A Monday Meditation on Matthew 16:21-28 — Year A, Proper 17(22)
On the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, the Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary is Matthew 16:21-28, where Jesus meekly says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” That is, we pick up where we left off last week.
The pause between last week’s part and this week’s can be a bit deceiving. Jesus rewarded Simon’ confession of faith with a new name (Cephas, or Peter, the rock), plus the mysterious promise of the “keys.” That can seem to lend credence to the superiority of Peter among all the Apostles.
But then we get this week’s reading. Here, after just a bit more conversation, Jesus says Peter is the devil.
So much for his big promotion.
This week’s reading, however, is a huge turning point in the Gospel of Matthew.
Up to last week, Jesus’ ministry, with all his miracles and his teaching, was aimed toward getting the disciples exactly where Peter was: seeing that Jesus really is the Messiah.
From this week onward, he redirects them to the coming of his passion. They are now expected to know he is the Messiah. They aren’t supposed to tell other people, but they know, and with that knowledge in place they are to learn the next necessary lesson: the Messiah saves through his willing self-sacrifice, going even to death so that he can win the victory over death.
There are three sections here:
- Jesus begins to fortell the passion.
- Peter rebukes Jesus, who replies “Get behind me!”
- Jesus waxes a bit apocalyptic.
Peter Rebukes Jesus, who replies “Get Behind Me!”
Just now I’m most drawn to #2.
Preachers tend to get on Peter’s case. Peter has the audacity to rebuke Jesus, and Jesus smacks him down, saying “Get behind me, Satan!”
But think about Peter’s confidence here. Where did it come from? Peter was so assured his relationship with Jesus that he could actually speak up and contradict his Lord.
Um, Jesus, this passion and cross idea—I don’t think so. Maybe we should run a focus group before you commit.
That’s pretty great, really.
What About Our Talks with Jesus?
What would happen if we, like Peter, had no fear in prayer? What if you were to speak out exactly what you think and feel, even if it means telling God he’s doing the wrong thing?
Worst case scenario? Maybe God tells us we are wronger than he is.
Big deal. At least we have an honest relationship.
So God goes ahead and does what he wants to do. No problem.
At least we showed up in our faith. At least we lived truly before God.
And if it seems like God is about to allow something really awful? At least if we speak up the blame is not on us.
Jesus Begins to Fortell the Passion
Which brings us back to #1 on the list: the first passion prediction. It’s a huge turning point.
As Matthew puts it,
From that time on,
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem
and undergo great suffering
at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes,
and be killed,
and on the third day be raised.
Matthew 16:21 NRSV
We hear it with no surprise. We’ve been through the church year a few times. We know that Holy week is coming, with betrayal, trial, torture, and death.
If we have a bit of theological perspective, we also know that these horrifying events are necessary if we want to see the glory, and experience the new life, of resurrection at Easter.
Their Big Hope — Dashed
But try to imagine this scene as if you were there among the twelve. They had spent 15 chapters walking alongside Jesus, seeing the wonders, hearing his wisdom and his wit, knowing the power of his grace.
They heard him fulfill what Isaiah said of the Messiah. Peter, at least, put two and two together and proclaimed his faith. The rest surely agreed.
It was all going so well.
Surely, if you were in that group of early followers, you had a sense that with Jesus the kingdom, the messianic age, was now unfolding. Life was finally beginning to be what God intended from the beginning and promised in the covenant and the prophets.
So with that opening of hope in your heart, how would you feel about Jesus saying he’s going to be betrayed, and tried, and tortured and killed?
Let’s all admit it: we would be right there with Peter, telling Jesus not to go there.
Our Little Hopes — Dashed
And doesn’t it happen in our lives, at least now and again, that we start to think that Jesus is bringing everything around to be the way we think it should be?
- Finally we are loved instead of alone.
- Finally we have a sense of calling rather than an empty drudge of a slog to payday.
- Finally we are getting some respect, a place in the world…
And then it comes smashing down. With or without a pandemic, we can lose a job or a loved one, our health or the respect of those around us.
Well, are we supposed to just wallow in despair?
No. We should speak up, like Peter did.
Hey Lord, this just shouldn’t be. You are the Messiah – you’re supposed to work stuff out. You were bringing us the kingdom. You shouldn’t let it turn all rotten. What up?
That’s prayer in the confidence of faith. That’s carrying on a conversation with the Lord who genuinely loves you.
But when we do speak up, when we really open up that conversation, we have to be open to Jesus maybe telling us that we are wrong.
We don’t have all the facts. We don’t really understand what he’s up to.
Thanks for your input,” he says, “but please get behind me.”
Jesus Waxes a Bit Apocalyptic
Which brings us to #3: the more apocalyptic bits.
To Follow, You Have to Get Behind Me.
It all starts with getting behind Jesus.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, getting in line to pick up his cross. He knows, and they all should know, what the image means. The purpose of carrying a cross is to go to your death.
Jesus says for Peter “Get behind me!” In other words, “follow.” That’s what he says to us as well.
Come and get your own cross. Go with him, his way, which is the way of death.
And paradoxically, it is the way to life. If you run away to keep your life safe (that is, if you hold on to fake Jesus who promises you peace and prosperity and all your dreams come true) then you will lose your life. You’ll squander it, ending up with nothing.
But if you follow him, step behind him and go get your cross, it turns out differently.
Accept the fact that you too are here not to be served (by God or anybody else) but to serve (God and your neighbor). Then you’ll get your life back. For keeps.
The More Apocalyptic Bits
The passage ends with a prediction that “the Son of Man” will eventually come with angels in God’s own glory for judgment. He then seems to contradict himself (or to get subsequent history wrong) saying some of those alive will live to see the coming of “the Son of Man” in his kingdom.
Three brief thoughts:
1. This is the return to the initial question from last week’s reading. He’s still trying to get them to make the connection between the OT apocalyptic “Son of Man” and himself, Jesus, the acknowledged messiah.
2. What sounds like a threat, about how the Son of Man will “repay everyone for what has been done,” (Matthew 16:27 NRSV) may also be a promise. At the very least it is a prompt to remember to strive to live doing what Jesus himself did and taught.
3. Perhaps there is a difference between the coming in glory of verse 27 and the “coming in his kingdom” of verse 28. Those apostles did indeed see a rapid unfolding of the kingdom, the reign of Christ, in the events recorded in Acts. Either that or… well… Jesus kind of got it wrong I guess.
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