In the Gospel lesson this morning, it seems to me that we come to a point where Mark is revealing to us that Jesus had come to a very decisive moment in his life. This is maybe two thirds of the way through his public life where he had gathered disciples around him, where he had begun to preach and teach, do wonderful works of mercy and love. But all the time he was evidently trying to determine exactly what God was asking of him.
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Remember, Jesus is fully human so he is learning as he goes along. I have a sense that when Jesus challenges the disciples (as he does today and challenges all of us about following him), he has come to this point after much reflection. We’re all familiar with the beginning of the public life of Jesus where he goes off into the desert and fasts for 40 days and 40 nights, and then afterwards he’s tempted. Do you remember the temptation?
First, it’s to accumulate all the wealth you can get, turn stones into bread, and then to become a wonderworker and draw attention to yourself, drop yourself on the pinnacle of the temple and let God’s angels hold you up. But then finally, Satan says, “Worship me and I will give you all the kingdoms of the earth.” It’s a temptation to power, domination, and violence. Jesus says, “Be gone, Satan.” But then in the Gospel where that account is recorded we’re told, “Satan left for a time.”
So Jesus, evidently, was tempted again and again to those very things — to wealth, greed, power, violence, and domination. I have a sense that he must have done much reflecting on the Word of God, which we’re all called to do. For example, in chapter 55 of the Book of Isaiah, “Seek God while God may be found. Call to God while God is near; turn to God for God will have mercy. For our God is generous and forgiving. ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts; my ways are not your ways. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts.’ ”
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When Jesus says to Peter, “You’re thinking according to a human way, not God’s way,” Jesus was aware that God’s ways are so different, “As high as the heavens are above the earth, my thoughts, my ways are different from your ways.” Then Jesus, too, must have been reflecting on those Servant Songs, “God has taught me, so I speak as God’s disciple. Morning after morning God wakes me up to hear, to listen like a disciple.”
Then Isaiah, in recording that song, goes on to tell, “God has opened my ear. I have not rebelled, not withdrawn. I offered my back to those who strike me.” This servant accepts suffering rather than inflicting suffering. He even accepts death rather than killing. That’s even clearer in the first Servant Song, which I’m sure many times Jesus must have prayed over — that one that I’m sure we’re all familiar with in chapter 42 of Isaiah.
“Here is my servant whom I uphold, My Chosen One. I put my Spirit upon him. He will bring true justice, peace to the nations. He does not shout or raise his voice. Proclamations and call to war are not heard in the streets. He will not break a broken reed or quench a wavering flame.” This servant of God is gentle, loving, drawing forth life and goodness, and ultimately bringing peace without violence, without domination, without power. He doesn’t break the bruised reed; he nurtures it. He doesn’t quench the wavering flame; he draws it into fullness.
That’s the kind of servant Jesus knows he has to become. That’s when he announces after the disciples say, “Yes, you are the Messiah. You are the Anointed One.” They were looking for someone who would come and overthrow the Romans, lead a revolution — a violent revolution. That’s what they were looking for. That’s where Jesus says, “No,” to Peter, “Get behind me, you Satan.”
You see Peter, I’m sure, thought, “Oh look, he’s got these crowds following him, people coming from everywhere. How easy it would be to develop a revolution and overthrow that Roman conqueror who persecutes and oppresses us.” There was a movement to do that, of course. Judas was one of the members of that movement. That’s when Jesus says so harshly to Peter, “Get behind me. You’re a Satan, a stumbling block because you’re not listening to God’s Word. You’re following human ways.”
Obviously, as we hear these lessons today, the challenge is to every one of us. Who do you say Jesus is? Who do I say Jesus is? Are we ready to say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God? Of course you would have all truth. Your ways would be God’s ways. Your teachings would be God’s teachings.” How can we not follow them if we really say, “You are the Christ; you are the Anointed One”?
As Jesus was challenged, he gradually came to understand clearly what God was asking of him and accepting it that he would, again, not inflict suffering but accept suffering, not kill but chose to be killed instead, never use violence, transform the world through love, through the way of mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation. Only those are the ways that bring peace. Some years ago, I read about Gen. Lee Butler who was the head of the Strategic Air Command in Omaha.
He was the one who had the control over firing our nuclear arsenal. If the president called and gave the command, he would have to do it. He was under oath to carry out that command, and all of those stationed there, of course, also. General Butler, at some point, began to think about what that meant. If those weapons were ever fired, tens of millions of people would be destroyed in minutes.
Our planet would be devastated, become what people called a nuclear winter with no possibility for life. General Butler realized, “If I receive the command, I can’t do it. I could never do that.” So he resigned. Then he began to (and he still does) try to teach throughout our nation that we must give up those weapons. That’s not the way of Jesus. That’s not the way toward peace. War can never bring peace. Violence can’t bring peace.
Power doesn’t really change things; it makes things worse. Yet, don’t we live in a culture of violence, a culture that says, “We have to become the most powerful nation in the world? We have been; we must be.” That’s not the way of Jesus. This is a very hard lesson, obviously. Peter and those first disciples had a hard time accepting it. In fact, Peter at first rejected it. What are we going to say?
The pope is coming here shortly; we’re all aware of it. The last time Pope John Paul — St. John Paul, now and then before him, Pope Paul VI spoke before the United Nations, they offered a message to our country and to the world about war. Paul said it first, “War never again! No, never again war. You can’t have war. We’ll destroy the world. It will end everything.”
John Paul went further, “Never again war because it destroys innocent lives (in the tens of thousands and millions, even). It throws into an upheaval the lives of those who do the killing because they learn to hate in order to kill. It always leaves behind a trail of hatred and resentment to make it all the more difficult to resolve the very problems that provoke the war.” I’m sure that Francis is going to preach that kind of a message to the United Nations once more, maybe not the same words, although John Paul took Paul’s words.
He might do the same thing, trying to convince us that power and violence and domination are not the way to peace. I hope we can hear the lesson from Pope Francis, but even more from our Scripture today and that we can say, “Yes, I will accept the summons. I will follow Jesus and begin in my personal life to find ways to be a person of forgiveness and reconciliation and love. And then try to spread that in my neighborhood, in my community, and promote that within our nation so that we can be a nation who, each of us, becomes truly a disciple of Jesus Christ in order to bring the fullness of life and peace and joy into our world to transform this world into the very reign of God. That’s our call. Today as we celebrate this Eucharist we must pray that we have the courage to follow Jesus, the way, the truth and the life.
[Homily given at St. Philomena Catholic Church in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]