Jesus bluntly rebukes Peter, telling him, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” There are two contexts for this rebuke: one is the particular circumstance in which Peter himself rebuked Jesus for revealing his Passion; and the other is the general human reality in which all people struggle to understand the division of human things and divine things.
In the first context, an interesting question is, What did Peter actually say to Jesus? Given that Jesus has just disclosed that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” it is not a stretch to believe that Peter rejected the need for the Son of Man to suffer and die. Jesus’ divinely ordained and freely chosen destiny is, in this context, the “divine things” (the Greek is literally “the things of God,” ta tou theou).
More concretely, though, what might these “human things” (“the things of human beings,” ta tôn anthrôpôn) be? What are the things that draw us away from God’s ways and desires? Although “human things” in themselves are not necessarily negative—avoiding suffering and death is not inherently wrong—what seems to be the case is that whenever (divine) values and (human) preferences come into conflict, one chooses the “divine thing.” Values and preferences are not always at odds, but when they are, the choice must be made for the things of God.
What things did Peter tell Jesus to choose? When we reflect on Peter telling Jesus to choose the “human thing,” it is hard to avoid considering the concrete temptations Satan offered Jesus in the Synoptic Gospel narratives, since it is Jesus who raises the specter of Satan here in Caesarea Philippi. It seems likely that Jesus does not consider Peter as Satan, but that the temptations Peter offers in the guise of helping Jesus are connected to the temptations of Satan that we know from Matthew and Luke—that is, the basic temptations that underlie all “human things.”
In the temptation accounts, Jesus is offered the power to satisfy all his earthly hungers, the power to presume upon God’s will and favor, and the power over all kingdoms. Wealth, authority and fame—what more could a person want? Did Peter tempt Jesus with a plea for him not to die at the hands of foreign oppressors, the Romans, but to institute God’s kingdom by conquering them militarily and installing himself as king? While it is impossible to know precisely what temptation Peter called upon Jesus to accept, it is not too much to believe that he asked him to act on his power and authority and bring about the kingdom of God in a way that aligned with “human things,” that involved shows of force, might and revenge.
When Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah, he must have had particular ideas not just of what this meant for the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, but for those who were the Messiah’s closest friends, his apostles and disciples. Whatever kingdom Peter’s mind conjured, it probably did not involve denying himself and taking up his cross to follow Jesus or losing his life for the Gospel. What kind of kingdom is that? Feel for Peter for a moment. What kind of ridiculous kingdom is built on the broken body of a defeated Messiah?
This is the kingdom of “divine things,” the kingdom of paradox. Tomas Halik, the Czech priest and theologian, says, “If we have never had the feeling that what Jesus wants of us is absurd, crazy, impossible, then we’ve probably either been too hasty in taming or diluting the radical nature of his teaching by soothing intellectualizing interpretations, or (mostly naïvely, illusorily or even hypocritically) we have too easily forgotten just to what extent—in our thinking, customs, and actions—we are rooted ‘in this world’ where totally different rules apply” (Night of the Confessor, p. 27). Jesus offers us the things of God, the things in which we save our lives by losing them and build a kingdom whose divine power is seen as human weakness.