|Get thee behind me, Satan James J J Tissot (1836-1902)|
The passage from Mark that is the principal Gospel for this Sunday gives us a glimpse of someone quite different from the ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ of Victorian pictures. The simple, impulsive, faithful Peter is fiercely rebuked as a voice of satanic temptation. The severity of the tone, though, serves to show that in the proclamation of the Gospel there is something of the greatest importance at stake.
A human life, if we believe in God, is not a lucky chance, but a gracious gift. As with any gift, the recipient can hoard it possessively -- or spend in a spirit that mirrors the grace that gave it. There are times when this fundamental choice about how to live becomes critical. Clinging possessively to the life I have been given, including its talents and accomplishments, is a powerful temptation, but it rests on the false supposition that it is what we get out of life that matters most. Yet, how could it profit me to gain the whole world, the Gospel asks, if to do so I have to forfeit the spirit of life itself? There is a paradox here; ‘those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for the sake of the Gospel, will save it’.
We might put the paradox another way. The human soul finds fulfillment only when it abandons its deepest inclinations. Humanity's perfection requires us to leave our humanity behind. That is the truth behind Jesus' stern rebuke to Peter: ‘you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’.
The Old Testament passage about Abraham, and Paul’s reflection on it in the Epistle, embody the same message. God declares Abraham’s life righteous (a life lived rightly) not because of the moral laws and prudent calculations by which it was governed, but because it sprang from a trusting faith in the promise of God. The Psalm expresses the point with brilliant succinctness. The life of faith is one which first accepts that ‘dominion belongs to the LORD, and . . . before him shall bow all who go down to the dust’, and then declares, ‘and I shall live for him’.