A common question : “What’s the point of believing in God, if he doesn’t help me, or my friends, or my country, when we need him?” And what do many people do then? They go and find another god who they think may be of more help. The god of power, the god of money, the god of fun, the god of self. We all do it to some extent, even if we go to Mass regularly! These other little gods pop up in our ordinary life and often tend to rule what we decide to do.
So when we read the story of the prophet Jeremiah, we shouldn’t simply dismiss it as a tale from the past with no relevance to the present day. Here he is howling about “violence and ruin”, (Jeremiah 20:7-9) and one can understand why most people in Jerusalem at the time tried to shut him up, or even have him killed. This was because, at the time, Jerusalem was a city surrounded by enemies – a city under siege; and Jeremiah was telling people to give up the fight, let their enemies in and trust in God. Trust in God, whilst you and your family were in danger of looting and death? No way!
Note that Jeremiah tries so hard not to say these challenging things, because he knows that all the response he will get is “insult, derision, all day long” . But when he tries not to say them he can’t, because, as he says “there seemed to be a fire burning in my heart… The effort to restrain it wearied me” Yes, preaching hard and challenging things is not often welcome, is it? We want to hear things that uplift and inspire us, not things that make us miserable and guilty.
That’s why it is a pity we have this passage from Jeremiah and not some of his other bits, because although he realistically predicts great trouble and suffering for his people, he also says that if they hold firm to the end, then they will find help and comfort. So he writes:- “’But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds…. because you are called an outcast, Zion for whom no one cares.…So you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (Jeremiah 30:17 & 22)
For the Jews in the time of Jesus, these were familiar passages, so one wonders why Peter wants to stop Jesus from taking the path of suffering in our Gospel today? (Matthew 16:21-27) The answer, I suppose, is that he was just very human, like all of us, and he wanted joy and blessing and glory without any suffering or trouble on the way. We might well say with him, “There is enough trouble and suffering in the world, and in my life, without wishing for anymore!” But Jesus is more than a little tough on Peter (and so on us) isn’t he? He says that by suggesting an easier road Peter is actually turning away from God. This is why he calls him Satan. For the Devil is the god who offers shallow things – things that seem fairly harmless – paths that avoid the tough choices and stick to the apparently easy roads in life.
Do you remember the quotation “Evil prospers while good men do nothing”? Yes, often I would prefer to do nothing.. simply to go and watch a good film on TV, or escape to my garden! Of course, there is nothing wrong in doing such things, provided we face the challenges of life as well. The people in Jeremiah’s day just thought that if they hung on long enough, all their problems (their enemies in this case) would go away. Jeremiah preaches a tougher riskier path, and it is that path that was part of the inspiration that guided Jesus to take the road to the cross. He did not seek suffering, but he knew that this might well be his end if he was to do God’s will. We too know that certain things have to be said or done, in the name of Jesus, regardless of the consequences.
I was watching the film “The Sum of all Fears” the other night where Russia and the USA are moving closer and closer to all-out nuclear war, and only Jack Ryan, the hero, has the information that will stop it happening. It’s a great story, and quite frightening because it is so close to reality. Our hero Jack, and a few others, risk everything to stop things escalating. Jack struggles through pain and fire and stupid bureaucracy and war-mongering advisors to get his message through, and of course, being a film he succeeds, and gets his girl! He happens to be a Catholic by the way, although the film doesn’t tell us that!
It’s the same message. We may not be a great speaker like Jeremiah, or a hero like Jack Ryan, but we can do our little bit here and there to take up various challenges in our life, and do our best despite the struggle it may involve. That is why Jesus tells us all to take up our cross, and follow him.