Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time, August 30, 2020
Jeremiah spoke the word of God to faithless kings and people in Judah's capital Jerusalem around 600 years before Jesus. Powerful people persecuted him relentlessly. In this passage he starts by regretting his calling to be a prophet.
Saint Paul urges the Christians in Rome not to conform to the customs of their neighbors, but tune themselves to the will of God.
In last week's gospel, Peter identified Jesus as the Anointed of God. Now Jesus reveals the consequences of his mission. Peter takes exception.
Our Liturgical Setting: Last week's reading of Matthew 16:13-20 marked a turning-point in our journey through that gospel. Jesus' identity as Messiah and Son of the Living God becomes public. In this week's passage, Matthew 16:21-27, Jesus begins to explain the implications of his identity: "he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised."
The Historical Situation: As almost always, the first reading prepares us to hear the gospel. Jeremiah was certainly a prototype of the suffering Christ. The prophet lived from about 650 B.C. to perhaps 580 B.C. Most of his work was in Judah's capital Jerusalem. He tried to keep the people and several kings faithful to God amidst an atmosphere of political intrigue and backstabbing like that which prevails in this writer's own capital today*. Jeremiah was blunt about what was right and what was not, and he suffered at the hands of the powerful because of his outspokenness.
What's interesting about this prophet is that he did not bear his persecution stoically, but complained bitterly to God. His outspoken protests are remembered in the fifty-cent English word jeremiad, which means an elaborate and prolonged lamentation or tale of woe. Today's passage is the purest of jeremiads.
Proclaiming It: Proclaim this with great drama and irony in your voice. Hit hard the word "duped" in the first sentence, then hit hard the expression "let myself be duped." When you say that the word of God you are stifling "becomes like fire burning in my heart," let the congregation feel the heat! You are trying to convey the prophet's anguish, and you are preparing us to hear the day's ominous gospel passage. This is not bland prose. If you believe grace builds on nature, don't proclaim this blandly.
The Theological Background: Paul's letters usually end with several paragraphs of moral instruction. One of the ways religious people define themselves is by how their morals differ from those of other religions. (One could say this of most cultural groups, whether the differences are in morals, religion, dress, food, housing, marriage customs, politics, or any behavior.) Here Paul is telling his mixed Jewish and Gentile Christian audience how they differ both from old-fashioned Jews and from pagans. The "mercies of God" prompting these differences have been described earlier in the letter, as in the second reading from three Sundays ago, and the Romans passage from the Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time.
The two verses of today's reading are, for Paul, just a high-level introduction to the moral teaching he wants to give (and that teaching is about how Christians should respond to the "mercies of God" detailed in eleven prior chapters). The 1970 edition of the New American Bible summaries Paul's teaching on the Christian sacrificial way of life this way:
Proclaiming It: The congregation will get a cursory overview of the moral teaching over the next two Sundays. Your proclamation is necessarily out of context and therefore not easy. Emphasize the word spiritual in the phrase "your spiritual worship." That may distinguish it in the listener's minds from merely formal, ritualistic worship. Emphasize the phrase "that you may discern what is the will of God," since that is the part that gives the listeners the most responsibility.
Jeremiah, 1508-1512, by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Here's one source of much larger version.
This prophet has inspired many portraits. This one captures, I think, his second thoughts about his vocation.
This page updated June 27, 2020