Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray and to give more than either we desire or deserve: pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
SUNDAY’s readings are a source of amazement and encouragement. On the one hand, Jeremiah’s complaint against the God who appears to have abandoned him, and Peter’s horror at the idea that the Messiah might face execution, show all the vulnerabilities of the vocations of prophet and disciple: doubt, despair, self-pity, and false ideals.
On the other hand, they witness to the tenacity of God’s call, which allows for human limitation, and also sustains human beings beyond the limits they impose on themselves.
Jeremiah is trying to escape from a situation in which everything has gone wrong. The people have ignored God’s message from him, and God has spoken of rejecting them (Jeremiah 15.1-9). Now he embarks on a speech of self-justification, enumerating his sufferings in the course of serving God, his joy in the words that God has put into his mouth, and his avoidance of frivolous company (Jeremiah 15.16-17).
Yet instead of rewarding him, God seems to have deceived him, leaving him gripped by distress that feels like an “unhealed wound” (Jeremiah 15.18). More than this, God has behaved like a pagan deity, “a deceitful brook”, unlike the “fountain of living water” contrasted with the people’s useless “cracked cisterns” earlier in the prophecy (Jeremiah 2.13).
Pete Diamond suggests that these angry metaphors are necessary to Jeremiah’s attempts to give up his mission. To justify this retreat, “he must deconstruct his Deity” and prove that God is not worth serving after all (“Jeremiah” in The Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, edited by James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson, Eerdmans, 2003).
God’s task is to put the prophet back on course. The promise to receive him if he will return, and to continue to use him as the voice of the divine message, recalls his very first commissioning (Jeremiah 1.4-10). Self-pity and righteousness must be put aside. Just as God sent Elijah back to work after a similar fit of introspection (1 Kings 19.4-18), he sends Jeremiah back to the prophetic vocation that was carved out for him before he was born (Jeremiah 1.4-6).
If Jeremiah is guilty of “deconstructing” the Lord to justify a more comfortable course of action, Peter’s mistake is to impose on Jesus an idea of what being the Messiah means which has little do to with Jesus’s own understanding of the Messiah as saviour and judge.
Bishop Tom Wright compares Peter’s picture with that of Jesus’s: Peter sees the Messiah and Son of Man as a figure of glory, who will claim his Kingdom victoriously and be raised to a position of honour with the Father; Jesus has been trying to show the disciples that, while the end will certainly be glory and elevation, it will be achieved quite differently. He will be raised on a cross, and his glory will be the resurrection triumph over death, which brings the promise of life to all who believe in him (Matthew for Everyone: Part 2, SPCK, 2002).
Nevertheless, Peter is appalled at the idea that the Son of the living God could suffer. Jesus’s words sound brutal (“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me,” Matthew 16.23), and that effect is surely intentional. It is meant to shock the audience as much as the disciple himself. At the same time, it is part of the thicker texture of the whole dialogue, and it reveals the strengths and weaknesses that make Peter’s humanity a model for all who try to follow and often feel they have failed.
A little earlier, Jesus has hailed Peter as the “rock” on whom he will build his Church (Matthew 16.18). That the same rock could also be a “stumbling-block” reminds us that Peter did not come fully formed, but had to learn to exercise his vocation through a series of errors and misconstruals.
The redeeming double use of the Greek “opiso” (behind) hints at that process of formation, of learning by following. The stumbling-block must be put behind Jesus, but those who want to become followers must also get behind him (Matthew 16.24).
Although the immediate pointers to suffering and death may render any optimistic outcome doubtful, Jesus assures the disciples that those who take up the cross and follow will “find” their lives (Matthew 16.25). This is a path of revelation and becoming, in which they will not simply preserve themselves as they are but discover new selves formed in the likeness of Christ (see Common Worship Eucharistic Prayer F).
For practical advice on how to live that new life, Paul’s urgent instructions to the Roman Christians are as good a list as any. In the aftermath of more terrorist attacks on European cities, the imperative to “overcome evil with good” is not a pious platitude, but an obligation to be seriously pursued (Romans 12.21).