August 28, 2011 - Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

“Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, ‘God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.’” How did Peter say those words? Should we imagine him saying them in anger? Or should imagine that he said them perfectly calm as if he were discussing something of little importance? No, I do not think so. I think we ought to imagine Peter saying those words, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you”, trembling and weeping. He was not rebuking so much as begging.

Which is why I am confused by Jesus’ response: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” I understand that Peter was wrong; he still did not know that the Christ had to suffer and die and so be raised, but why did Jesus have to be so harsh? Instead of comforting Peter while teaching him, he calls him literally the worst name in the book.

Yet this epithet, Satan, is the key to understanding the harshness of Jesus’ response. Satan is the one who tempted Jesus, three times in the desert. At the end of that story we are told that Satan intended to return to tempt Jesus some more. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” because Peter is doing the work of Satan; he is tempting Jesus. How can we doubt that when Peter, tears streaming down his face, pleaded with the Lord, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you”, Jesus was tempted to give in to the appeal of his friend?

This episode could easily be called the “fourth temptation of Jesus”. Satan could not reach him through hunger or doubt or greed or a thirst for power, so he tried to reach him through his friend. We can see in the three earlier temptations that the responses of Jesus become progressively harsher; his reaction is strongest when the temptation is greatest.

There is a lesson for us here about resisting temptation. We should not imagine that we can do it calmly. We are made both intellectual and passionate. Our ability to get angry, when channeled properly, is our strongest defense against temptation. We are not expected to be like angels. We are often astounded by the fact that we do exactly what we did not want to do. We make good decisions; then we break them. Jesus was a perfect human, and he used his anger to repel temptation.

It would not be better to be like a robot or Spock, without emotions. Our emotions can be our greatest strength, if we use them rather than let them use us. Jesus was not angry all the time, although he had plenty of reasons to be angry. He saved his anger for when he needed it, but then he was not afraid to use it.

As for Peter, Jesus taught him the mistake he was making. He was “thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Since Peter is a human being, this should not be a surprising accusation. We are human beings but we are called to something greater; we are called to have the mind of Christ. St. Paul tells us that we should not conform ourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds.

What does it mean to be conformed to this age? It means to watch television and believe the lies about love and marriage that are told on every show. It means to compromise the truth with those who want to redefine marriage. It means to consider money as a god and make being rich the point of our lives.

What does it mean to conform our minds to this age? Consider those who say that they oppose abortion except in cases of rape and incest. This is a completely illogical position to hold. If killing a baby is wrong, then it is wrong. It does not matter what crime the child’s father has committed. Still, we hear this phrase spoken everywhere by so-called pro-life politicians. Why? Because they have bought into the idea that a horrible situation can be made better by killing somebody. Sometimes a horrible situation is just that, and there is no way to fix it, we can only deal with the aftereffects.

What does it mean to be transformed by the renewal of our minds? It means a new perspective on reality: God’s perspective. Many things do not make sense to us when we consider them from our own point-of-view but we cannot see everything from our own point-of-view. The Holy Spirit can give us the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. With these gifts we can discern the will of God, we will be able to see what is good, pleasing, and perfect. When the Holy Spirit renews our minds, we can understand why what seemed good from our perspective was actually bad.

Overeating, overspending, pornography, laziness: some people have convinced themselves that they like these sins; the out-of-control credit card bill or the extra 100 pounds are explained away, but we Christians know better because of the Holy Spirit: lust, greed, gluttony, and sloth are deadly sins. We know better, but we often fail to do better. The weapons we need to fight temptation are our emotions. Our minds will only be able to control our bodies when we have become masters of emotion.

Jesus was tempted just like us, but he never sinned. If we ever hope to be perfect (and that is the command of our Lord, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”) then we need to use every tool that God has given us: humility, emotions, intellect, grace, and the Holy Spirit. We will fail if we try to fight Satan with one hand tied behind our back.

Striving for perfection is the meaning of life. It is not something we do in an hour or a day. Eighty years is rarely enough. The point though is to always be striving toward perfection. We need to know where perfection is and then we need to strive to reach it. Our intellect allows us to find perfection, but only with a mind renewed by the Holy Spirit, only if we stop thinking like human being do and start thinking like God does. Our emotions allow us to strive, to fight against the chains that hold us back, to climb the mountains that are in our way. With a renewed intellect and controlled emotions and the grace of God in the Holy Spirit, what could possibly stop us from becoming saints?