Thursday, August 31, 2017

Why Was Peter Upset?


In Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 16:21-28), we read the second half of the scene in which Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah. Last Sunday, we heard about the confession, and this Sunday we get to hear about the consequences of it. For the first time, Jesus predicts his passion, death, and resurrection. Peter objects, and Jesus says, "Get behind me, Satan," before going on to teach the disciples that all must give up their lives in order to be his disciples. Happy day for them and us, huh?

This is the second week in a row and the fourth in five weeks in which Peter takes a prominent role. We had the "Let us build three booths, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah," line on August 6. We had Peter walking on the water but sinking because of lack of faith on August 13. Last week was the confession, and this week was the objection. It's probably not a bad idea to stop and ask, "What's the deal with Peter?" With the exception of last week's divine-led confession, which I'd argue should be paired with this week's lesson anyway, he's been a bit of a blockhead each time. Bold but obtuse. This week, I'd like to ask why.

Why was Peter so upset when Jesus told him and the other disciples that he would be killed in Jerusalem? Is it because Peter didn't want his master to die? Or is it because Peter was making a theological claim that, as far as he understood it, the Messiah could not go to Jerusalem and be betrayed by the religious authorities and killed at the hands of his own people? In other words, was Peter unwilling to accept that his master, his teacher, his friend would be taken away from him, or was Peter confused over how his messianic identification could result in a passion prediction? I'm not sure which one is right. Maybe it's both.

You know those terrible moments when a loved one, who has been terribly ill for a long time, is held onto by her family, which just cannot find the will to let her go? "I can't let you die, Mamma!" her son exclaims. "We'll never let her go!" the husband says to her doctors. "I don't care what her living will says. She's a fighter. She's not going to give up." There's an instinct in all of us to hold onto the ones we love. We don't want to say goodbye to them. No matter how rationally beneficial and healing their deaths may be, we just can't let them go. Is that what Peter is feeling here? Is his reaction the same kind of reaction we might have the first time we heard the news that our parent or spouse has a terminal disease: "No! That will never happen to you!"

Theologically speaking, the Messiah isn't supposed to die either. There are lines in the Bible about David's house and kingdom and throne being established forever (e.g. 2 Samuel 7:16). In Deuteronomy 21:33, we read that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed, implying that one who is crucified isn't redeemed by God but forsaken by him. Plus there's the expectation that the Messiah will be one to establish God's kingdom on earth by overthrowing the earthly powers (in this case, the Roman occupation of Palestine), and, generally speaking,  the best way to do that isn't by dying at the hands of the people you're trying to overthrow. Maybe Peter's objection was as much theological and political as personal. Maybe he meant, "This must never happen to you, Lord! Didn't you just confirm that you are the Messiah? What am I missing here?"

Either way, whether it's personal or theological, Peter must prepare himself for what will happen. Otherwise, he is standing on the side of Satan. Maybe the last line in the lesson can provide an interpretive key: "Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." Are these cryptic words a mistake on Jesus' part? Did he anticipate the coming of his kingdom sooner than it actually happened? Although I'm not one to need every word in scripture to be historically true, I suspect that there may be a different truth within these words. I wonder whether he's speaking not only of the Son of Man's coming but also the eye-opening reality that the kingdom that's coming will be manifest not when he comes back but when he hangs on the cross. Peter and the disciples need to see that the Messiah who is bringing God's kingdom is bringing it through his passion, death, and resurrection and not through an earthly victory over earthly powers. This is the defeat of sin and death, which makes the defeat of the Roman Empire a moot point.

Peter said, "Lord, this must never happen to you!" and Jesus replied, "Get behind me, Satan!" Until Peter sees that this must happen to Jesus, he won't see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. Give it time, however, and he will.

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