24th Sunday Ordinary Time Mk 8:27-35
There’s an old Rolling Stones song that has always resonated with me, and no, it’s not Honky Tonk Woman. The song I’m thinking about is You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Maybe we can have it as our recessional hymn? Maybe not! Anyway, the title came to mind while I was reading today’s Scriptures, especially the Gospel. Here’s Jesus asking the disciples in a very casual way as they stroll down the road, “Who do people say that I am?” It’s a very simple question, at least, on the surface. By this point, Jesus’ fame has spread, but as anyone who reads People magazine knows, there’s the public persona and the real person. Jesus is curious – do the crowds understand who he is? Well, you can’t always get what you want. The crowd sort of gets it – John the Baptist and Elijah are famous prophetic figures. To be compared with either of them is quite a feather, but still a misidentification.
But then, to everyone’s astonishment, including Jesus I suspect, Peter gets it right. Four simple words: You are the Christ. The other Gospels have Peter saying more, but I like this simple pronouncement. You are the Christ. “Christ” means the anointed one, a reference to royalty with a religious twist, typically translated as the Messiah. So Jesus runs with it, describing his role as the Messiah as he sees it, carefully drawing parallels to the suffering servant of Isaiah in our first reading. Peter, however, is appalled.
Last February, up in Los Angeles, I heard a talk given by a Jewish rabbi about how Jews view Christianity, particularly Jesus. There were many interesting observations, but the one I most remember was his answer to the question, “Why don’t Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah?” He was quite matter of fact in his response. He said, “We don’t accept Jesus as the Messiah, because Jesus didn’t act like the Messiah.” At our puzzled expressions, he described how the Jews understand the Messiah: fully human being, a political or military ruler, nothing to do with the redemption of sin, and certainly not God in any sense. This is the Messiah that Peter is thinking about when he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Can you imagine rebuking Jesus? Anyway, Jesus loses his temper at Peter and blasts him – Get behind me, Satan! Poor Peter. You can’t always get what you want.
And now we come to one of the most challenging, provocative statements made by Jesus in the Gospels. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. Saving, losing, losing, saving. It’s confusing, isn’t it? I don’t think that there’s a sane human being who wouldn’t say yes to the question, “Do you wish to save your life?” So Jesus clearly doesn’t mean our physical life – it goes beyond this to a deeper level. And that is a question worth pondering. You see, brothers and sisters, each of us, every day, is employed in the work of “saving ourselves”. We seek food, shelter, rest, social interaction, meaningful work. We care for our families and encourage them to “save themselves” with good decisions and a similar focus. Isn’t that sensible? What’s wrong with that? Nothing is wrong with it, and yet, everything is wrong with it. Living only to save yourself is no better than what any animal does. It’s instinctual, it’s basic, and it’s a life of meaningless existence. It’s a waste. We’re made for so much more, and somehow, to tap that “so much more” we have to lose!
Now, to “lose” in this context does not mean to lose a job or some money, or a loved one. What are we losing then? Thomas Merton probably had the best term – he said that we had to lose our false self. Others have called it the small self. St. Paul calls it the flesh. It’s all the same. The false self is that “person” we put on for the sake of others. The false self is our own design, carefully constructed over the years, emphasizing our best qualities as we see them, and carefully hiding those aspects of ourselves we’d rather not share. It’s a mask, an illusion. False selves love titles and honors, love to be respected and admired, and preen before the cameras. So here I am before you, a deacon (great title – my small self loves that), a successful business man (more polish for the mask), and a published author. Woohoo! But are those characteristics really who I am deep inside?
In the eyes of God?
Contrast the false self to the true self. The true self is the deepest reality of who we are – it’s our naked, bleeding body – no illusions, no masks, no games. It’s that part of us that screams for God’s help when we’re down, that hurts the most, that loves the deepest, that responds from the gut. Have you ever seen someone who you thought you knew do something that completely shocked you? I usually see it in two different circumstances. Put a person in front of a baby or a puppy and see what happens. The true self tends to pop open when faced with the unconditional love shown through a puppy or a baby. To see the flip side, the false self, note how often a person is offended. The more frequently a person feels slighted or expresses anger at how the world treats them always reveals just how engrained the false self is in that person.
Jesus wants us to lose our false selves. Period. Oh, is that all? Take note. Losing your false self is not easy. It’s going to feel like death. Why? Because the false self is not only an illusion, it is the source of sin in our lives. As long as I strive to live up to the ideals of our society (the false self) I am denying the God-part of who I am. Denying God is sin. Let me share a simple example from my life. Five years ago, I was challenged to start putting in 60 hours/week at work if I wanted to be recognized as successful and by the way, earn a pile of money. My false self was saying, “No problem! Let’s go! Money, possessions, security!” My true self said no. If I put those kinds of hours in, I couldn’t do prison work, write homilies, visit with people in need, or be spiritually grounded. So I said no and took a big demotion. Hurray for me, right? Now I’m really happy, right? For weeks after that decision, I slept horribly, second-guessed myself every day, and more than once, planned on how to resurrect my now failing career. It felt like I was dying. And it was true – my false self was really ticked off. What got me through it? Jesus. If he could allow himself to be stripped and tortured to reveal his true self to the world, couldn’t I do a little of that too?
Breaking away from the false self takes honesty, prayer, and time. It’s the dark night of the soul, as John of the Cross called it. But that is exactly what Jesus means by losing your life for His sake – that’s the only way to save yourself. By the way, do you remember the last chorus of that Rolling Stones song?
You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find, you just might find, you get what you need!
© Deacon Peter Hodsdon St. James Parish, Solana Beach