Matthew 16:21-27, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
An Australian scholastic lived with us many years ago. When he noticed that I took my studies very seriously, he said: “Hey, Arnel, back in Australia, Jesuits have a saying: ‘You’re no good to us, dead.’” I didn’t get it then. So, he explained. “It means that the Society has more use for you when you’re alive. So, don’t kill yourself with work.” Oh, he was asking me to chill.
Whenever today’s Gospel comes around, I wonder if Jesus ever thought of that: stay alive longer, help more people. Live another day, tell more parables, cure more sick and disabled, exorcise more demons, forgive more sinners, put sense into more rabbis who gave God a bad name. He had a short ministry, only three years, did you notice? But he knew from the very beginning that he would be rattling cages. His first day on the job, remember? He walks into a synagogue, reads a passage from Isaiah, makes an explanation. Then what happened? The rabbis eject him from the synagogue to shove him off a cliff! First day on the job! I’m sure Jesus figured out that if he wasn’t careful, if he didn’t protect himself, if he didn’t stay home more than go out to people, if he wasn’t very cautious, and self-preserving—he’d be killed very soon. Three years into the job, no less sure than he already was, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,” our Gospel today says. Bakit parang ang tigas ng ulo niya? Careless, reckless, pahamak? He’d be “no good to them, dead,” anyway.
One day back in high school, I was leafing through The Youngster magazine and I found something there that has actually stayed with me all my life, I don’t know why. It was about Christian martyrs. And it said—and I paraphrase—“martyrs did not die alone. Even if many of them did die ‘alone,’ still they drew their courage and strength from the community that they served, the community they committed their lives to, the community they offered their last breath for: their families, their friends, their fellow disciples and believers.” That has stayed with me all this time. Martyrs did not die alone. Their communities were ever in mind and in-heart, right to their last breath. People. They always had other people “with” them.
It must be one of the saddest things in the world: dying alone. To not have your family around you, to not have someone you know or love hold your hand, other than a doctor or a nurse, thankfully. Maybe one of the lasting thoughts someone has, as death comes near, are faces of people one loves, faces they wish to see and touch again, one last time; voices they wish they’d hear again, if it’s true that the sense of hearing is the last one to go when death is near. I mean, if I were isolated into a hospital room and I started sensing that my life would be over soon, I guess my thoughts would be filled with people I love, wouldn’t they? My dad, my family, Jesuits I’m close to, my friends. Having them in my mind and in my heart, I would feel not so alone, and that my life was worth it. So, if I died alone, I really wouldn’t die alone.
Jesus wasn’t a reckless man. He didn’t poke death on the rib so he could play cops-and-robbers with it. In fact, the Gospels say that Jesus deliberately evaded angry and violent people who wanted a piece of him in the name of God! But he always jostled free of them. Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t suicidal.
But he wasn’t a coward, either. He was cautious, but he was no coward. He safeguarded his welfare, but he was no coward. He knew when to be about town and when to keep it on the down-low, but he was no coward. He knew when to heed other people’s advice and when to act on his own decisions, but he was no coward. I’m sure there were times he was afraid. I’m even surer he was no coward. Whether his apostles wanted in or wanted out, Jesus was going back to Jerusalem, because of people. People were waiting for him, for his healing and nourishment, his forgiveness and freedom, for comfort they felt, hearing his uplifting stories! If he had to go it alone, Jesus must’ve figured: “Oh, I wouldn’t really be alone. I’m going to people!”
Jesus would’ve been no good to people, dead. That was partly true. But he’d have been no good to them, hiding either. Which would’ve been worse. All alive, healthy, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, powerful… but hiding. Cowering. Pusillanimous. “Get behind me, Satan,” he finally said.” Nothing was to come between him and the people. And as it turned out, not even death.
We don’t often think of Jesus as a martyr, do we, sisters and brothers? The martyrs we were taught to honor were mostly priests, nuns, religious missionaries. If they were lay people, our Church refers to them as “and companions” to some priest, or nun, or missionary. Well, in this pandemic, sisters and brothers, many, many martyrs are lay people. Several have died, alone. Many are still very much alive, toe-to-toe with death every day. I find in them the most inspiring, most Christ-like people these past five months. And as much as they inspire me no end, sisters and brothers, their courage also puts a religious like me to shame.
God bless today’s martyrs. God bless them with his hundredfold!