24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Picture: cc Kathy
Sisters and brothers, do you remember this news report from a few years ago? It can still be found on the Time Magazine website. A woman goes to a vegetable market in Central China, where she sees someone selling eggs from a van. The price is 6 cents cheaper than the market rate. Thinking that the bargain is too good to pass up, she buys 2.5 kg worth. Only to find, after getting home, that those are not real eggs that she bought. But fake ones. Made out of a mixture of resin and starch and pigments. The report goes on to offer some advice given by an expert. Telling readers how to spot these fake eggs. One of the more helpful suggestions tells the buyer to beware of eggs that are too perfectly shaped and smooth. In other words, especially when grocery shopping in China, be careful of eggs that look too good to be true. Too cheap to be real.
This advice is useful not only for the vegetable market. But also in the spiritual life as well. You may have noticed that, like that news report from China, our Mass readings also warn us to be careful of fakes. Not fake eggs. But fake faith. Counterfeit religion. Less than authentic discipleship. The second reading, for example, presents us with a striking contrast between two different kinds of faith. Living faith and dead faith. True faith and false faith. The faith that saves. And the kind that destroys. How do we tell the difference? The reading highlights one way. It has to do with our reaction to the poor. To those who need our help.
People who practice true faith naturally find themselves moved with compassion by the plight of the poor. Without having to be asked, they will spontaneously offer practical assistance to lighten their burden. To ease their suffering. In contrast, those who practice fake religion will not bother. The reading speaks of someone who has never done a single good act but claims that he has faith. Such people may talk. But they won’t act. Or they may make a show of doing charity. But only for their own self-serving purposes. This kind of religion may look attractive to some, because it makes few if any demands on those who practice it. But, like fake eggs, it’s too cheap to be real. Too good to be true. This false faith doesn’t benefit anyone. For true faith is like that: if good works do not go with it, it is quite dead.
The other readings point us to yet another way of distinguishing true from fake religion. Authentic from counterfeit discipleship. And it has to do with our reaction to persecution. To the reality of having to suffer for the sake of the good news. In the first reading, an unnamed servant of God is facing some kind of abuse. People are targeting him. Not because he is criminal. But because of his fidelity to God. They gossip about him. Insult him. Make his life a living hell. What is his reaction to this injustice? For my part, he says, I made no resistance, neither did I turn away… I set my face like flint… Bravely he accepts the suffering. Relying only on the power of God for support. The Lord comes to my help, he says, so that I am untouched by the insults. Courage and determination in the face of suffering and persecution. This too is what living faith, authentic discipleship, looks like.
We find this same courage and determination in the gospel. Here, the place called Caesarea Philippi marks a significant milestone in Jesus’ public ministry. For some time now, the Lord has enjoyed a certain popularity among the people. They have been amazed by the authority of his spoken word. Awestruck by the power at work in his miracles. Huge crowds have gathered around him... Perhaps not unlike some of the election rallies we’ve seen in recent days.
But, along with the people’s admiration, the Lord’s public ministry has also been provoking a growing resistance, even animosity, from the religious authorities of his day. Their jealousy will soon move them to take drastic steps against Jesus. And it is this impending persecution that Jesus is preparing himself to endure. Like the person in the first reading, he too will make no resistance. He too will set his face like flint. For Jesus is the new and definitive Suffering Servant. In him we see what true faith really looks like. That it’s not just fun and games all the time. But that it involves walking the Way of the Cross. Being buried in the Tomb. And, only after all that, finally being raised up by God on the Third Day.
It is this same precious and authentic faith that Jesus is offering to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi. Till now, they have remained blissfully unaware of the danger quickly closing in on their Master. They have been content simply to bask in the warm glow of his celebrity and fame. Jesus, however, isn’t satisfied with this state of affairs. He wants his disciples to go deeper. He invites them to enter into a more intimate relationship with him. To walk the same difficult Way that he walks. So as to enjoy the same glorious triumph that he himself will enjoy. He invites them to share not only his popularity. But also in the painful rejection that will soon befall him. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
But his disciples find it difficult to appreciate what Jesus is doing. We see this especially in Peter’s reaction to the Lord’s prediction of the trials that are to come. Why does Peter protest? Is he concerned for the Lord’s well-being? Anxious for his Master’s welfare? Perhaps. But there’s also a deeper reason. Peter calls Jesus the Christ. But he won’t allow him to go to the Cross. Why? For the simple reason that Peter cannot imagine a Christ that is destined to suffer. For Peter, someone favoured by God can be nothing but successful and triumphant. At all times. There is no room for the reality of righteous suffering. But Jesus tells him that this way of looking at things is not God’s way but man’s. It is an inauthentic discipleship. A false religion. Like those fake Chinese eggs, it’s too cheap to be real. Too good to be true.
True faith versus fake discipleship. Concern for the poor versus indifference and lip-service. Courage and determination in the face of suffering versus the stubborn insistence on living a trouble-free life. These are the contrasts that our readings present to us today. And I have to confess, sisters and brothers, that all too often, I find myself tending toward the wrong side of these contrasts. Happy to remain in my cozy little comfort zone. Reluctant to reach out to the poor. Protesting bitterly when difficulties come knocking on my door.
Thankfully our readings present me not just with a challenge. But also with marvellous good news. For quite unlike fake eggs, inauthentic faith can be transformed into the real deal. All it takes is for me to be willing to travel with Jesus to Caesarea Philippi. To those spiritual places, in my heart and in my life, where I can hear the Lord ask me this life-changing question: who do you say I am? A question that we may allow ourselves to hear, even as we gather for this Eucharistic celebration. Recalling all the Lord has done. All that he has suffered. All that he has endured. For our sakes. Who do you say I am?
Sisters and brothers, there are indeed some things in life that are too good to be true. Too cheap to be real. What kind of eggs are you buying today?