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September 13, 2009

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 8:27-35

Gospel Summary

Today's gospel passage gives us an account of the most critical turning-point in the public ministry of Jesus. The stage is set by the seemingly innocent questions of Jesus about his identity. Peter speaks for all the disciples when he declares confidently, "You are the Messiah." In view of the miracles of Jesus in Galilee that would seem to be an obvious conclusion.

Jesus, however, is deeply disturbed by this answer and the reason is immediately revealed: "He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly…" The clear implication is that he is not a Messiah in the political sense that the disciples understood. He is not interested in leading them into a war of liberation from the Romans but hopes instead to liberate them in a far more radical way from the bondage of sin and death.

Peter's strong reaction and the rebuke by Jesus should be understood as a moment of crisis when Peter is challenged to abandon human wisdom and to accept the divine way of doing things. It may be helpful to note that the word, Satan, had the original meaning of any “adversary” before it came to be the name of the great adversary of God. Accordingly, Jesus is asking Peter to avoid being his adversary but rather to stand with him in the difficult time of his suffering and death.

This challenge to Peter reminds us of the words of Isaiah: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts" (55:8-9).

Life Implications

One of the most difficult challenges in the life of a Christian is the need to move from a life guided by human wisdom to the acceptance of God's way of doing things. There is nothing wrong with human wisdom and it is certainly preferable to human folly. We need to make good and reasonable and prudent decisions in life. "Dropping out" of life is not a very good way to change things for the better.

Nonetheless, human wisdom is not an absolute reality and must therefore be subservient to a higher divine wisdom. From the teaching of Jesus, we discover that the purpose of human life is not just to acquire wealth and power but rather to direct all such human success to the divine purpose of love and service. Jesus clearly manifested human wisdom in the power and eloquence that he displayed in the early days of his ministry. However, as today's gospel reminds us, he let go of all that in order to love in a way that meant suffering and even death.

All this may seem to be a severe prescription for human life. However, it is important to distinguish the suffering that loving entails from all other kinds of suffering. There is literally a world of difference between them. The suffering that comes from loving leads to genuine happiness--a happiness that is far more satisfying than the pleasure that comes from having one's own way most of the time.

And since such unselfish loving puts us in touch with God's own love, it leads also to the final liberation that we call resurrection. Good Friday is not nearly as bad as it looks from the outside; and Easter Sunday is much better than we can ever imagine.

Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.