- Jesus’ First Prediction of His Passion
Matthew says that Jesus “began to show his disciples” why he had to go to Jerusalem. However he “showed” them, it must have been terrible to see such a thing in the mind’s eye : Jesus their friend and master, suffering at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the scribes. Peter had confessed just a short while before that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” ; for him and for the others, those titles certainly didn’t encompass the kind of destiny that Jesus was now describing. If anything, they implied grace and glory, not suffering, shame, and death. In their emotional reaction the last words of the prediction, “on the third day [he will] be raised,” are lost. Focused so completely on the terror, the disciples are in no condition to receive this mysterious conclusion. They cannot hear the promise of something that goes beyond what they think they know.
Peter’s “rebuke” of Jesus is met with Jesus’ far more violent rebuke : “Get behind me, Satan ! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (23). This language is almost as terrible as the prediction of the passion itself. Why does Jesus react this way to what seems to us a very natural reaction on Peter’s part ? How can we understand this exchange ? As always, we can start by remembering where we’ve heard Jesus speak like this before – in this case, at the Temptation (4 : 1-11). He’d ended that scene by saying : “Get away, Satan ! It is written : The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve” (10). This concluding line offers us a way to think about Peter’s situation here.
Peter’s protest seems to be against Jesus’ suffering and death, just as Satan had seemed to be protesting Jesus’ being hungry or his not being ruler of all the world. In that earlier story, however, Satan’s motivations were quite clear. Peter, on the other hand, is motivated by a misguided sense of what should be. Jesus calls him “Satan,” but if Peter is anything, he’s the tool, not the workman. In fact, despite their harshness, Jesus’ words show that there’s hope. In the Temptation scene, Jesus ends the duel in the desert with these words. But here, Jesus tells Peter to “get behind” him rather than to “get away.” In other words : “get back to the position of the disciple, Peter. Don’t try to lead me ; let me lead you. Follow me.” He’s also saying : “Let me die for you first – that’s the proper order. Your time will come.” However we read them, Jesus’ words are not sending Peter away, but telling him to readjust his thinking. It’s also worth noting that while the text we’ll hear at the liturgy has Jesus using the word “obstacle” to describe Peter, another version might translate the Greek word “skandalon” as “stumbling block.” That could help us remember that Jesus had just given the big fisherman a new name – Rock (Petros in Greek, Peter in English). For the moment, at least, Rock has turned into Stumbling Stone, not exactly the same thing. Peter has to find a way to return to his true self, and Jesus tells him how ; that way is by “getting behind” Jesus.
But it’s not just Peter who gets it wrong. All of us can line up right behind him ! When Jesus turns from chewing him out, he says to all the disciples and thus to us : “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (24). Don’t try to save your life, he says, but lose it, freely, for my sake, and then you’ll find it. There’s an echo of the parable of the grain of wheat here. The grain has to go into the ground and die if it wants to bring forth a plant. It can’t just stay the same, an inert seed, if it desires to be transformed, to live in a new way, and the same holds true for would-be disciples. Unlike the wheat, however, we get to learn and re-learn the lesson throughout our lives. The story of “Stumbling Rock,” who did eventually die for Jesus, though not as he’d first imagined, can enrich and deepen our education in discipleship.
Sr. Nuala Cotter, ra
Worcester - USA