Peter’s Fleeting Exaltation

Sunday, Sept. 3, Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jeremiah 20:7-9;  Romans 12:1-2, and Matthew 16:21-27.

By Father Donald Dilger

The gospel reading of this Sunday is the immediate sequel of last Sunday’s Gospel. In that episode Simon Peter publicly professed his faith in Jesus as “the Messiah (Christ), Son of the living God.” In reply, Jesus revealed that Simon’s profession of faith was the result of a direct revelation from the Father. Next Jesus solemnly gave to Simon son of John a new name or title, Petros, that is “Rock,” and created him the foundation of the Church, “On this Rock I will build my Church.” Then he bestowed on the Rock a quasi-divine power of authority over the Church, symbolized in the metaphor of keys to the kingdom of heaven, plus decision-making under the metaphor of binding and unbinding. This episode should be called “The exaltation of Simon the Rock.” How fleeting, as we shall see, was the glory of that exaltation in Matthew’s arrangement of the traditions he includes in his Gospel.

Immediately after Peter’s exaltation, Jesus launches into his first prophetic proclamation of his approaching suffering, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem. Simon Peter, so recently given the preeminent authority in Jesus’ future Community, over-estimates his authority. He pulls Jesus aside, rebukes him, and says, “No way, Lord. This will not happen to you.” Wrong move! The same Jesus who so recently exalted him, now turns on him with vehement condemnation, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me! You do not savor the business of God, but human stuff!” Quite a rebuke! The Rock of the Church turned into pea gravel, but only temporarily.  Peter’s rebuke of Jesus is treated as a temptation of Satan. Simon the Rock was still in “the seminary,” and had much to learn with even more embarrassing events yet to come. In the New Testament, Satan is a name of the archfiend, the tempter to evil, and is used in that sense thirty-four times. It was no complement to Simon Peter to be placed into the company of the archfiend.

“Behind me” is the proper place of a disciple of Jesus, a follower, not a guardian with power of attorney. “The business of God” is God’s plan through Jesus for the human race. That included suffering and a vicarious death, death for others. “Human stuff” refers to a common or popular belief, that when the Messiah came to his people, he would restore the kingdom of his ancestor David and drive out the oppressors, who in this case were the Romans. Their influence began under Pompey in 63 B.C. and was to continue for centuries. This “human stuff” keeps asserting itself repeatedly in the Gospels, whenever the disciples show their ambition for prestige and power over others.

To correct the false idea of a glorious restoration of the Kingdom of David by Jesus as conqueror and expeller of the Romans, Matthew returns to the themes of Jesus’ first prophetic oracle — his approaching suffering and death in Jerusalem. That prophetic oracle was the introduction to Simon Peter’s rebuke of Jesus and Jesus’ rebuke of Simon Peter. Matthew writes, “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to follow behind me must deny himself, (not glorify himself as Simon Peter had done), take up his cross and follow me.” The cross which Simon Peter rejected when he rebuked Jesus was meant not only for Jesus but for Christians in general. Early Christians were aware that crucifixion was a real threat to them, a threat that continued for almost three centuries. This method of killing Christians has been resurrected from time to time in the history of persecution.

The sayings attributed to Jesus by Matthew continue, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew knows about the persecution of Christians in Rome about twenty years before he composed his Gospel. He knows that some Christians accepted their fate, while some, to save their life, denied they were Christians. “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his own life? Or what can one give in exchange for his own life?” The obvious answer: eternal life with God. This is why Matthew adds a final saying, “For the Son of Man (Jesus appearing in human form) will come with his angels in the glory of his Father. Then he will repay all according to their conduct.”

This is a double-pronged statement. It is a threat to those who denied their faith under the pressure of persecution, and a promise of eternal glory to those who persevered even under the threat of death.