September 3, 2023
Revised Common Lectionary
Exodus 3:1-15 or Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b or Psalm 26:1-8
Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Psalm 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9 (2b)
“From that time on . . . “
The very first words in today’s Gospel reading send a signal that Matthew’s telling of the Jesus story is taking a new direction: “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” (Mt 16:21).
In the passage immediately prior to the one we hear today, Peter proclaimed that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16) and Jesus in turn recognized Peter as the “rock” on which he would build his church. That great confession of faith is a turning point in Matthew’s narrative as Jesus now begins to show the disciples what it means to be the Messiah. From this moment forward, he is leading the disciples to Jerusalem, where he will face suffering and death, then rise again.
This sacrificial notion of Messiahship did not sit well with Peter, the “rock,” who took Jesus aside and objected strenuously to any such talk. No, says Peter: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (Mt 16:22). As effusively as Jesus had named Peter the “rock,” he now just as sternly calls him “Satan” and a “stumbling block” (Mt 16:23).
Not only must Peter and the disciples get out of the way as Jesus fulfills his mission, but they must also take up their own crosses and follow him (see Mt 16:24). This teaching had to evoke horror and fear in the hearts of the disciples. They were all too familiar with the gruesome Roman practice of hanging people from crosses, leaving them to suffer an agonizing, protracted, and humiliating death in full public view. It was hard enough to hear Jesus foretell his own death; calling them also to take up the cross was more than they could bear.
Jesus would teach the disciples about his impending passion persistently, addressing it with them three more times in Matthew (17:22-23; 20:17-19; 26:1-2). The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus was not only speaking but also showing them that it was necessary for him to suffer, die, and rise again. In his teaching and in his works, he would continue to proclaim the reign of God that was at odds with both religious and political leadership. The disciples would see that conflict deepen as they accompanied him to Jerusalem.
Along the way, he showed that some things are more valuable than even life itself—or at least, life as we know it. He staked his earthly life on the mission he had been given to proclaim God’s reign, trusting that God would raise him from death.
Although most of us will never be faced with the decision to make the ultimate sacrifice, to risk or surrender our lives for another, we know that our earthly life will eventually come to an end. Along the way, every day presents small but significant opportunities to take up the cross, to pour out our lives for others and for the sake of the Gospel—by forgiving and seeking forgiveness; visiting or calling an elderly friend; listening to the same story for the thousandth time; advocating for victims of abuse or racism; working for a more just and inclusive society. Where might we be hearing the call to take up the cross?
Just as he summoned his early followers to take up their cross and follow, so does he issue that same call to us. He teaches us that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:25). Jesus has shown us that death is the gateway to life not only for him but also for all who place their faith in him.
A Hymn for Today: “Unless a Grain of Wheat”
The paschal mystery of Christ’s dying and rising and our call to share in that mystery are central to the message of the New Testament. In the Gospel of John, the teaching we hear today from Matthew’s Gospel about losing one’s life in order to save it (see Mt 16:25; Jn 12:25) is joined to the verse on which British Roman Catholic hymn writer Bernadette Farrell has based the refrain for this song: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). This refrain is paired with verses drawn from related New Testament texts, primarily from the Gospel of John. Listen here.
Unless a grain of wheat
shall fall upon the ground and die,
it remains but a single grain
with no life.
If we have died with him, then we shall live with him;
if we hold firm, we shall reign with him.
If anyone serves me, then they must follow me;
wherever I am, my servants will be.
Make your home in me as I make mine in you;
those who remain in me bear much fruit.
If you remain in me and my word lives in you,
then you will be my disciples.
Those who love me are loved by my Father;
we shall be with them and dwell in them.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you;
peace which the world cannot give is my gift.
Text: Based on Jn 12:24-26; 14:23, 27; 15:4-5, 7-8; 2 Timothy 2:11-12; Bernadette Farrell, b. 1957. © 1983, Bernadette Farrell. Published by OCP Publications. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857.
Tune: Bernadette Farrell
Image Credit: Cross and Rising Sun, New Church, Livingstonia, Malawi, 21st cent.
“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.
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