In every human relationship, there are significant moments that stay in our memory a lifetime. The conversation between Jesus and his disciples mark one such moment in terms of the relationship between them. Initially, when Jesus had called them to follow him, there had been excitement among the disciples because they thought Jesus was going be their liberator, similar to being like Moses who led the Israelites out of Egypt. Jesus was going to be their “new Moses”. In fact, Matthew in his gospel will on several occasions implicitly draw parallels between Jesus and Moses. The relationship between Jesus and his disciples had come to a point where it was time for Jesus to reveal his destiny – the cross. Our gospel passage today begins with these words: “Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he is destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day.”
No one wants to suffer and neither do we want our loved ones to suffer and so it was only natural for Simon Peter to reject any talk about pain and suffering as he did not want Jesus to suffer. But then Jesus goes further and turns that rejection of pain and suffering into a pre-condition to be his disciples when he says, “if anyone wants to be a disciple of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me”. Now this “condition” becomes even more startling because none of us wants to suffer or see others suffer for the most part.
Reading this gospel, one cannot be blamed for thinking… if the disciples had known earlier about pain and suffering as part of following Jesus, would they even have considered following Jesus when he said to them, “follow me”. Much of our life is lived in trying to avoid pain and suffering yet Jesus invites us in the gospel to follow Him and to accept the suffering that comes with that following. Clearly, it is not natural for us to want the cross or to follow someone who will lead us into suffering. Even in the first reading, we hear the prophet Jeremiah complaining of his troubles. He goes to the extent of accusing God of having seduced him to follow him and that now he is the laughing stock of others.
In order to understand what Jesus is asking of his disciple, we need a paradigm shift in how we look at the cross. The cross that Jesus speaks about is often interpreted as pain and suffering because that is what we associate the cross with – it was a means of punishment at the time of Jesus. However, by embracing the cross, Jesus transforms the image of the cross as pain and suffering into sacrifice and love. The cross is going to be the sign of love from the time Jesus embraces it. Through the cross, Christ purchased us love, forgiveness, freedom, and redemption.
From this perspective then, “taking up the cross” can shed a new meaning. It cannot be about pain and suffering only because that may prove unattractive to many people. If it was only about that, then we will become like the Prophet Jeremiah and complain that following God makes us suffer. However, the cross of Jesus, though it does not exclude pain and suffering, it has a greater ‘liberative dimension’ and that comes through the sacrifice of self-giving – the cross as an act of self-giving.
In the world that we live in today, there is so much of egocentrism (having little or no regard for interests, beliefs, or attitudes other than one’s own). This then leads to a culture of indifference – that which does not affect me does not deserve my attention. Pope Francis in his visit to the tiny island of Lampedusa in 2013, spoke about the ‘globalisation of indifference’ – “the culture of well-being [that] makes us think about ourselves, renders us insensitive to the cries of others”.
In the light of the gospel text today, perhaps “taking up the cross” is to be able to put aside our selfishness and rejecting the culture of indifference. In the words of Pope Francis, ‘change the culture of indifference to a culture of encounter’ – an encounter that makes us reflect on the way of interacting with one another and the foundation of that encounter must be genuine love. The decision to love involves sacrifice and we must not be afraid of it for sacrifice is part of life. The author Mitch Albom in his book The Five People You Meet in Heaven (also the author of Tuesdays with Morrie) puts it crisply, “sacrifice is a part of life. It’s supposed to be. It’s not something to regret. It’s something to aspire to.” On the cross, Jesus shows us the ultimate form of sacrifice: ‘There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (Jn 15:13). Sacrifice is what the cross is all about. It is about dying to our selfishness (egocentrism) and rising to a renewed life of encounter with God and neighbour.
Let us then ‘deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow Christ’ by embracing his cross of love and learning to love one another as Christ showed us.
– 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)