Reflection—Matthew 16: 21-28
(August 30, 2020-13th Sunday after Pentecost)
I wonder if those of you who are old enough remember the game show Let’s Make a Deal. Each Let’s Make a Deal began with the host, Monty Hall choosing a studio audience member at random to play a game against him. Although the games were always different, the usual pattern was that the audience member was given a small amount of cash or prizes which they had the option of keeping or trading. Choices could be hidden onstage behind one of three curtains. The curtains might reveal an appliance, a trip or a car, but then they could also reveal something worthless: giant shoes, a garbage can for each day of the week, giant stuffed toys. The choice posed to the audience member was to keep a relatively safe bet, or to risk it for the potential of a larger or different prize or cash award.
Which brings us to Jesus and Peter: Peter wants to hold on to what he’s got. He’s given his life to following Jesus, he likes being a part of his ministry, learning, healing, praying, putting the know-it-all religious authorities in their places, and attracting great crowds. What Jesus has to say to him doesn’t sound like much of a deal to him; trade his successful ministry for ridicule, persecution and death. He might as well trade that new dishwasher for a week’s worth of garbage cans.
So Peter pulls Jesus aside, you might imagine he didn’t want to embarrass his teacher in front of the others, and he tries to talk some sense into him. Jesus’ response is intense and stinging; “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me…” (16: 23) Then he turns to the others and says with unflinching resolve; “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow me. For those who want save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (16: 24-25) It must have seemed ludicrous to the disciples to trade in a successful ministry for the curtain that lead to Jerusalem and all the uncertainty and insecurity that accompanied such a move.
Peter wants Jesus to return to normal, “put those words back in your mouth Jesus, let’s get back to the way things were, let’s get back to comfortable.” I think most of us are Peter right now. So many of us yearn to hug and hold someone’s hand uninhibited, to not think about the surfaces we touch, to send our children to school without worry. But not all normal, not all comfort is the same.
There is another more insidious normal, more insidious comfort. That is the normal and comfort of privilege. The normal comfort of not engaging in raising our voices, using our resources and our votes for economic and social justice because we benefit or are not materially harmed by the status quo. Get behind me Satan!
Mixed up in the yearning for normal is coded language for returning to the status quo—an emphasis on deficits in the midst of unprecedented social upheaval, get behind me Satan! An emphasis on law and order in the midst of protest of racial injustice, get behind me Satan! Worries about social benefits being too generous thus keeping people away from jobs that don’t pay a living wage, get behind me Satan. Vague and slippery words around dealing with the problems of profit driven elder care, get behind me Satan!
Let’s not trade our souls for the ease and comfort of privilege, for it implicates us in systems that perpetuate all kinds of evils—poverty, racism, ageism, sexism and more. Jesus’ call is to take up our crosses, to not settle into the comfort of an unjust normal, to walk into the discomfort of a path that takes us away from what we’ve known into the unknown, towards a promise of a fuller life for all God’s people and indeed creation itself. Take up your cross, being willing to die to, to let go of whatever keeps us from fulling embracing the sovereignty of love in our lives and our world.
If we don’t we’re trading the integrity of our faith for the comfort of privilege. We think we’re saving our lives, but we’re actually letting them slip away. We’re retreating from the true source of life. We’re walling ourselves off from the world in bubbles of class, race, and other sources of privilege. A courageous prophet of our time, the Rev. Dr. William Barber puts it much more eloquently than I… (https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/love-justice-and-mercy)
“Always go back to the valley”. In other words, take up that cross. Here’s the grace for privileged people in taking up that cross. God is in the discomfort of the unknown path when we are true to our faith and refuse to accept the normality of the economic and social status quo. God is in the discomfort of losing our lives of privilege for the sake of following Jesus. The promise is that we will experience true living, the fullness of life. The promise is the peace of living with faithful integrity, not a life narrowly focused on self-preservation but an expansive life focused on right relationship with our neighbours and with creation. Because loving our neighbours means loving God, ultimately it’s a life centred on right relationship with God.
Let’s make a deal God says, trade in your life as you know it, give it up. But there’s a difference in God’s version of the game—there is only one curtain and it comes with a promise, what’s behind it will always be better than anything you’ve got now, better than anything you can imagine. Thanks be to God, the Great Mystery drawing all creation together with love, thanks be to Jesus, the Mystery enfleshed, thanks be to the Spirit, the power and energy of the Mystery among us. Amen
Rev. Joe Gaspar