“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 8:27-35:
Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ.” Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.
He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
What is faith? Faith is not just belief, but trust in the Lord. A pure trust is difficult for people to maintain in anything, even Christian faith. As fallen human beings, we look to hedge our bets, to redirect the will of God to our own finite understanding. This is the mechanism of sin, when we attempt to bend the world to our own selfish desires, not trusting in God and His will that all things will work to our eternal benefit if we align ourselves to His will, rather than the other way around.
Peter falls into this trap in today’s Gospel and earned a rebuke from Jesus that He normally reserves for the Sadducees and the Pharisees. It’s not every disciple that gets called “Satan” by Christ, although it may be more meant as “adversary” in this sense. The issue may be more clearly seen in Matthew’s version of this same exchange (Matthew 16:17-19), which gives a more detailed recollection of Jesus’ response to Peter’s epiphany:
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Jesus tells Peter that this revelation came to him because he had opened himself up to the will of the Lord. Peter had not relied on his own reason or limited understanding, but had trusted the Lord to lead him. For that reason, Peter became first among the disciples; not perfect, but able to open himself to perfection and be led by it. Jesus recognized that quality in Peter, which is why Jesus explicitly trusts Peter to lead the Church — because through Peter, Jesus Christ will be its true head.
Not that this lets Peter off the hook. Bare moments after this exchange, Jesus lays out the plan of salvation for humanity, and Peter jumps in to oppose it — out of his love for Jesus, but also out of his own imperfect understanding of God’s will. Suddenly, Peter goes from first among the disciples to the adversary of Jesus. Jesus tells him explicitly that Peter is “thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” In Matthew 16:23, Jesus responds, “You are a hindrance to me, for you are not on the side of God, but of men.”
Peter is, in a way, repeating the Original Sin: usurping God’s will in order to impose his own and elevate man’s will above God’s, even if that isn’t Peter’s intent. How could Peter not see this? Like Adam, Peter had belief, even knowledge of the Lord. He did not, at least for that moment, have trust in the Lord. Jesus’ rebuke reminds Peter and the rest of the disciples of this human failing, for which Jesus will redeem humanity and reverse Adam’s failing.
Today’s first reading from Isaiah 50:4c-9a speaks to the need to trust the Lord, even in adversity — maybe especially in adversity:
The Lord GOD opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.
The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame. He is near who upholds my right; if anyone wishes to oppose me, let us appear together. Who disputes my right? Let that man confront me. See, the Lord GOD is my help; who will prove me wrong?
It’s much more simple to put one’s trust in the Lord when things are going well. Hey, I’m a pretty good guy, so obviously it’s the Lord’s will that I succeed. Even then, though, we tend to credit ourselves for our own good fortune, do we not? When things go wrong, we tend to fall into two errors: either we blame God for our misfortunes, or think God is punishing us for our sins. Neither is true, and both reflect a lack of trust in the Lord.
Isaiah shows us the true path of the disciple of Christ, as does Job. Misfortunes come in this fallen world, and cruelty abounds. That does not change our trust in the Lord, nor change the dignity we have as His children. The wages of sin are death, but Jesus saves us from the consequences of sin if we place our trust in Him and follow His commands. We must not just believe, but trust in that salvation, and know that this world is just a prelude to eternal life with Christ.
Peter learns that lesson in today’s Gospel. The disciples — including Peter — found it important enough to include in the Scriptures. We should take that humility as an indicator of its importance, and open ourselves to trust in Jesus Christ. We may not always know the road ahead, but we can be sure of our destination.
The front-page image is “Jesus Sends Forth Apostles,” Duccio di Buoninsegna, late 13th-early 14th century.