By Pamela Lewis
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew 16:21-28
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer, be killed, and be raised on the third day. Hearing that revelation must have felt like a body blow. This is not a statement of stoic determinism or grand heroism (although there are touches of both), but of Jesus’ submission to his Father’s will. Jesus is also acknowledging the official, collective power of the elders, chief priests, and scribes who comprise the Sanhedrin, Israel’s highest court, and who will have the power to execute him. In their shock, the disciples focus solely on the darker end of Jesus’ words and ignore the glorious ending.
Peter’s bold confrontation of Jesus stands as a point of tension between them, where Peter is unwilling to accept the hard truth regarding Jesus’ fate. Given their friendship, Peter probably believes that he has the right to speak to Jesus in this way. But Peter only begins to rebuke Jesus, who in turn interrupts and fully rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan,” and commanding him to get behind him.
Just as he was unaware a few verses earlier of having spoken God’s truth in identifying Jesus as the Son of God (v. 16), Peter is equally unaware that he is speaking for Satan in challenging Jesus, whose mission is to be a suffering servant, not a powerful, earthly leader. And just as Jesus rebuked Satan in the desert for tempting him with earthly power, he rebukes his friend for “satanic thinking.” To truly follow Jesus is to set our minds “behind” him so that he can spiritually lead us in the way he chooses.
When Jesus spoke of denying the self and picking up one’s cross, people understood what he meant, as they knew what the cross represented. This is not the temporary self-denial we might exercise for a particular purpose; rather it is the others-centered living that characterized Jesus’ life on earth. It will take all of our days to achieve this, but it is the way to get behind Jesus.
Pamela A. Lewis taught French for thirty years before retirement. A lifelong resident of Queens, N.Y., she attends Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, and serves on various lay ministries. She writes for The Episcopal New Yorker, Episcopal Journal, and The Living Church.
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