|Jeremiah in the Sistine Chapel|
It sounds like Jeremiah is not in a good spot right now. This is kind of a shocking line to open our readings with, so we should deal with this. This line opens us up to an aspect of following God that perhaps many of us feel, but maybe we're afraid to voice. It might also help us illuminate the cross that Jesus is talking about in the Gospel.
So who was Jeremiah? He was an Old Testament prophet. After Israel was established as a kingdom, they regularly stopped following the commandments of the God who gave them this kingdom in the first place, so God would send different prophets who would speak God's word to his people. If the people obeyed God, good things would happen, if they didn't, bad things would happen. This is Parenting 101. Doing good meant worshipping the Lord alone, and doing bad meant worshipping other gods. Well, Israel routinely did bad, so God would send his prophets to try to bring them back to the right path.
Did God really trick Jeremiah? Did he really dupe him? The rest of the reading helps to put this line into context. Jeremiah's basic complaint is that when he prophesies, when he speaks the word that God gives him, he's persecuted by the people. He says, "The word of the Lord has brought me derision and reproach all the day." So when he tries to not speak God's word, when he tries to keep it to himself, it builds up inside him and he just can't contain it. He said, "I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones." Jeremiah is finding out the hard way that following the Lord is not all sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes it's hard, sometimes it feels impossible.
But on the other hand, sometimes you hear in the world about a gospel of prosperity, where basically if you are generous with your money and resources you will be rewarded, and having money is a sign of God's favor. Not a lot of people buy into this anymore, but sometimes we fall into similar lines of thinking. Sometimes we think that if you do good, if you're a good Christian, then good things are going to happen to you. After all, it's only fair, right? This is not the gospel we preach! Jeremiah was a good Jew, which was the equivalent for his time to being a good Christian, he followed the Lord better than anyone else in his time, and yet his life was filled with hardship.
Jeremiah reminds us that following the Lord is not all sunshine and rainbows. If you heard a message like that, if ever you thought Christianity was going to be easy and then found that it's not, then you may think you've been duped. But if we turn our attention from Jeremiah in the first reading to Jesus in the Gospel, then we find that he's talking about suffering as well! This Gospel follows right on the heels of last week's Gospel where Jesus declared Peter to be the Rock of his new Church. Now that the Rock is established, it's time for Jesus to turn his attention to his coming Passion. This is the first time Jesus predicts his coming suffering, and we can see that Peter couldn't handle it. Peter wanted sunshine and rainbows.
Jesus knows that there is a time for sunshine and rainbows, and there's a time for the cross. So when he says to us, "Take up your cross, and follow me," we have to take him at his word. Sometimes we think that Jesus wasn't being serious about the difficulties involved in following him, but he called Peter Satan just for suggesting that Jesus should avoid suffering. Jesus knows that salvation isn't going to be won without the cross. And whatever your cross is, it might be very public, maybe everyone knows about it, or it might be very personal, and maybe you and Jesus are the only ones that know about this cross. You know what your cross is, you don't need me to tell you about it.
But for those who follow Jesus closest, they tend to experience more of the weight of the cross than those who follow him at a distance. St. Teresa of Avila, a 16th century mystic who spent her life reforming her religious order, once said to God about her suffering, "If this is how you treat your friends, it's no wonder you have so few of them." The closer we follow the crucified Christ, the more our lives are bound to resemble his.
|El Greco's Jesus Carrying the Cross|