Gospel: Matthew 16:21-27

Live for Tomorrow

Why is it easier for us to focus on today than the future? Why do we make decisions for the future based upon today's needs?

As the 1960's pop hit from the Yardbirds states, "Live for today." Many people use that phrase as a motto. Our material culture uses it as a mantra. Enjoy life today and postpone pain until tomorrow. Doesn't that sound familiar?

Sometimes this attitude seeps into our prayer life. We ask God with expectation, not anticipation. If the Creator does not deliver, we will be tempted to abandon prayer (or at least postpone it). Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we would recognize that prayer life is different from popular culture. Prayer sometimes demands the pain and suffering of patience. Sometimes we need to wait, even if that means "hanging by a thread."

Jesus took this spiritual fact one step further. The Christian life means life postponed for the good of others. That's what Jesus did as he walked to Jerusalem and to the cross. He called us to do the same.

Popular Translation

Peter declared Jesus was the Messiah. 21 From then on, Jesus began to clearly show his followers what he needed to do. "I must go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the leaders in the city and it's Temple, and be killed," Jesus stated, "I will be raised the three days after that."

22 Then Peter took Jesus aside. "It will never happen to you like this!" Peter scolded him. "May God have mercy on you, Lord!"

23 Jesus turned to Peter and said, "Go away, Satan! You're in my way! You think like everyone else, not like God."

24 Then Jesus told his followers, "If anyone wants to come with me, he must stop being selfish. He must pick up his cross, carry it, and follow me. 25 If someone only wants to keep everything they have, they will lose it. But, if someone loses everything they have because of me, they will find true life. 26 How would it help anyone if they gained the whole world but lost true life? What can anyone give in exchange for true life?

27 The Son of Man will soon come in the glory of his Father along with God's messengers. Then he will repay everyone for what they did."

This gospel can be divided into two sections: 1) Jesus' prophecy and the controversy with Peter and 2) Jesus' teaching on discipleship.

Literal Translation

Peter declared Jesus was the Messiah. 21 From then (on), JESUS began to show his disciples that it was necessary for HIM to go off to Jerusalem, to suffer many (things) at (the hands of) the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, to be killed, and, on the third day, to be raised up. 22 Having taken HIM, Peter began to scold HIM, saying, "(May God's) mercy be on YOU, LORD! May this (indeed) not happen to YOU!" 23 HE turned and said to Peter, "Go away, Satan! You are MY stumbling block because you do not think in the (ways) of God, but in the (ways) of men!"

16:21 In this long sentence, Jesus clearly told his followers God's will for him. He laid out a chain of events that began with his journey to Jerusalem, continued with his Passion, and concluded with his Resurrection. Even though Matthew did not name the cause of these events, God was obviously implied.

16:22 "Mercy be on YOU, LORD!" is the literal translation. The context makes this phrase more of an exclamation than a prayer. An English equivalent could be "Heaven forbid!"

16:22-23 When Peter scolded Jesus, he challenged the Master's authority. Jesus responded with a strong rebuke, invoked the name of evil. From Jesus' point of view, anyone who did not accept God's will was in league with the devil, whether the subject knew it or not.

16:23 "stumbling block" is the literal translation of the Greek word "scandalos," from which we get the English word "scandal." "Scandaloi" or stumbling blocks/rocks were used to corral camels at night. The camel would not step over such rocks, from fear from falling over. Even in the time of Jesus, the word had moral overtones.

This section from Matthew's gospel follows upon last week's reading. Simon declared Jesus the Messiah. And Jesus empowered Simon with a new name and new authority. Now, Jesus explained what he meant by "Messiah:" death and resurrection. [16:21]

With his new authority, Simon (now Peter) took Jesus aside to challenge him. Peter had a different view of the Messiah: God's Spirit would lead Jesus and his cohort into Jerusalem so they could sweep the Romans into the sea. Jesus would cleanse the Temple from corruption and restore true worship. Jesus would establish a rule that would last 1000 years! Talk of suffering and death diminished the status of Jesus, his group, and Peter's authority in the group. Peter figured it was time to talk some sense into his Teacher. [16:22]

Jesus, of course, would have none of it. He sharply rejected Peter's comments. [16:23] Turning to his followers, he described the cost of discipleship: to do as he did.

Peter had expectations for Jesus. What do we expect from God? Why are we surprised when he chides us for our selfishness?

24 Then, JESUS said to HIS disciples, "If anyone wants to come after ME, let him (completely) renounce (his self-interest), pick up (and carry) his cross, and follow me. 25 For, whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever (completely) destroys his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what does a man benefit if he should gain the entire world, but he should lose his life? Or, what will a man exchange for his life? 27 For the SON OF MAN is about to come in the glory of HIS Father with his angels, and 'then HE will repay each (person) according to their deeds.'"

16:24 "(completely) renounce (his self-interest)" is traditionally translated "deny himself." Deny in this sense does not mean loss of identity but of self-focus. A better word would be "altruistic." The follower of Christ must be a person for others, just as the Master was.

16:25 Matthew was using a word play on "lose/destroy," the same word in Greek. And, while the word "life" is actually "soul" in Greek, the context created an another word play between "social reputation" (i.e., one's public "life") and eternal life. So, whoever acts in a way to save his/her reputation could lose eternal life, by denying one's place in the Christian community. But, the Christian who willing allows others to trash his/her reputation over faith will receive eternal life.

16:26 "gain the entire world" meant "life's desires," not ultimate power. "lose his life" here meant eternal life. In other words, one cannot be truly selfish and be a Christian at the same time.

16:27 "his angels" were God's angels or messengers, not those of the Son of Man.

'then HE will repay each (person) according to their deeds' came from Psalm 62:12: "For thou dost requite a man according to his work." (RSV)

Jesus compared two ways of life, the way to true life and the way to death. This analogy was popular in the early Church. As one of the first Christian catechisms ever written, the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles (circa 110 A.D.) painted the Christian life in these terms. One road led to self-giving, light, and life. The other road led to selfish sin, darkness, and death.

Notice how Jesus compared the two ways as focal points. The road to life traveled through suffering and death. To follow him meant looking beyond what the disciple possessed at the present moment, even at the risk of losing it all. In fact, physical death meant total loss, possessions, power, and relations. "We are born into the world alone. We will die alone."

Yet, how many cling vainly onto the power, possessions, and relations they have today, in mistaken hope they will have them forever? Jesus played these two focal points (today vs. forever) against each other in the word "life." "If someone only wants to keep their life (i.e., everything they possess today), they will lose it. But, if someone loses their life (everything they possess) because of me, they will find it (i.e., true or eternal life)." [16:25]

Finally, Jesus wove the notion of the Christian life with the ethical life. The Christian life was based upon sacrifice, just as the Master sacrificed himself on the cross. Such self-giving also grounded the ethical life. In other words, Matthew held one's righteousness can only be measured by sacrifice made for others, in the name of Jesus. As the Son of Man would die, rise, and return to repay everyone for their deeds, the Christian would suffer and even die (through self-giving), only to be raised and receive his/her reward. [16:26]

What are the benefits of sacrifice? How does desire postponed bring you closer to Jesus?

In our material oriented culture, we American Christians are caught in a "Catch-22." We have so many material possessions to acquire and maintain, yet so much to give up in the name of Christ. How can we walk the road of loss, when our desires want more and more? How can we live for Christ when we are tempted only to live for today? This is the challenge Jesus gave us in Matthew.

Make a short list of your important possessions, relationships, and powers. Offer that list to the Lord. Pray for guidance and prudence. And pray for faith when those things and people are taken from you.