A Turn Toward the Passion: The 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time
By Dr. John Bergsma, The Sacred Page (Conclusion)
4. The Gospel is Lk 9:18-24:
- Once when Jesus was praying in solitude,
and the disciples were with him,
he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
They said in reply, “John the Baptist;
still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.’”
Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”
He rebuked them
and directed them not to tell this to anyone.
He said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Then he said to all,
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”*
The Gospel of Luke divides roughly into four major sections: the infancy narratives (chs. 1-2), the early ministry (chs. 3-8), the “travel narrative” (chs. 9-19), and Holy Week (chs. 20-24). The first and third sections of Luke contain most of Luke’s unique material. Luke 9, from which we read this Sunday, forms a transition into the “travel narrative,” so called because it is the account of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, during which the inevitability of his suffering and death looms ever larger. The “travel narrative” is like a parable of the Christian life. Like Jesus’ journeying to his death in Jerusalem, each one of us is on a journey toward our own physical death, a journey that involves suffering and sacrifice if we wish to share in God’s glory in the life to come.
Our passage divides into two units: the question of Jesus’ identity, and the truth of Jesus mission. Jesus asks the disciples how people identify him, and how the disciples themselves view him. Peter speaks for the twelve: “You are the Christ of God.” “Christ” translates the Hebrew “Messiach” (i.e. Messiah), “one smeared with oil,” or “Anointed One.” The “Anointed One of God” referred to the Jewish belief in a savior figure who would combine all the “anointed” roles (king, priest, and prophet) into one, and deliver the people of Israel in a definitive way.
One might ask, why does Jesus “rebuke” the disciples for saying this? Probably the Greek word epitimao has the sense of “to warn or charge in a solemn and/or stern manner.” Most people thought the Christ of God would be a supernaturally empowered political figure, a victorious king who slew his enemies supernaturally. Jesus does not want to promote that image, because it would attract too much and the wrong kind of attention, distracting from his true mission.
Jesus proceeds immediately to define what kind of “Christ of God” he is. He is the “Christ” who will suffer greatly, die, and be raised. And all who come after him must be prepared to suffer the same fate. Being a follower of Jesus of Nazareth is to have something of a “death wish”: if anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me."
We have become so accustomed to this phrase “take up his cross” that it no longer shocks us. But crucifixion was a terrible form of execution in the first century A.D. that horrified and traumatized the peoples of the Roman empire. It was so excruciating that some Roman orators insisted that it is impolite to even mention crucifixion in the presence of decent citizens. The modern equivalent would be the electric chair: “if anyone wishes to come after me, let him take up his electric chair daily …” But the electric chair is mild compared to the cross. The only persons who carried crosses were condemned criminals on their way to execution. So Our Lord’s words indicate that those who would follow him on the path of discipleship must already have reconciled themselves to the prospect of their own deaths.
So we see that Jesus was no mere teacher or philosopher who offers a lesson in return for tuition. Jesus openly calls his disciples to commit themselves to him to the point of death, and promises that such self denial is in fact the way to eternal life.
Blessed John Paul II comments in Veritatis Splendor:
- Christ’s witness is the source, model and means for the witness of his disciples, who are called to walk on the same road: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lc 9,23). Charity, in conformity with the radical demands of the Gospel, can lead the believer to the supreme witness of martyrdom. Once again this means imitating Jesus who died on the Cross: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children”, Paul writes to the Christians of Ephesus, “and walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ep 5,1-2).*
How far we are from this radical discipleship today, when giving even one-tenth of one’s income to the support of the Church and her missions is considered “radical,” and tossing out one’s contraceptives is unthinkable. May the Lord help us when real persecution hits!