Don’t conform to the world

  • August 10, 2011

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 28 (Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 63; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27)

Most of the biblical prophets were less than thrilled with their calling from God and Jeremiah was probably the most reluctant of the lot. Upon being called he offered a barrage of excuses, but God was unmoved. A call is a call, and if it is from God the necessary strength and inspiration will be given.

Jeremiah had a particularly difficult assignment: he was to prophesy to the nation about the Assyrian and then the Babylonian threat with a ringing call to repentance and rejection of idolatry. But his exhortations and warnings fell on deaf ears. Those in power were surrounded by professional court prophets whose specialty was telling the rulers what they wanted to hear. This is a danger for all who are in positions of power and authority. Their message usually consisted of soothing reassurances that all was well and nothing more was needed to ensure the safety of the nation. No one had time or patience for Jeremiah’s apparent doom and gloom predictions. He would suffer a lifetime of ridicule, rejection, physical abuse, imprisonment and even an attempt on his life. He lived to see his terrible predictions come to pass as the temple and city were destroyed.

Jeremiah faded from history as a refugee in Egypt. With such a tumultuous and painful career we can be more sympathetic to his outburst in this reading. He is fed up; he has had enough; he quit. He is tired of the ridicule and persecution. Jeremiah rails at God, accusing God of seducing or even forcing him. He vows not even to mention God’s name. All to no avail — he cannot hold the words in; they burn like fire. He has the divine fire within him and it will not be stifled. He continues with his ministry not so much out of a conscious decision but an unseen force impelling him onward.

Jeremiah is the model of a person called to mission despite the opposition of society. They do not quit. We have seen many similar individuals in our own lifetime — Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mandela among others. Any sane or normal person would quit, but these people are not normal — they are God-inspired.

In a sense these individuals offer their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable, as Paul exhorts his followers to do in the Letter to the Romans. He provides a crucial bit of advice: do not let your minds be conformed to the world. When we forget this then self-preservation takes over and we are unduly concerned with our reputation, honour, advancement and personal safety. A person so consumed can never be a prophet because they are not free.

The continuation of the story of Peter’s confession underscores this point. After making a ringing confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of the Living God Peter now shows how easy it is to slip back into conformity with the world. He was horrified that Jesus seemed to have taken leave of His senses: He kept talking about getting Himself killed in Jerusalem. Peter immediately protested vehemently and made moves to “protect” Jesus from harm. The response of Jesus is shocking — He turned on Peter and called him Satan, the adversary — and commanded him to get out of His way. Peter was presenting a temptation, just like in the desert, to worry about his well-being and safety and to place this before his mission from God. Jesus was upset because He recognized what a potent temptation it was, especially since it was cloaked in common sense and reason.  

Regardless of how hard we try to protect or prolong our life we will all die. But those who trust God enough to at least loosen their grip on life and do what is right without counting the cost will receive life in and with God.