For most of us it is very difficult to be different from the other people around us; we strongly desire to fit in. And all of us have difficulty resisting other strong impulses that arise from within us. Following Jesus requires that we undertake these challenging tasks.
The reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans is the beginning of the section of the letter in which Paul advises the Roman Christians how to live. He summarizes the particular advice that follows by saying, “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.” This age, this time and place in which we live, is not entirely in harmony with God. Therefore, the Christian should not be conformed to it, but must be transformed so that the Christian is in complete harmony with God. Paul indicates the nature of this transformation by saying that Christians should offer themselves as “a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” Those in conformity with this age do not offer themselves as a living sacrifice to God, but that is what we Christians should do.
This is made clearer and more challenging in the reading from the gospel according to Matthew. In this reading Jesus predicts his own suffering, death and resurrection and says that his followers must be like him in this. They must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus. Jesus says “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” We Christians must offer ourselves as a living sacrifice because that is what Jesus did. What makes most sense by the standards of this age is that we preserve our own lives above all. As followers of Jesus, we have another standard.
The gospel reading also shows us how hard it is to adopt this new standard. In the section of Matthew’s gospel immediately preceding today’s reading, Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus responded by blessing Peter and declaring that God had revealed this to Peter (see Matt 16:15-17). However, when Jesus predicted his own suffering, death and resurrection, Peter said, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Jesus then said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” The values of this age are present within Peter and cause him to reject the standard of Jesus. This is no less a problem for us. At least in some degree we are conformed to this age, and we cannot be transformed without a struggle.
We see something similar in the reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s proclamation of God’s word to the people of his day was not in line with the standards of that day, and so was rejected. Jeremiah says, “All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I must cry out, violence and outrage is my message; the word of the Lord has brought me derision and reproach all the day.” Because of this Jeremiah tried to refrain from speaking the word of the Lord, but found that he could not.
Like Jeremiah we may find that following Jesus makes us objects of scorn to others. Like Jeremiah we may also be tempted to give up the difficult attempt to be different from others. And if we persist in following Jesus, we may resent the difficult position in which we find ourselves. Jeremiah expresses this resentment when he says, “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.”