Today’s gospel reading (Mt 16:21-27) gives us Jesus’ first prediction of His death. He tells the disciples of His impending suffering, death, and resurrection that will occur after they arrive in Jerusalem. Peter protests leading Jesus to utter the words above and accusing Peter of being a stumbling block to Him. Jesus goes on to tell all the disciples they must carry their crosses behind Him — to lose their lives to gain eternal life. Ultimately, He says, all will be repaid according to each one’s conduct.
I am undoubtedly not alone in my long held perception that this scene simply portrays Peter being shocked at Jesus’ words regarding His upcoming death and thus, as chief spokesman for the disciples, and also due to him being famously impulsive, reacts as anyone might do when a close teacher, mentor, or friend (Jesus was all three to Peter and more) speaks in such a manner.
So maybe Jesus was overreacting to a legitimate concern from a close compatriot? Well, Jesus never overreacts. Jesus calls Peter Satan for a reason. This is important and worth looking at more closely. First, remember that we are told that the devil, after tempting Jesus in the desert before Jesus began His mission, “departed from him until an opportune time” (Lk 4:13 RSV). So we know that Beelzebub continued to look for times that he felt Jesus was most vulnerable to his wiles. It seems quite likely that this was one of those times. Jesus, finally breaking the difficult news of his upcoming torture and death to His closest companions, is now being confronted by the leader of the disciples, a man just seconds before He named “Rock” as he would become leader of the Church. Is it the Father speaking through Peter? Would He be better off continuing His preaching mission and building up the Church Himself over a long lifetime? How could He leave these followers when so much more could be done to prepare them? The prospect of a torture and death is horrible to contemplate at any level. These all may have been natural temptations for Jesus. But He knew better. He knew His mission, and His will, aligned perfectly with the Father’s will, allowed for no compromise. Certainly, Satan had a hand in this episode.
But I don’t think we can let Peter off the hook that easily. The old line “the devil made me do it” is too often used as an excuse by us for giving in to our fallen human nature. The one personal quality of the prince of demons that is most prominent is pride. Tradition tells us that Lucifer’s decision to defy God came when he discovered that the savior of mankind was to become man not angel. We read in Genesis how the serpent played on the vice of pride with our first parents (“you will be like gods”! — Gen 3:5). What then might be the pride element for Peter? Jesus certainly was very popular in many precincts and Peter got to bask in that glory. Peter was likely looked upon as somewhat of a celebrity and thus sought after. Even in instances when Jesus was not viewed very highly, especially among the religious leaders he defied and demonized, Peter may have enjoyed being part of “putting those hypocrites in their place.” A component of pride is selfishness. So Peter may also have been thinking about how these events Jesus foretold would affect him. What would happen to him with Jesus no longer around? What would be his sense of purpose? Might he be killed as well? (It is interesting to consider these questions when reading the post-resurrection accounts in the gospels and Acts.)
Jesus confronted Peter harshly, getting to the root of the problem, while hoping to shake him to the core. Like Jesus, Peter, as head of the Church, needed to align himself perfectly with the will of the Heavenly Father wherever that led in this life in order to attain everlasting life in the next (just see the second paragraph of this reading). We must do the same. May the Lord never have cause to liken us to Satan because we are a stumbling block to others in their relationship with God.