Pope Francis embraces a patient at St. Francis of Assisi Hospital, where the pontiff addressed a group of recovering drug addicts, offering them a message of compassion and hope, in this picture dated July 24, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro. CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano

No favourites, only justice, compassion

  • August 14, 2014

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 24 (Isaiah 22:15, 19-23; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20) 

No one has an absolute right to a position of trust and authority. Along with authority there is responsibility and accountability, and however slowly the wheels of justice turn they grind exceedingly fine. Shebna discovered this to his chagrin when he was fired by one against whom there is no appeal — God. The people of Israel believed God raised up individuals to govern the nation, but they were also positive God could and would dismiss anyone who abused that trust. 

Eliakim found himself at the top of the heap with the authority previously held by Shebna. This was a period in Israel’s history when the people began to see the hand of God more in the intricacies of politics and international relations than in nature. The world came to resemble a vast chessboard on which God moved individuals like chess pieces in a cosmic match. Ministers, kings and emperors, even those of other nations, served the divine purpose. Of course they were often unaware of their role. Today we seldom see the hand of God behind natural events, and for good reason. But we also have to be more careful in discerning the will of God in political events because this is so susceptible to abuse and self-interest. God’s will is not the same as our own passionately held political views. God favours no individual, nation or ideology — only justice and compassion. All humans are accountable to God for their behaviour towards others, especially when trust and power over others are involved. 

Paul would have agreed — he was fully aware of the human tendency of laying claims to God and using God-language for selfish ends. He emphasized just how different God’s ways are from ours and the futility of claiming to know God’s mind. It is only with trepidation that humans should ever claim that something is or is not “God’s will.” God is too often a mirror for human desires, fears and prejudices. The mind of God, if it could be known, would probably shock us all. 

The familiar story of the confession of Peter contains much more than a conferral of authority. Jesus posed the question to the apostles about how the crowds perceived Him. The responses were predictable but incomplete: John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets. Peter’s response was the clincher: the Messiah, Son of the Living God. This was not a search for answers but for attitudes and responses. Peter was open to the voice of God speaking within him — his response did not come from “flesh and blood” but was a divine revelation. He did not fear ridicule or rejection by the others because of his declaration. 

Jesus was effusive in His praise. Peter was the first to proclaim the status and mission of Jesus and was greatly honoured. But knowing something is not the same as understanding and acting correctly on it. When Jesus began to discuss the suffering and death that were an integral part of His mission Peter slid back into very human ways of thinking — ways that were based on fear and self-preservation. He begged Jesus to escape His fate. The angry rebuke that he received was because he was acting as an adversary — a “Satan” — by tempting Jesus to avoid the passion that awaited Him. The beginning of understanding the mind of God is to walk in faith and trust while avoiding a fixation on self and its fears. Peter had a lot to learn, and many opportunities would be provided in the near future. 

Reverence for God comes with a heavy dose of humility and letting go. Being guided and taught by God involves an openness and willingness to be led far beyond our comfort zones. Our opinions, cultural values and common assumptions will be challenged as our minds and hearts are stretched. But if we are willing to walk that path, much will be revealed to us not by flesh and blood but by God. 

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