22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
If I had power by waving my hands over you to make you abandon your beliefs and convictions instantly and absolutely, and instead embrace whatever beliefs and convictions I tell you to embrace, do you think I should use such a power? Well, if I had that kind of power, I would be richer than Bill Gates and Warren Buffett combined. But if that power were even available, I’m afraid it would fall into the wrong hands. Imagine if politicians and radical thinkers had access to such a power. We would all live in fear of no longer being free to think as we choose. It’s not a novel idea. Our daily diet of media advertising to some degree already controls our minds and our behaviors, and we often aren’t even aware of it. News outlets are also governed to some extent by their owners’ philosophies and their advertisers. And there are powerful organizations out there that purposely fabricate false narratives with the intent to influence, mislead, or confuse the public. And you are, of course, free to embrace or dismiss whatever I say.
The power to determine our own beliefs and convictions ultimately lies with us. At some point growing up we learn to think for ourselves and make our own decisions. At first, we merely mimic what we know and see in those we love and respect. But in the process we might come across inconsistencies and contradictions which force us to rethink what we thought we knew, ask questions perhaps, do our own research, and decide anew, this time more intentionally and with greater personal ownership. And our decisions will be influenced by many factors, among them what we think it might cost us in terms of personal integrity, the acceptance of those we love and respect, and of society in general. Now you might essentially agree with my description of how we form our beliefs and convictions. But you might be wondering where I am going with all this. Do remember that no one has the power to make you think or believe anything. You are free to think and believe whatever you choose.
When Jesus offered his disciples what amounts to a radical new way of thinking and living, he was not unaware of the powerful forces he was up against. We know he clashed with the religious and political leaders of his day. But he forced his listeners to rethink whatever was the prevailing mindset against what he taught are the values of the Kingdom of God, particularly with regard to religious legalism, sin and forgiveness, adultery and divorce, hypocrisy and judging others, anger and retaliation, prayer and fasting, loving our enemies, helping the poor. The list goes on. His teachings challenged many people then. They challenge us today. But as always, we are responsible for our own acceptance or rejection of Jesus and his teachings. If ever Jesus had the power to dictate what we should think and believe, and still did not use it, how can we presume such power over others, or even impose on anyone what we think they should believe?
When Jesus told his disciples that he must suffer and die for his convictions, he was aware that they chose freely to follow him. Impulsively Peter would have none of it. “Of course, that’s not going to happen.” And Jesus’ response was swift and ruthless. “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Then turning to the rest of them he said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Jesus doesn’t water down the impact of his own passion and death, nor the harsh consequences his disciples would face for following him. But he does respect our freedom to accept or reject him, with the knowledge that there will be consequences to our choice. Still, he doesn’t presume to make up our minds for us. And neither should we presume to make up our neighbors’ minds for them.
Which brings us to St. Paul’s challenge to the Christian community in Rome. “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” Paul knew he was addressing a community of Christian disciples, so he was hopeful his challenge would merit consideration. He tells them, “Discern what is the will of God, and be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Discerning the will of God is not a task we take lightly. It involves listening for God’s voice and following his lead. Blind obedience is not true discipleship. So the acceptance or rejection of Jesus’ command that we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him is a personal and intentional choice. No one but we can make that choice. It is ours and ours alone.
The prophet Jeremiah many generations before Jesus experienced some truly unpleasant consequences for proclaiming the Word of God. And he was not shy about complaining about it to God. “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.” But he also embraced willingly the cross that was his prophetic role. It might seem he had very little choice. But by giving voice to the conflict within his heart, Jeremiah lets us know we should not be alarmed if we faced something similar. God can be very insistent and persuasive at times. Just ask anyone who has had to make a radical, painful, life-changing course correction after what might appear to be a lifetime of rock-solid convictions. But truly, the choice is still ours. We do our own discerning. We understand what our choice entails, and every choice will have consequences. Then we take the leap, and face the music.
In the end, we cannot take lightly our decision to follow Jesus or to walk away. Nor is it some frivolous philosophical exercise open to compromise or indecisiveness. Christian discipleship is serious business. It involves self-denial, carrying our cross, and following after Jesus. And by our example we also teach our young people and support one another. Now a decision to freely embrace Jesus, his teachings, and what it means to be his disciples must necessarily affect all our other choices, our convictions, and our actions, the way we think, the way we live, how we pray, how we extend kindness and compassion and forgiveness, how we reject our judgmental and selfish preferences, how we treat our neighbor, and our willingness to become more like Jesus. If it doesn’t, either we don’t really mean to follow him, or we’re following someone else. So we need to keep listening to God’s word. We need to keep discovering what it means. And we need to keep discerning God’s will. To be Jesus’ disciple is to be constantly learning, and encountering in truly amazing ways the depth, the beauty, and the richness of God.
 Matthew 16: 23-24
 Romans 12: 2
 Jeremiah 20: 7