For August 31, 2014: Twelfth Sunday in Pentecost, Proper 17, Year A

The Reading            Jeremiah 15:15-21

A jeremiad is a scathing denunciation of bad faith, in any of several senses. In Jeremiah 15:15-21 the prophet, who has proclaimed God’s word and been rebuffed, turns his anger and disappointment on God Almighty. The Lord chides Jeremiah, reminding him not to stop speaking precious words, but promises strength and comfort.

The Response            Psalm 26:1-8

Unlike Jeremiah, the composer of Psalm 26:1-8 seems not to have a bone to pick with the Lord. It is clear, though, that the psalmist is challenging the Lord with his integrity, trust, faithfulness, and innocence.

The Epistle            Romans 12:9-21

In the first reading, Jeremiah complained of being persecuted and insulted for speaking the words of the Lord, and the Lord promised him vindication and deliverance. Romans 12:9-21 takes a different tack, counseling Jesus’ followers to live in harmony with all and to overcome evil with generosity.

The Gospel            Matthew 16:21-28

On announcing that Jesus is the Messiah, Simon was renamed Peter and receives rabbi-like power to bind and loose in the kingdom of Heaven. In the verses that follow, he takes initiative, rebuking Jesus for predicting a horrible death—and Jesus calls him Satan. This kingdom must not be business as usual.

 

Further thoughts

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus stated that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church. Hades is not Hell, the place in which the wicked are punished eternally for their bad deeds. In fact, the ancient Greek concept of Hades comes close to the early Hebrew Sheol, where all souls go when they die. Like Hades, Sheol is a place of oblivion and obliteration: in the stark King James translation of Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, “The living know that they will die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” Death cuts us off from life and the living and consumes our work and those we love, inevitably. And we can’t help but feel death as a cutting off from God, for the most compelling metaphors for faith and closeness to God all invoke life and breath: the word Spirit itself derives from the Latin spiro ‘I breathe’.

So Simon, newly named Peter and steward of Jesus’ life’s work, sensibly demands an end to Jesus’ talk about dying—and gets called “Satan” and “a stumbling block”. One wonders whether it’s that Peter is really so culpable in saying this, or perhaps that his plea to stay safe hits Jesus right where his own human body’s fear of dying intersects his divinity’s revulsion that such a waste as death even exists.

Yet, Jesus has already said, unstoppable death will no longer have the last word, for not even the prospect of death will stop him from laying himself down to conquer sin, separation, and death for the world he so loves.

He calls us to follow—literally, to come behind him. Does that mean dying exactly as Jesus did? For most of us, no. But what if Romans 12:9-21 sketches out the path? What if the task for me is to live, day by day, as though other people’s hopes and fears matter as much to me as I like to think I matter to God?

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