Once we get away from the idea that prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures predicted the coming of Jesus, we can begin to explore dimensions of our faith we rarely investigate. Prophets, like Jeremiah, who give us a glimpse into their relationship with Yahweh, invite us to examine our own relationship with God, taking us down a road most Sunday homilists never travel.
From Sunday's Gospel (Mt 16: 21-27), it's evident that even good people can live lives which are contrary to God's plan, especially if they presume they can live without pain.
Matthew copies Mark's pattern of prediction-misunderstanding-clarification. Here, following Jesus' first prediction of His passion, death and resurrection, the evangelist immediately has one of Jesus' disciples say something which shows he misunderstands what it really means to die and rise. "Peter took Jesus aside," Matthew writes, "and began to rebuke Him."
Lost and found
Peter's misunderstanding gives Matthew's Jesus an opportunity to clarify what real dying consists of. "Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves," Jesus teaches. "Take up their cross and follow me. Those who wish to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it."
It's clear from the context that when Jesus refers to Peter as "Satan," He's using the word in its most basic sense: an obstacle in someone's path. Those Christians who believe they can live their lives without experiencing the pain, suffering and death which come from giving themselves completely to Jesus are actually an obstacle to Jesus' own pain, suffering and death, which He experiences in giving Himself to God.
Though seemingly contradictory, real life only comes when one freely begins to think as God thinks and when one begins to accept daily deaths as the means to reach life.
That's why Paul (Rom 12: 1-2) encourages the Christian community in Rome, "Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect."
Part of the pain and death of faith is accepting the fact that God's doesn't think and work like we think and work.
No one in Scripture understands this better than Jeremiah (Jer 20: 7-9). Prophesying more than 600 years before Jesus' birth, he's completely frustrated by the pain his ministry is inflicting on him. (Remember, at this point of salvation history, there's still no concept of a heaven or hell. All divine rewards and punishments have to be experienced in this life.)
"The word of Yahweh," he complains, "has brought me derision and reproach all the day."
Jeremiah even attempts to walk away from his ministry: "I say to myself, I will not mention Him; I will speak in His name no more." But he quickly finds it's easier to resign from the Mafia: "Then it (Yahweh's word) becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it."
The prophet discovers something every follower of God eventually learns: It's more painful to reject God than to relate to God.
I smile when I remember a comment made about Scripture during an ecumenical retreat some years go. "I always look at the Bible," the young lady said, "as a love letter from God."
Both Jeremiah and Peter probably would have smiled, too.