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Sunday Scripture: The mystery of suffering

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 August 28, 2011

By Terrance Callan

Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27


Why do human beings suffer? The beginning of an answer is that we suffer when we do not follow the path God has laid out for our happiness. But when we look more closely, we discover that those who walk that path also suffer. This is a mystery that we may not be able to understand fully.


The reading from the Gospel according to Matthew is the continuation of an account whose beginning we read last Sunday. In the first part of this account, Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, and Jesus blessed him for it. In this second part of the account, we hear that Jesus predicted He himself would suffer, be killed and on the third day be raised. Peter rebuked Him for saying this; apparently this did not fit Peter’s understanding of Jesus as the Christ. In return Jesus rebuked Peter and said to him, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” 


Peter had difficulty accepting that Jesus would suffer, die and rise because his thinking was not completely aligned with God’s. Peter was partly in harmony with God; he correctly believed that Jesus was the Christ. But he also retained the ordinary human thinking according to which it did not make sense that the Christ would suffer and die.


Jesus went on to say that not only was He going to suffer and die, His followers must do the same. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”


All must at least die to ordinary human thinking by accepting that the Christ must suffer and die. All will also experience other suffering and death as we go through life as followers of Jesus. And some will even be put to death violently as Jesus was.


The reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah reflects Jeremiah’s similar experience of suffering as he answered the call to speak on behalf of God. When he spoke the word God gave him to communicate, people laughed at him and mocked him. He tried to avoid speaking God’s word so he would not experience this reaction, but he found that he could not do it. He could not keep the word of God inside himself; God was too strong for him and triumphed over him.  Jeremiah must speak God’s word and suffer for it.


In the reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, Paul exhorts the Roman Christians, “Do not conform yourselves to this age.”


 Paul tells them not to think and act in an ordinary human way. Instead they should be transformed so they know the will of God and do it. Paul refers to this as offering “your bodies as a living sacrifice.” The image of sacrifice may imply that not conforming to this age will involve suffering and death. It will involve death to harmony with this age and also other kinds of death as we follow the example of Jesus.


The readings from Jeremiah and Paul’s Letter to the Romans may indicate part of the reason that followers of Jesus suffer. The suffering arises partly from those who are not followers of Jesus who reject and mock Christians’ efforts to follow Him. It also arises from the structures of this age — ways of thinking and acting that conflict with following Jesus. Such ways of thinking and acting are found among those who are not followers of Jesus, but also among Christians themselves insofar as we have not been fully transformed by faith in Jesus.


Callan is a faculty member at the Athenaeum of Ohio.

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