Prophets played a very important role in the Old Testament as they still do today. They were the conscience of the people and they warned of dire consequences in the future if they continued to stray away from the covenant their God had made with them. It’s a bit like the scientists today who are screaming from the rooftops that climate change isn’t just a bit of warming and some more storms. They insist that our actual survival is at risk and that this is a fight to save the world.
Issuing dire warnings about the future does not make prophets very popular. Many scientists of today are derided as prophets of doom and their findings rubbished as mere hype and exaggeration. Poor old Jeremiah got harsh treatment too for foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem if its inhabitants did not repent and return to the Lord their God. Today we hear something of his inner struggle. He makes the extraordinary accusation that he was seduced by God. Letting his prophetic vocation overpower him, Jeremiah was involved in many a thankless task. He had fallen in love with God, so that nothing held him back from doing God’s will, no matter where this might lead. Jeremiahs wholehearted loyalty made him a living sacrifice to God.
In his own lifetime most people regarded Jesus, not as the unique Son of God, but as a prophet. There was something different about his prophecy. It wasn’t all doom and gloom like the Baptist. It was real good news, especially for the poor, the sinner and the oppressed. But it wasn’t good news for everyone and especially for the powers that be. That God loves everyone; that God welcomes home the prodigal son with a lavish dinner; that God would welcome tax collectors and sinners; all this served to undermine their power base and so he had to go.
Jesus knew he was on a collision course with the High Priests and Pharisees and that he would be rejected and killed. This did not fit in with Peter’s no-pain version of Christianity. Not only does Jesus hit back with “Get behind me, Satan!” but he also added the biting statement that “Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” Since we’re surely not to seek a literal crucifixion, how are we to imitate his dying?
There are other crosses besides the wooden cross on Calvary and suffering, more than anything else frees us from our egoism and undue optimism with the things of this world. Pope Benedict says that it is only by freeing ourselves through suffering that we find ourselves, that we find our truth, our joy, and our happiness. Therefore, like Jeremiah and Jesus, we are invited to eagerly offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to God.
This interpretation is forever valid. We all have crosses to bear, be it physical pain, sickness, depression, worry about ourselves or other members of the family. However, it was often impressed on me growing up that if we link our sufferings with Christ on the cross they can bear much fruit and enable us to be poor with Christ poor.
There is however another interpretation that I like to cherish also. Many Jewish contemporaries of Jesus employed the tau, (the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and similar to our ¨T¨) as a symbol that they were totally open to whatever God wanted of them. (As we’d do something from A to Z, they’d do it from aleph to tau.) If that’s the case, carrying one’s cross didn’t refer to patiently enduring some dramatic moment of suffering. It described an ongoing, generous, open and honest relationship with God, a daily quest to discover what God wishes of us. There is of course an extraordinary discipline and suffering in this – an offering of oneself to God and thus becoming a living sacrifice, just like Jeremiah was.
To what else could Paul be referring when he encourages the Romans, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect?” The apostle has already discovered what carrying his tau entailed.
In some sense it’s too bad so many of Jesus’ followers eventually put his prophetic ministry in the background once they discovered his divinity. But, on the other hand, worshipping him is a lot less painful than imitating him.
Sunday, 31st August 2014