16th Sunday after Trinity

13 September 2018

Proper 19: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 116.1-8; James 3.1-12; Mark 8.27-end


WHEN Peter confesses Jesus as “the Messiah”, the Lord’s reply is “sternly” to order the disciples “not to tell anyone about him”. The response exemplifies Jesus’s deep understanding of the way words relate to experience and action. The Gospels show Jesus to be ever vigilant about this relationship. He is alert to the state of each speaker’s heart, and sidesteps debates that are dishonest and vexatious.

A merely verbal affirmation of Jesus’s status, without an understanding of the way he will defy many of the expectations of a Messiah, will lead only to confusion. His disciples will have to go through the searing experience of Holy Week before they can truly comprehend what it means to say that Jesus is the Messiah. Only then will they understand that “those who want to save their life will lose it.”

While Jesus wants to keep his Messianic status secret, he is prepared to speak “quite openly” about his coming humiliation on the Cross. Peter then begins to “rebuke” him. As Mary Healy observes, this is understandable: “from Peter’s point of view, God would not allow Jesus’ powerful ministry of teaching and healing to be disrupted. The Messiah was going to conquer!” (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Mark).

The New Testament is written by disciples who have encountered Christ at the foot of the Cross, in his resurrection power, and in the worship and life of the Church — his Spirit-filled Body. It is intended to be read by a community who continue to encounter him in all these ways. Only in this context can his words be understood.

The relationship between proclamation and action is also emphasised in our first reading. It is taken from one of four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah. Walter Brueggemann explains that “most recent scholarship” considers that “the ‘servant’ in these poems, like the ‘servant’ elsewhere in the poetry of Second Isaiah, is none other than Israel” (An Introduction to the Old Testament: The canon and Christian imagination).

Besides being given “the tongue of a teacher”, God’s people are able to witness to him because he “helps” and “vindicates” them in the midst of oppression and humiliation. In our Gospel reading, Jesus too sets his face “like flint” to endure the “insult and spitting” of this world’s empires, confident that his Father will vindicate his self-offering.

Words of life and truth must be proclaimed alongside a lived experience of God’s transforming, suffering love. But — as we see in both our Gospel and our epistle — words also have great power to mislead and to distract. When Peter seeks to “rebuke” Jesus for speaking about his coming humiliation, Healy suggests that the forcefulness of Jesus’s response flows from “the thought of how far astray [the other disciples] could be led by Peter’s false triumphalism”.

James has already made clear to his readers that words alone are not enough: faith that consists in a purely verbal affirmation of Jesus’s lordship and his commandments is “dead” (2.17). In this Sunday’s reading, he warns us of the destructive power of words: the tongue, he tells us, is “a fire”. It “is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature and is itself set on fire by hell”.

St Bede warns that “The tongue is a fire which can destroy a whole forest of good works just by saying things which are evil.” The destructive power of words flows from the speed at which (“like fire”) they can spread hurt and confusion. What James and Bede have to say about the spoken word applies with equal or greater force to the virtual world of social media — where hurt and confusion can be spread with even greater rapidity.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us that language must be both anchored in experience and reflected in loving action: “It is dangerous to dwell in the realm of words alone, of images and rhetoric. . . Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centredness and gnosticism.”

In Jesus, the word of God has become flesh. It is in encountering his self-offering — not in rhetoric detached from this reality — that we find life.

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