Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Isaiah 50:5-9; Psalm 114; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35
12 September 2021
Twenty years ago our world changed completely when the planes ploughed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The plane destined for the US Capitol Building crashed in a field after the crew and passengers gave their lives to thwart the murderous plan of the hijackers. The perpetrators were inspired by a terrorist group given safe haven in Afghanistan by the Taliban. We joined with the US hunting down the leaders of that terrorist group and removing the safe haven. Twenty years on, the Taliban is back in control in Afghanistan. There is nothing to stop the Taliban providing safe haven again for terrorists committed to ending US domination – a domination they despise, and a domination which has helped assure our peace and security for the past 75 years. We live in uncertain times, and that’s without even starting to factor in climate change and a once in a century pandemic.
On this 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear that part of Mark’s gospel which is generally regarded as the turning point of that gospel. The gospel begins with a description of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. In the first section of the gospel, Jesus works various miracles and is described variously as “a physician (2:17), the bridegroom of God’s people (2:19), the Lord of the Sabbath (2:28) and the founder of the new Israel (cf. 3:14).” At this turning point on the way to Caesarea Philippi, “the northernmost point of his travels as recorded in the gospels”, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” That question was easy enough. It simply required the disciples to repeat the various theories they had heard from the crowd – that Jesus was like others they had known – John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets. Nowadays if asked what the crowd or media were saying about Jesus, we would probably answer: “People say that you are a good person, an anti-establishment figure, a loner who sticks up for the poor and oppressed, one who speaks truth to power.” But is that enough? Does that capture the essence and the kernel of who Jesus is?
Then comes the crunch question to the disciples, and to us: “But you, who do you say I am?” Peter replies, “You are the Christ.” It will be left to the unbelieving centurion at the crucifixion to complete the description given in the first verse of the gospel: “In truth this man was a son of God.” Mind you, there had been a string of demons in the first part of the gospel who identified him as Son of God (1:24; 3:11; 5:7) but they were commanded to keep his identity secret. What’s your reply to the question: “But you, who do you say I am?” And what does your reply mean?
In the second part of Mark’s gospel, Jesus turns south and heads for Jerusalem, en route, making three predictions of his passion, death and resurrection. Trying to answer the key question, “But you, who do you say I am?”, we know that he suffered grievously, that he was rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and that he was put to death. We know that he told his disciples and left a message for us that we need to renounce ourselves, taking up our own cross, being prepared to risk all, losing our life for the sake of his gospel.
Scripture scholar Brendan Byrne says, “For the remainder of the gospel the disciples will struggle to hold these two truths together: that Jesus is indeed the long-awaited Messiah (Story 1) and that he will fulfil his messianic role by entering into the pain and suffering of this world, to the point of death (Story 2).” You’d only commit yourself to both these truths if you believed that Jesus rose to new life, inviting you on that eternal journey. You’d only continue to believe both these stories if you wanted to give your life to others, to spend your life for others.
Those hijacked planes twenty years ago were intended to wipe out centres of western commerce, western military power, and western democracy. While most of us see some benefits in such commerce, military power and democracy, the hijackers’ perceived nothing but evil in those iconic buildings. While we could see nothing but evil in the deeds of those hijackers, they saw themselves as giving their lives to a higher purpose.
Evil though they were, those hijackers believed passionately that the world needed to be transformed and that they should be prepared to dedicate their lives to enduring suffering and deprivation along the way, and even death. They regarded us westerners as flabby, indulged individuals not prepared to give ourselves for any higher purpose. Jesus’ question to Peter is not just a question about Jesus’ identity, it is also a question about our purpose in life and our destination. Who are you? What do you believe in? What would you give your life for?
The Taliban and the terrorists they shelter are not deterred by the military power of the US which is dispensed by airstrikes and drones. The terrorists have a fire in their belly. They put their lives on the line. They give their lives to a cause that doesn’t follow only the contours of their own self-interest.
In the first part of Mark’s gospel, Jesus encountered the demonic forces. Now he puts the question to Peter and to us inviting us to renounce ourselves, taking up our cross and following him through passion, death and the hope of resurrection. None of this seems sensible or worldly-wise. That’s why Peter took Jesus aside and started to remonstrate with him. Jesus sternly rebukes him. We too need to be rebuked when our Christianity becomes a cloak for relaxed and comfortable enjoyment of all that’s represented by those World Trade Center towers, the Capitol and the Pentagon.
This is not an anti-US injunction. It is a call to radical personal conversion away from all that is routine and habit in our all too familiar and secure world. If Jesus rebukes Peter, why wouldn’t he rebuke us: “Get behind me, Satan! Because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.” If you find this discomforting and a little upsetting (as I do), you’re in good company. That’s how Peter and the disciples felt too. Let’s make a turn and head for Jerusalem, together.
In the midst of the conflict and anxiety of these uncertain times following upon the events of 9-11 twenty years ago and the return of the Taliban last month, we can take heart from today’s Psalm:
The cords of death encompassed me;
the snares of the netherworld seized upon me;
I fell into distress and sorrow,
And I called upon the name of the Lord,
‘O Lord, save my life!’
Gracious is the Lord and just;
yes, our God is merciful.
The Lord keeps the little ones;
I was brought low, and he saved me.
For he has freed my soul from death,
my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
I shall walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.
 Jose Enrique Aguilar Chiu, ‘Mark’, The Paulist Biblical Commentary, Paulist Press, New York, 2018, p.972 at p. 998
 Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom, St Pauls, 2008, p.139
 Ibid, p. 140
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).