All of us have experienced ups and downs. Many have climbed to the top only to tumble to the bottom; some have found favor and praise one day only to fall from it in short order. But Peter put himself in a rather rarified class of those who have ridden high one moment and crashed the next. In a short period of time he went from being renamed “Rock” and established firmly as head of the apostles to being called “Satan” and described as a stumbling block!
Today’s Gospel reading is, frankly, shocking — as it is meant to be. It seems reasonable to think, “Why is Jesus being so harsh toward Peter? After all, the poor guy is simply reacting out of love and concern for his master!” But to do so would miss the surprising severity of both Peter’s rebuke of Jesus — itself a drastic violation of how a rabbi’s disciples were expected to act — and the deadly seriousness of Jesus’ rebuke in return. Peter, in taking Jesus aside and away from the others, was unwittingly following the example of the devil, who “took Jesus” and tempted him in the desert (Mt 4:5).
Of course, Peter was not knowingly diabolical; “his error,” says author Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, “comes from uninformed and defective love, whereas the Devil’s motivation derived from sheer egolatry and the compulsion to vitiate God’s plan of redemption.” Peter, the rock, had decided that he, not Jesus, knew what would or should happen in Jerusalem. In this way, because of a failure of faith and understanding, the building rock established by God was turned into a stumbling block.
“Peter had learned that Christ is the Son of God,” noted St. John Chrysostom, “But he had not learned the mystery of the cross and the resurrection. It was as yet not manifested to him. It remained hidden.” For this reason, Chrysostom explained, Jesus had ordered his disciples to tell no one he was the Messiah (Mt 16:20): “For if it so confounded the disciples, who were being made aware of it, who knows what the response of the others might have been.”
As with the story of Peter walking on water and then beginning to sink (Mt 14:22-33), it’s easy to sniff a bit at Peter’s failure to “get it.” Isn’t it obvious Jesus had to die on the cross? Well, no, it wasn’t at all, which is exactly why Jesus spent so much time and effort establishing the necessary groundwork and explaining it for months, even years. The natural human inclination is to avoid suffering and death by almost any means possible. A first-century Jew would have recoiled in horror at the thought of a suffering Messiah executed like a criminal. And today, 2,000 years later, there are many who call themselves Christians who reject the centrality of the crucifixion, or dismiss the importance of Jesus’ sacrifice, or even claim it was all a big misunderstanding because Jesus merely taught an ethical system based on tolerance and acceptance.
But Jesus spoke clearly about having to suffer and be killed. And he then said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” To make the Sign of the Cross is to mark ourselves with the sign of suffering and death through which suffering is transformed into love and death is conquered by life: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
St. Peter would be crucified upside down years later in perfect love for his Lord and Savior.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.