by Fr. Tommy Lane
What a difference between Peter in the Gospel last Sunday (Matt 16:13-20) when he proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah and Peter in the Gospel today (Matt 16:21-27) when he takes Jesus aside to try to dissuade him from facing his Passion in Jerusalem. What a difference between Jesus’ response to Peter in the Gospel last Sunday when he declared Peter to be the Rock on which he would build his Church (Matt 16:18) and Jesus’ response to Peter in the Gospel today when he called Peter “Satan” and an obstacle to his mission (Matt 16:23).
Comparing the conversation between Jesus and Peter in today’s Gospel (Matt 16:21-27) with the conversation between Jesus and the devil during his temptations in the desert (Matt 4:1-11) is disturbing. Peter took Jesus aside (Matt 16:22) just as the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple (Matt 4:5) and to a high mountain to tempt him (Matt 4:8). Jesus dismisses Peter with the same word (ὕπαγε in Greek in Matt 16:23) as he dismisses the devil at the end of his temptations in the desert (Matt 16:10). Just before today’s Gospel, Jesus declared Peter to be the Rock (Matt 16:18) and now he declares Peter to be an obstacle (Matt 16:23). In the Greek in which Matt wrote, Jesus uses the word skandalon (σκάνδαλον) to describe Peter. That word means a trap or small stone one trips over. So Peter the Rock is now a stone one trips over when going on one’s journey. He is a hindrance to Jesus on the road to his Passion in Jerusalem. Jesus must face his Passion and endure it for our salvation.
What has changed? When Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah he was acting under divine inspiration; Jesus told him it was his heavenly Father who had revealed it to him (Matt 16:16-17). When Peter takes Jesus aside to try to dissuade him from his Passion he was not under divine inspiration but acting out of his impulse and his own thinking, believing he knew better than Jesus. That may sometimes be our failing also; sometimes we too think we know better than God. We cannot understand why we have a cross. Sometimes we may be like Peter. Or we could think of those who profess faith in Jesus but like Peter do not want Jesus to impinge on their lifestyles. They want an ŕ la carte Jesus. They want Jesus on their terms. I am thinking of those who would say you are a bigot if you declare that certain lifestyles are immoral or would put one in mortal sin. Peter wanted Jesus but did not want the cross. We also do not want a cross. Now there are some who want Jesus but without the challenge of living a moral life. Peter was deluded and now we are deluded into thinking that mortal sin is not mortal, or even deluded into thinking that mortal sin is not even sin at all. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that we can have Jesus and gross immorality and gross indecency at the same time. Jesus’ response would surely be “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Matt 16:23)
Yet Peter is a beacon of hope. While we do not see a complimentary picture of Peter in the Gospel today we know this is not the full picture. Today we get only a partial picture of Peter. On two more occasions we also get partial pictures of Peter which are not impressive; when he denied three times that he knew Jesus and when he did not go to Calvary while the Beloved Disciple and the women went. But Peter is completely transformed later. Although we see him weak and struggling in today’s Gospel he became a great apostle for Jesus and the first Pope (John 21:15-17) so he is for us a beacon of hope. In the Acts of the Apostles again and again we see Peter acting courageously after Pentecost. He was brought before the Sanhedrin twice just after Pentecost for preaching about Jesus (Acts 4:1-22; 5:21-42), and was imprisoned once (Acts 5:17-21). Instead of denying Jesus he considered it an honor to suffer for Jesus (Acts 5:41). At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells him he will be martyred just like Jesus (John 21:18-19). Peter was crucified just to the left of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and buried in the nearest cemetery, which is under the high altar of St. Peter’s. A tradition tells us that Peter asked to be crucified upside down because he did not consider himself worthy to be crucified in the same way as Jesus. So whether it is our personal sin or the sins of others that are a skandalon - a stone to make us trip - we can have great hope because of Peter.
Clearly Peter went from a small stone or skandalon that makes one trip on one’s journey to become someone who was powerful, mighty, a Rock, the first Pope. What changed? Peter’s faith in Jesus grew so that he no longer acted under impulse but under the power of the Holy Spirit. We see two alternatives in Peter; rejecting the cross and being a stone to make one trip, or accepting the cross to live a new life in union with Jesus. We cannot have Jesus without the cross. We cannot have Jesus and live immoral lives at the same time. In our second reading today Paul wrote
I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. 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. (Rom 12:1-2).
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. (Matt 16:24-25)
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