“Get behind me, Satan!”
Twenty-Second Sunday of the Year. Jer 20:7-9; Ps 63:2-6,8-9; Rom 12:1-2; Mt 16:21-27
Today's Gospel gives us a sudden glimpse of a cosmic war, a war that preceded human history and a war that will continue until the end of the world. Being a war of hearts and minds, the individual battles are usually invisible to the human eye. Today's Gospel, however, gives us a momentary glimpse of the war unmasked. Jesus turns to his friend, Peter, whom has just made the rock of his Church, and says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” It seems that Jesus is looking at Peter but also through Peter directly at his enemy, the enemy whose words Peter has inadvertently spoken. “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
With these shocking words, Christ unmasks his opponent - giving us a salutary reminder of a few uncomfortable spiritual realities. In nineteenth century France, intoxicated with industrial and social progress, the poet Baudelaire reminded his countrymen of a timeless truth, “My dear brothers, never forget, when you hear the progress of enlightenment vaunted, that the devil's best trick is to persuade you that he doesn't exist!” (a variant of this line featured, by the way, in a 1995 Hollywood film, The Usual Suspects). With these words, Baudelaire reminds us that material and social progress does nothing, in itself, to alter the spiritual war touching the lives of every human being. Most of the time, however, the principal adversary of this conflict, Satan or the devil, prefers to lie hidden. In fact, the only occasions in Scripture when Satan works openly are when he is confronted by persons who are perfect: Eve prior to the Fall, the righteous man Job and Christ himself. There is, I think, both a warning and a reassurance in these episodes. The warning is that if you grow in holiness, if you become more Christ-like, you will see many manifestations of the goodness of God; you may also, however, be faced with evil unmasked, more direct kinds of attacks than are normal in everyday life. The reassurance, on the other hand, is that there is something pathetic about the devil. When the devil is behind you, he can do no harm, because his power is based on words and delusions, temptations and intimidations. Evil has no substance; it works by trying to trick us into destroying ourselves.
But what is the nature of the attack on Christ in today's Gospel? On the face of it, Peter's words to Christ are eminently reasonable. Jesus has warned his disciples that he is going to go to Jerusalem, that he will suffer greatly, that he will be killed and that he will rise on the third day. And Peter expresses the natural reaction of any friend on hearing these words. Peter takes Jesus to one side, he rebukes him and says, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” What is wrong with these words that they provoke such a strong reaction from Jesus? One possibility is that Peter is inadvertently doing the devil's dirty work, trying to prevent Christ offering himself and saving the human race. Alternatively, perhaps Peter's fault lies in his failure to understand that love involves sacrifice, even to the point of laying down one's life, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” I think, however, that Peter's fault does not really lie in his failure to understand the cross. How could anyone be expected to understand the cross before the death and Resurrection of Christ? I think that the real fault of Peter lies in his failure to trust his friend and his Lord, just as the fault of Adam lay in the failure to trust God's word. Just for a moment, Peter tries to take charge over Christ, to reason with merely human wisdom. Very much later, after the bitterness of his own failure, Peter finally understands the truth that he cannot lead himself. Indeed, the very last words in Scripture that Jesus speaks to his beloved friend are simply, “Follow me!”
These final words that Jesus speaks to Peter are, of course, also words addressed to us. We cannot out-think our enemy and chart our own way to the Kingdom of Heaven unaided. We have to trust Christ to lead to us, to follow where he has gone on ahead of us. Sometimes the way will be easy and clear; at other times we may experience impenetrable darkness, intense suffering and a ‘stripping away’ of every earthly consolation. When that dark night of the soul comes to us, let us keep the eyes of our minds fixed firmly on Christ and hear his words ringing in our ears, “Follow me!”
Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St Ambrose Church, St Louis, 31st August 2008
© Fr Andrew Pinsent. Academic Web Site.