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22nd Sunday in ordinary time: The allure of life

Today’s readings: Jeremiah 20, 7-9; Romans 12, 1-2; Matthew 16, 21-27.

Life is Beautiful. As many would recall, that was the 1997 Italian film directed by and starring Roberto Benigni. Benigni in the film employs his fertile imagination to shield his son from the horrors of internment in a Nazi concentration camp. Not all agree that life is beautiful. For some, the statement can even be disturbing because they see it at odds with life as it really comes across.

In today’s text from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is speaking of losing and finding life, of renunciation, of taking up one’s cross daily. Jesus is in no way devaluing life or making us renounce to living life fully. Jesus is only shielding us from the horrors that may ensue when we live heedlessly, when we do not invest wisely in a qualitative way of life. Life has its own allure and we are called to live it fully, with sense and meaning, and attentively. Otherwise there will be looming over us the risk of literally losing it. One can lose one’s own life foolishly, and that would be ruinous. But one can lose one’s own life in the sense meant by the gospel, and that would truly be a gain.

Jesus is not asking us to renounce to live, or to appreciate life, but to renounce to being bloated egos, to renounce to that excessive individualism so omnipresent in modern society. As author Tomas Halik writes in his book I Want You To Be, the more we learn to diminish our egos, the more we can become signposts to the source of gentleness and goodness.

Jesus says: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me”. Following Jesus means accepting his internal attitudes, it implies what St Paul is so passionate about in today’s reading from Romans, to have a new mind, not to just be carried away to think with other people’s head.

Of course, all this is risky and comes at a cost. Take, for example, Jeremiah in the first reading. He was a major prophet in Jewish history, a man of God who was passionately outspoken about integrity both in politics and in religion. Yet, as we read today, he launches a dramatic J’accuse towards God.

He accuses God of first seducing him to become a prophet and then deceiving him for what his mission entailed. For telling an inconvenient truth to his people, Jeremiah was condemned for treason, imprisoned and tortured. What happened to Jeremiah, happened to Jesus, and Jesus in the gospel is opening our eyes to the hard truth that it will continue to happen to those who choose to follow him.

As Pope Francis writes in his The Joy of the Gospel, “if we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good. The Gospel offers us the chance to live life on a higher plane, but with no less intensity”. The challenge to live life on a higher plane, or as St Paul says, with a new mind, does not spare us the cost of being isolated or misinterpreted.

St Peter himself in the gospel remonstrated Jesus for expressing this simple truth. But Jesus insists on offering this package deal, you take it or you leave it. But if you take it, it will take you on a different path of life, which according to the world’s perception might be considered a loss but which actually is a gain.

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