Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done” (Matthew 16:21–27 – NRSV).
This text must be read together with the text immediately preceding it – the text we read last Sunday. In that text – Matthew 16:13-20 – we hear Peter affirm Jesus as the Messiah. We then hear Jesus affirm Peter as “the rock” on which the Church (ekklesia) is to be built, and that he – Peter – speaks with words that come from the “Father in heaven”. In the text today – Matthew 16:21-23 – we hear Peter remonstrate with Jesus, protesting that he must not go to Jerusalem and suffer and die. We then hear Jesus rebuke Peter as “a stumbling block” (skandalum, literally, “scandal”) – rather than a “rock” – and that he – Peter – is one through whom “Satan” is speaking – rather than the “Father in heaven”. The texts must be taken together, as a unit.
The point/counter-point of this whole unit suggests that the early communities had begun to come to terms with the divine-human nature of the ekklesia. The leader can, on the one hand, speak the most resounding and profound affirmation of faith, placing him firmly on the side of the Kingdom of Light. He can also be an obstacle and speak and act in ways that mean he is an instrument of the kingdom of darkness. This has been played out repeatedly in history.
From that time on: Matthew indicates a special moment in the ministry of Jesus. “(This phrase) marks the incident as of critical importance; it changed the whole thrust of Jesus’ instruction of the Twelve. Now that it was clear that the little band had come to understand that Jesus was indeed the long-promised Messiah, he proceeded to teach them something of what messiahship meant. For the Jews in general, and presumably for the Twelve up to this point, being Messiah meant unadulterated glory. The Messiah might encounter opposition and even hardship, but this kind of thing was no more than an unpleasantness that must be endured on the way to majesty and splendor. For Jesus, suffering was the essence of messiahship, and from this point on he brings it out again and again (cf. 17:9, 12, 22–23; 20:18–19, 28; 21:38–39; 26:2). Learning this was a lesson the disciples found very hard indeed.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 427-428)
Jerusalem: “Jerusalem is ‘the city of destiny for Jesus and the pivot for the salvation of mankind’ (Joseph Fitzmyer, Luke 1–9 AB, 164). Jesus has a special relationship to Jerusalem, which is the goal toward which he moves throughout the gospel. …. Matthew’s gospel, beginning with the infancy narrative, contains several references to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is called the ‘holy city’ (4:5; 27:53); Jerusalem is also described as the ‘city of the great King’ (5:35), given as the reason for not swearing by Jerusalem. Matthew (27:51 = Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45) refers to the curtain of the Jerusalem Temple being torn at the crucifixion, an indication of the new source of salvation in Jesus” (P J King, “Jerusalem (Place)”, in D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 3), New York: Doubleday, 1992, 765).
elders and chief priests and scribes: These men “constituted the highest Jewish council in Jerusalem, known as the Sanhedrin. They had supreme authority in matters of the Jewish faith, and the Roman government even allowed them to exercise some power in the regulation of Jewish life” (B M Newman, & P C Stine, A handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, New York: United Bible Societies, 1992, 527).
on the third day be raised: We can understand that this revelation of the resurrection would not have hit home. The horrible revelation that Jesus is to go to Jerusalem and die precisely as the Messiah would have made it well-nigh impossible for them to hear anything else in that moment.
let them deny themselves: In the context of Jesus’ prophetic words concerning his own journey to Jerusalem and what is to happen there, these words are powerful and central to discipleship. “Jesus is not saying that anyone who concentrates on his own selfish concerns will be punished by having his life taken from him. He is saying that, by the very fact that he concentrates on his own selfish concerns, that person has lost life in the best and fullest sense. He exists, but does not live. Jesus is speaking of the person who puts his emphasis on all that increases the sum of things he finds attractive. It is the selfishness that makes one’s personal happiness the ultimate criterion. That, Jesus says, is self-defeating; to concentrate on saving the life is to lose it. It is otherwise with anyone who loses his life for my sake. Again, there is the whoever that makes the words universal. But this time it is not only the will to lose one’s life that Jesus is speaking of, but actually losing it. This is the complete opposite of willing to save one’s life. Jesus is not talking about some masochistic activity; he is not referring to someone who has such a poor self-esteem that his life crumbles. He is referring to the person who loses his life for my sake, the one who puts the service of God’s Messiah before all else, who counts all well lost for Christ’s sake and who consequently devotes all his time to serving Christ and other people for Christ’s sake. That person will find life. He now finds that the life he lived before giving up all for Christ was not really life at all. Full and abundant life is the life of service, the life in Christ, the life that takes anyone out of concentration on merely selfish concerns and puts ultimate meaning into life.” (Leon Morris, op cit, 432).
the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father: Jesus sets the whole drama in an apocalyptic context where everyone and everything will be shown in its true light.
Which must, must win?
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 16:21-27 – Jesus tells the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem. He must go. In fact, he must suffer and die. This is central to his being the Messiah. And it does not sit well with Peter: “This must never happen to you!” The must of Jesus’ very being takes him into, not away from, pain and suffering. This conflicts sharply with the must of the world which typically tries to avoid pain and suffering. Jesus brings us up against a deeply troubling and ultimately incomprehensible fact of human existence: How are we to respond to pain and suffering?
This question is never far from the pages of the Bible. The slaves of Egypt cry out to God in pain – see Exodus 1:23f. The Psalms are full of pleas for help in suffering. Significantly, Jesus himself calls on one of those Psalms when he is dying on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” (22:1). The Book of Job dedicates forty-two chapters to the question. Four of those chapters are given over to God’s rebuttal of the responses given by Job and his friends. God’s response is the Divine Sovereignty, echoing the revelation to Moses on Sinai: “I AM WHO I AM!” (Exodus 3:14). Is there a better response?
Ultimately – I stress ultimately – pain and suffering are not problems to be solved. They are rather essential facts of the mystery that is life. This is not to glorify pain and suffering. Nor is it an attempt to dismiss opportunities to do what we can to offer relief. It is, rather, to face the inevitable. A certain amount of pain and suffering is an unavoidable fact of human existence. Our response to this fact will determine the kind of human beings we become. It can be the difference between nobility and cynicism, magnanimity and meanness, compassion and violence, humanity and inhumanity. We may not understand pain and suffering, but we can grow because of them.
A common response is typified in Peter’s reaction. Typically, we human beings are inclined towards avoidance and denial. However, our attempts at evasion can lead us into some deeply pathological behaviours. We get hints of this in our ordinary, everyday life situations. Take for example, eating as consolation leading to obesity, aggressive behaviour and even violence as symptoms of unaddressed pain, pornography and addictions of one kind or another.
Masochism is not an acceptable alternative. The best option is facing the facts in the knowledge of God’s presence. Jesus, in effect, says: “Walk with me”. This is an invitation to know him and the Father who sent him, to experience the must of the Messiah. Concretely, this can be greatly facilitated by developing the habit of facing the many little, daily manifestations of pain and suffering such as moments of inconvenience and discomfort, frustration and tedium. Let the truth encountered there gradually bring you into communion with Truth himself and your own must.