24th Sunday in Ordinary time (16 Sept.)

“Who do people say I am?” This is the question that has intrigued people of all walks of life down the centuries. In his own time disciples were willing to admit that Jesus was a prophet, like “John the Baptist” or “Elijah” or “one of the prophets.” Peter’s great insight was to go beyond even this and confess him to be the Christ, the expected Messiah. Much to Peter’s dismay, Jesus speaks of his Messiahship in terms of suffering. The first reading today spells it out: “I offered my back to those who struck me…” This is one of the poems in the second part of the Book of Isaiah which are called the “Suffering Servant Poems” – we are so familiar with them from the liturgy of Holy Week that as Christians we take it for granted that Isaiah foretold a suffering Messiah. But Judaism at the time of Jesus did not expect the Messiah to come as a suffering Messiah and so people thought the Isaiah passages referred to the suffering people of Israel who would be delivered by a glorious Messiah. Songs from the time pray for the coming of such a Messiah:

See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David,
To rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God. Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers,
To purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction… (Psalms of Solomon 17).

This was the kind of Messiah Peter was expecting and so we can experience his shock at Jesus’ talk of the Messiah having to suffer. Jesus’ rebuke to Peter is one of the sharpest in the gospels: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Each of us is like Peter at times, unwilling to accept the reality of the Cross in our lives or in the lives of those we love. The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is just two days before today’s 24th Sunday this year. It is the day on which I was born and I should, like St. Dominic, have more devotion to the Cross than I have. But how often I shy away from the Cross in life. The words at the end of the Gospel pull me up sharp: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.”

In today’s world of hunger, want, and the degradation of the environment, the carrying of the Cross can be spelled out in the words of the second reading, where St. James reminds us that faith without good works is dead, so that the living out of the faith must be in deeds as well as in words. These deeds need not only be in the giving of goods, but also by participation in advocacy on behalf of, for example, those unjustly imprisoned, trafficked, enslaved or exiled from home. The recent visit of Pope Francis has given us renewed impetus to work for such needs. We can also be inspired in our efforts by the work of someone like Kofi Annan who died recently and who, as Mary Robinson said about him, “was driven by the passionate intensity of the very best convictions: that peace, justice and human rights are not only to be desired but essential values that must be fought for. His was a courageous, inspirational, warm and humane life that will echo down the generations.”

Céline Mangan, O.P.

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