Jesus gives Peter the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, Perugino 1481, the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City State.
Temptation of Jesus Christ, Repin 1895, Private Collection.
[Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Matthew 16:23.
Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
Last week’s gospel showed Peter proclaiming Jesus to be the Anointed of God, the Son of God. Jesus in return acknowledged this to be true, and gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Today’s gospel follows directly on that scene, as reflected in the two illustrations above. Jesus then proclaimed, to the staggering bewilderment of all his disciples present, that as God’s Chosen One, he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed….. Peter again was the first to respond to this unwelcome news, saying “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Understandable from a human point of view, but according to Jesus, utterly wrong, to the extent of being contrary to God’s will, therefore sinful, hence his extraordinary repost to Peter, shown pictured above. Jesus’ own words explain this; it is thinking as the world does, not as God does. In fact, though Peter did not realize this, Jesus was being tempted to act contrary to God’s will. His vocation, given to him at his baptism, was to fulfill all the messianic prophecies, not just the “good” ones; if he succumbed to Peter’s wishes, the “suffering servant” prophecies would not be fulfilled. So what on earth is going on here?
The Hebrew people had been dominated by unclean Gentile foreigners for about 500 years up to the time of Jesus. Indeed, throughout their history to that time, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians and the Romans had each controlled their land, sometimes benignly, sometimes disastrously. Yet through all that, God, through the prophets, had promised delivery from such slavery, and that there would be a Messiah, an Anointed One of God, who would change it all. Such messianic promises kept them going in hope, but….. There were two sides to this picture. Yes, the Promised One would be called king, greater even than David, but would also be mocked and spat on. He would heal the afflicted but would also bear our sins. Well, the bad side was quietly ignored over the centuries, and the hopes of the people rested on the more positive side, the conquering hero angle. That is what Peter was thinking of when he was aghast at Jesus’ words, and that is why Jesus turned on him, declaring him to be Satan! Of course it was a temptation, to be glorified as the new king, to conquer the hated pagan occupying forces and restore the glory of the kingdom of David; Jesus did indeed have the power to do all that. But that would be to ignore much of the body of prophecy which his disciples chose to ignore. Jesus did not however. Hence his own prophesy that he must be killed in Jerusalem in fulfillment of his claim to be the Messiah (but not the one to call everyone to arms). It seems only Jesus had this insight, to the horror of all who followed him. But then, look at today’s first reading, “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped…”
And then look at the second reading today, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” That is certainly a recipe asking for trouble. Not to conform to the values of any age will encounter conflict. Look at today’s world, worshiping fame, money, power, drugs, instead of love of neighbor, peace, justice, care of the poor, widows, orphans. Christians have always been counter-cultural. One very clever take on this situation can be found in the 1989 French-Canadian movie Jésus de Montréal. There is even a scene where our Jesus figure, a highly accomplished but penniless actor, is being conducted around the top floor of a Montreal skyscraper by a wealthy lawyer. This man looks out over the city and declares that all this could be his because of his talent, if he but embrace the super-profitable Hollywood world of acting for money and fame rather then pursue the impoverished role he has undertaken instead.
Temptation is perhaps the theme here today. If we stripped away all the restrictions, if you want to call them that, of the Christian life, and lived another life of all for me and nobody or nothing else, one does wonder what it would be like. Charities would presumably vanish, widows and orphans would be ignored, starvation might well be unavoidable, and so on. The world of Ayn Rand would become a reality, and woe betide any of us who fall down in such a world. So two thoughts occur. One, am I a source of temptation to anyone else in any way at all? Do I flaunt my wealth or position? Am I considered to be “The Big I Am”? Or am I a victim of temptation, having brought misfortune upon myself and possibly others by giving in to it? That can range from something like eating the wrong things, to financial ruin for me and my family. If neither of these apply (and let’s hope that is true), then today’s readings will reinforce those Christian precepts we have freely embraced as life-giving and life-receiving. Note the strong language of Jesus today. Temptation can be so destructive that it can guide us into the jaws of eternal damnation. We must be ever alert to its presence, and be ever grateful for God’s help to battle and defeat it. Remember that the children of God, us, are always in the presence of our divine Father, always protective and always willing to guide.
God the Father Blessing, Raphael 1508, Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia, Italy.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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