Opening the Word: Love compels rebuke

Recently, I have been leading a Bible study through the Book of Proverbs. It is filled with many challenging sayings, some of which are too easily passed over before their depth and insight can be fully appreciated.

One such proverb comes to mind in reading today’s Gospel: “Better is an open rebuke than a love that remains hidden” (Prv 27:5). Such a statement runs counter to the dominant culture of our day, which insists, first, that any and all “love” declare itself from the rooftops (or one’s Facebook page) and, second, that rebuke comes from those who are unloving, rigid and needlessly judgmental. But this proverb indicates that real love sometimes compels a necessary rebuke.

How so? The answer can be found in the famous story of Peter walking on water and then sinking in dramatic fashion. In fact, a connection can be seen between three essentials: rebuke, revelation and redemption. A proper rebuke, or reprimand, is never an end in itself. And when it comes from God, it is a grace meant for our growth in understanding and the attainment of salvation.

It appears that Jesus wished to test the faith of the apostles, for he “made the disciples get into a boat” to go to the other side of the lake while he spent time alone in prayer.

The boat was being “tossed” — or, more literally, “harassed” and “tortured” by the winds and rain. Darkness and chaos reigned. The disciples had been caught in the storm for several hours when Jesus came toward them. Exhausted and unnerved, they were terrified at the sight of Christ, thinking he was a ghost.

“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” The phrase “it is I” (ego eimi) can also be translated as “I AM”; it is an implicit declaration of divinity, harkening back to Yahweh’s revelation to Moses in the burning bush (Ex 3:14). Peter, the leader of the group, asked for the Lord’s command to come to him. Whereas Yahweh had told Moses, “Come no nearer!” (Ex 3:5), Jesus responded to Peter’s request by simply saying, “Come.” Moses needed to see and know the power of God, who is completely other and holy. Peter, who already believed in God, needed to see and know the power of Jesus, who is completely divine and human, approachable because he is the unique God-man.

Peter, ever impulsive, and filled with faith, stepped out of the boat and began walking toward Jesus. It’s easy to fixate on Peter’s moment of fear and to overlook that Peter did actually walk on water because of his faith. As St. Jerome wrote of this story: “Peter is found to be of ardent faith at all times. … He believes he can do by the will of the Master what the latter could do by nature.”

But Peter’s faith was still lacking. He needed to be rebuked so he could be see more clearly and be redeemed more completely. Two other occasions come to mind. Having declared Jesus to be the Messiah, Peter (wrongly!) rebuked his master for prophetically announcing his approaching Passion; he was then rebuked soundly by Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mt 16:16-23). And even before he denied Jesus three times, Peter was rebuked for his hubristic declarations of courage (Mt 26:33-35, 75).

The revelation in each instance was the same: the true nature and power of the King and his kingdom. Loved perfectly, Peter was rebuked openly so he could walk without fear and witness without faltering.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.