We start our life of faith with an image of the future that is idealized, as things often are in a child’s eyes. If we are good and follow Jesus then the years and decades of life would be challenging but promising as we negotiate our trials with confidence, knowing that the grace of God will carry us forward. While this outlook sustains some folks throughout life, eventually many people encounter moments in life that are much more than challenging—they can cause us to question the very truth of all that we have held dear.
Family tragedies, abuse by others, hypocritical people, and opposition from colleagues and friends can all lead to a deep sense of cynicism about religion in general and about faith in the Lord. The prophet Jeremiah faces just such a moment in today’s first reading, as he shows through his angry words: “You duped me O Lord!” (Jer 20:7). Jeremiah was angered over the pain of having to deliver bad news to the people of Israel, announcing the downfall of Jerusalem and the end of the Kingdom of Judah. Such “defeatist” predictions, while they turned out to be true, led many to oppose him forcefully and even violently.
While the prophet Jeremiah remained faithful to the Lord even in the midst of his anger, when we suffer deep discouragement in life or experience a major breakdown we easily fall prey to cynicism and a jaundiced view of life. The scandals in the Church in recent decades, the betrayal of a spouse or friend, or even the closing and combining of our parishes can lead us to a spirit of sarcasm and suspicion and along the way we lose the hope-filled images we cherished as children. In today’s second reading Saint Paul recognizes this possibility among Christians and he prescribes a remedy for it. In his letter to the Romans, having concluded a reflection on mercy, Paul says: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2).
Paul understood that the human spirit can be overtaken by cynicism, luring even Christian believers into thinking that real conversion and renewal is not possible. He also saw that “this age;” that is, our secular world, draws us into this way of thinking and makes us reason that if we are not to be seen as naïve then we must take a hardened outlook on others and on life itself. Such a perspective is foreign to believers in Jesus, whose mercy Paul extolls: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” (Rom 11:33). It is the transforming power of that mercy that enables us to defeat sarcasm and cynicism and live in Christian hope.
The gospel brings this message home when our Lord teaches his disciples that they will encounter great suffering in the course of their journey of faith and thus cannot be naïve about life. However, Jesus himself will suffer before them in order to redeem them and give them the possibility of living no longer according to the thinking of “this age”—“thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matt 16:23)—but rather being transformed into the image of him whose mercy triumphs over evil, and whose wisdom commends us to approach him not with a spirit hardened by the travails of life, but with the confidence of a child who cries out “Abba, Father!” Let us learn from Jesus and let mercy triumph over the evils committed against us, never falling into the trap of cynicism.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.