[Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 62; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27]
Over the past week, I have celebrated mass with a number of our Catholic school divisions to open the new academic year. Most have been with teachers and administrators, which gave an opportunity to reflect upon the beautiful and noble vocation of Catholic education and its place within the mission of the Church. The last one was with about 600 young students, K-8, a gathering of young minds ready to learn, open to new discoveries received from their teachers.
To lead us into the message of Sacred Scripture today, I raise up my experience of last week as a reminder that, even though many of us have long graduated from formal schooling, we remain students of the one teacher, Jesus Christ. We are part of that community of learning we call the Church, the gathering of disciples around our Lord, who seeks always to teach us and open our minds to the truth that he is.
The particular questions raised by the account today from the Gospel of Saint Matthew are these: are we willing to be taught? Are we open to learn new things, to think in new ways? Those very young minds I met last week are typically open to accept what their parents and teachers tell them. As we grow older, however, we can get “set in our ways”, reliant upon our “way of doing things”, and hold fast to our cherished assumptions. Any change proposed to our way of thought or behaviour is in the first instance often resisted rather than accepted.
This is what we see happening with Saint Peter. Recall the passage from last week, where Peter had been shown by revelation that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Now, we hear Jesus teaching him another lesson, one he resists, and very strongly. Peter, together with many Jewish people of the day, held firmly to the understanding of the Christ as one who would come in glory and power to accomplish his mission. However, in stark contrast to this, Jesus teaches that he, the Christ, is to suffer and be put to death. Peter cannot get his head around this, so entrenched is he in his particular mindset.
Immediately, Jesus points to the problem with a very stinging rebuke. Peter, the rock upon which the Church would be built, has quickly become a stumbling block to the mission! This is because he is holding fast to a purely human way of thinking, rather than opening his mind to be transformed by divine instruction. Furthermore, Jesus perceives instantly that behind this stubborn closure of Peter’s mind is the influence of the evil one: “Get behind me, Satan!”
What are we to make of this? Well, let’s first turn to what we heard from Saint Paul in his Letter to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” Here the Apostle lifts up the perennial challenge of those who follow Jesus Christ. We who have entered by Baptism the school of discipleship are to remain always attentive and receptive to the voice of our one Teacher. Yet, we find ourselves constantly surrounded by many would-be teachers striving to get our attention, seeking to influence and shape our minds. We need only think, for example, of what are today called “social media influencers”. They are influencers precisely because they are making inroads into our minds, with listeners not only paying attention but also allowing their way of thinking to be conformed to what they are hearing. And very often the message is antithetical to the teaching we have received from Jesus Christ. Against conformity to these worldly ways of thinking Paul is warning us, and encouraging us instead toward a “renewal of the mind”, so that our thought is formed and shaped rather by the doctrine of our Lord.
I know that none of us wants to be a stumbling block to the Lord Jesus, to stand in the way of his mission by a stubborn refusal to be taught, by resisting his call to yield our way of thinking to that of Almighty God. So, let’s take time to ask ourselves what are the obstacles blocking the complete submission of our intellect and will to Christ and his doctrine. How do I respond when some dimension of the Gospel message or an element of Church teaching runs counter to my thinking and that of the world around me? Does my mind rebel? Is there in me a refusal to change? Am I prepared to acknowledge that, just as it was with Saint Peter, the evil one might be standing behind and encouraging my resistance? Am I ready at such a moment to repent and ask the Lord to help me see clearly and understand rightly?
The students I met last week will be in school for a set number of years, listening to many teachers. By Baptism, we are students for a lifetime, centered upon one Teacher. His is the voice we can trust with absolute certainty. Jesus always tells us the truth, however difficult to hear or understand, because he is the Truth. At this mass, let us pray for the grace of an ever-deeper trust in him and his Word. In moments of doubt or resistance, may that trust lead us to accept in faith a complete renewal of our minds so that we live always in accord with the will of God.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
Saint Joseph Basilica
September 3rd, 2023