If we need an example of our own humanity in the scriptures, we need look no further than Peter. And there is no better place to see this than in these few lines in chapter 16 of Matthew’s gospel, verses 13-23. It begins with Jesus addressing Peter with the highest of praises immediately after Peter’s inspired confession that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my heavenly Father [this is a key phrase to remember here]. And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church…”
But only four lines later in the same passage, Jesus remonstrates Peter in a stunningly harsh way: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Can you see the difference?” Do we not recognize something of our own flawed humanity in Peter here?
Peter’s insight into who Jesus really was, was the truth, a truth that could only come from the Father. Yet, a short time later, Peter quickly gets caught up in human concerns after Jesus has told them that he “must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day, rise.” Peter pulls Jesus aside saying, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Thinking in human terms, Peter wanted to take control of the situation, to protect Jesus, to prevent him from undertaking such a seemingly “foolish” action. But, if Jesus is truly the Son of God, would he need protection from anything or anyone? Or, might his purposes and his ways of thinking and doing be different from human ways?
This phrase, “Get behind me, Satan”, in a way, alludes to the encounter Jesus had with Satan at the end of his forty days of prayer and fasting in the desert following his baptism in the Jordan and before beginning his public ministry. There, Satan, in his foolish pride tried to tempt Jesus with all kinds of human thinking, in other words, earthly temptations toward immediate gratification, wealth, and power. Jesus finally tells Satan, “The Lord your God you shall worship and him alone shall you serve.” Then, we are told, “The devil left him.” When Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan”, he is condemning Peter’s similar kind of worldly thinking.
If, or when, I put anything before God, I am thinking in human ways. For example, if I put politics or ideology, or the quest for wealth, or fame, or power, before God; if I use religion to rationalize these things as being of God, or sanctioned by God, am I not thinking in human ways and not God’s? Am I not listening to and serving the “ruler of this world,” rather than worshiping and serving God alone? If God’s ways are not first and foremost in all that we think, say, and do, should we not fear that God will say to us, as he did to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me?”
But Jesus is not done yet. He then says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” We must read these lines in the light of what Jesus has told Peter and the others about what is going to happen to him, that is, if we wish to follow Jesus, we must be willing to suffer, even die, for his sake. This is because God’s ways are not the ways of the world, and the world misunderstands, fears and hates his ways.
Then Jesus gives us a final thought to contemplate: “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” These questions and challenges from Jesus are worthy of a lifetime of prayer and practice. We must remember, too, that God’s love and forgiveness are greater than our sins. Turn to him as Peter did. He was forgiven for his sins many times and was the “rock” upon which Jesus built his church. Lord, give us the graces we need to rise up onto our feet and begin walking in your ways alone this day and all those yet to come. Amen.