‘Get behind me, Satan’: Why Jesus is tough on Peter
A Reflection for Thursday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time
Find today’s readings here
“Get behind me, Satan.” These are the strongest, sharpest and, perhaps, most shocking and offensive words to usher from the mouth of Jesus—at least that we are privy to. While for some such a tart expression is shocking, from one who we see as holy and without blemish, for others it can be refreshing. They are a clear sign of Jesus’ humanity; that he, like us, loses his cool. I wonder how Peter would’ve received Jesus’ sharp retort.
Spare a thought for the guy.
Peter, at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel—then named Simon—is the first to be called to follow Jesus, along with his brother Andrew. Then, in Matthew’s Gospel it is Peter who acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah. “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,” Jesus says to him, adding: “And the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” Now, that same Peter is told that his actions are in fact evil and will cause the Son of God, his dear friend, Jesus to stumble? Doesn’t seem like the netherworld is losing its grip. The guy must’ve been a mess, feeling confused, angry, guilty. After all, to his mind, he was probably thinking, “This will not be your end, dear friend friend. We will not let you die, we will not allow anything like this to happen to you.”
Doubtless we have all had a moment in our lives, where the seemingly most hurtful words have ushered from the mouth of the people we most love and trust and shake us to our core; where we thought we were walking the high road, and doing all in our power to be and do good and yet our actions missed a step and caused another to stumble.
In Greek, the word for stumble is skandalon, from which the English word “scandal” issues. In Greek, it literally means a stumbling block or a stone you trip over. So, Peter has gone from being a rock of stability to a stumbling stone. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Gospel immediately juxtaposes these two images, and not only puts them side-by-side in the text, but in the same person.
Perhaps the clue we need to understand Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is given in the rest of Jesus’ reply to Peter. Jesus’ explanation not only informs the way Jesus is with Peter but also with us, when we find ourselves duped by our own faith.
At least in the way I hear it in my own reflection, Jesus’ follow-up to calling Peter “Satan” is much gentler. Jesus tells Peter, his problem is that he is thinking as humans do and not as God does. He then shares with Peter words that have inspired the lives of many saints: “Whoever wishes to come after me, must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”
We can often mistake this advice for something it is not. We hear people who are suffering being told, “This is your Cross, carry it.” But I do not think that is the intention here. I think Jesus was telling Peter that accepting mockery and scorn is not about choosing miserable circumstances, rather about accepting what may come as a consequence of choosing to follow Jesus. Listen to what immediately follows in Jesus’ advice: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Jesus’ injunction or rebuke is not against the ultimate action that is taken, important as that may be, it is a prior criticism about Peter’s desire in choosing to follow God. If our decisions are taken simply to ensure our own happiness, wellbeing and comfort then we’ve missed the point.
Peter was being drawn to look beyond himself, to interrogate the depths of his motivation and desires. Ultimately, Jesus’ shocking words may have played a part. We know Peter will betray his dear friend again, but he eventually learns—even if repeatedly stumbling and being called to attention—that it was really never about him. May we have, at least, the desire to be like Peter, a rock upon which God can build a church—even if we suffer insults and injuries to make our church a home under which all can take refuge.