this simple truth: Happiness cannot nor will it ever be found within ourselves. A heart willing to obtain happiness at the expense of others will never find it.

We are wounded, broken, fallen creatures in constant need of healing and forgiveness. Happiness comes from healing; the love of God and the healing power of Jesus Christ. Jesus shows us the way, the true meaning of Christian love. Over the past few weeks we have heard how Jesus gradually revealed his true self to his disciples. He showed them that he was not just a teacher, a preacher, or a good friend, but the incarnate word of God, God made man, the full and complete revelation of divine love. Just last week we heard Peter say, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

This week we find Jesus attempting to prepare his disciples for what was yet to come: that for the good of all he came into the world; for the good of the world he must “suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” But they were not ready to hear it, they did not wish to hear that the Christ, their Messiah, was meant to suffer and die.

Peter was simply aghast at the notion, even rebuking Jesus for speaking such thoughts. After all, Jesus was the Christ, the son of the living God, with the power to avoid suffering at the hands of men. Peter tells Jesus to avoid such pain and suffering by selfishly using his divine powers.

For Jesus to do as Peter suggested would have been to act according to his self-seeking, self-centered human nature, to pursue happiness through wealth, power, and prestige. But Jesus was not only human, he was also divine, and his divine nature kept him from falling for the temptations of the devil.

Jesus knew temptation; he knew the wiles of the devil. He had been tempted by the devil in the desert and he had prevailed against him. Remember, Jesus went into the desert for a reason. He knew that the desert was a place where, stripped of all that normally nourishes and supports, the desert is where one comes face-to-face with chaos, fear, and our demons. In the desert, body and soul are made vulnerable, exposed to the chaos and every form of temptation.

But, precisely because we are so stripped of everything we normally rely on, this is also a privileged moment for grace. Why? Because all the defense mechanisms, support systems, and distractions that we normally surround ourselves with so as to keep chaos and fear at bay work at the same time to keep much of God’s grace at bay. What we use to buoy us up wards off both chaos and grace, demons and the divine alike. Conversely, when we are helpless we are open. That is why the desert is both the place of chaos and the place of God’s closeness.1

Thus, Jesus snaps back at Peter’s rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”  But is Jesus really calling Peter the devil? Well, no. This is where something meaningful is lost in the translation.

Two words found in the Greek account call for closer examination.

The Greek word used in Matthew for “obstacle” is skandalon, which literally means “stumbling block.” Last week we heard Jesus name Simon, the Rock, the foundation stone of his church. This week, that foundation stone suddenly becomes a stumbling block.

Yet, we scarcely notice this, so shocked are we in hearing Jesus say, “Get behind me, Satan!” We equate Satan with the devil, but in the Greek, satan merely means “adversary” or “opponent.”

Matthew (and Mark, though not Luke or John) dares to present Peter opposing Jesus in this matter of a suffering Messiah, apparently because he knows that Peter eventually learns and accepts the whole truth, and even loses his own life (in Rome) witnessing to Jesus as crucified and risen. This foundation-stone-become-stumbling-stone stands as a cautionary tale for all of us who are called to serve with authority in the Church, a reality that surely extends to parents with respect to their children and teachers with respect to students. The good news is that, by the grace of God, rehabilitation is not only possible but likely, if we pray.2

Paul writes, in the second reading, urging us to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.” He admonishes us to not conform ourselves to this age, but to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” Paul tells us that the most pleasing offering to God is not a dead animal but our own living bodies, not in suicidal immolation but in the way we live our lives, by using our gifts in service, hospitality and prayer for the glory of God.

Conforming ourselves to the will of God is, as Jeremiah complains, never the way to tranquility and peace. “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.” Jeremiah suffered humiliation, was mocked and derided, so much so, that he finally told God he had had enough. But God refused to acknowledge his complaint.

Following Christ costs the follower. What must be paid is a willingness to let go of our hunger for security, approval, and comfort; to take up our own cross of love and give ourselves away, to abandon our images of success and schemes of self-indulgence.3

Let us remind ourselves, as often as possible, of our limitations and failures. Let us recall what Jesus told Peter: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Let us always conform our lives to God will and not to our own.

Amen.

Homily #138
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Jeremiah 20:7-9
Romans 12:1-2
Matthew 16:21-27


1 Ron Rolheiser, In Exile: The Desert—The Place of God’s Closeness, The Sunday Website of St. Louis University.
2 Dennis Hamm, SJ, Stumbling Stone, Burning Heart, Living Sacrifice, The Sunday Website of St. Louis University.
3 John Kavanaugh, SJ, Not Conforming to the Age, The Sunday Website of St. Louis University.

Deacon Chuck

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: http://deaconscorner.org. Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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