Matthew 16: 21-28
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Sean C. Kim
3, September 2023
In last Sunday’s Gospel reading, we found the Apostle Peter in an exalted state. He had been blessed by Jesus for his bold confession of faith. While the other disciples were silent, Peter responded to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” with the resounding proclamation: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:13-16). Jesus praised Peter, saying: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). But in today’s Gospel reading, we find a dramatic turn of events. Ironically for Peter, following the praise comes condemnation. When Jesus foretells of his impending suffering, death, and resurrection, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Jesus turns to Peter and tells him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matthew 16:21-23).
Peter must have been stunned by this sudden reversal of fortune. One moment he is the rock on which Jesus will build his church. The next moment he is a big obstacle to Jesus, compared with none other than Satan himself.
What just happened? Well, it looks like Peter didn’t quite get Jesus’ true identity after all. He seems to be still clinging on to traditional Jewish expectations of the Messiah. Grounded in the historical experience of the Israelites, the Messiah was believed to be the deliverer to come. As Moses led his people out of their bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land and as King David drove out the Philistines and established his kingdom, the Messiah was supposed to deliver the Jews from Roman occupation and oppression, and usher in a new and glorious age for God’s people. But, far from such hope of deliverance and restoration, power and glory, here we have Jesus talking doom and gloom. He informs his followers that he will undergo great suffering, be killed, and on the third day be raised. Although Jesus here mentions the resurrection, Peter and the disciples don’t seem to even notice. What has caught their attention is the part about suffering and death.
If we might read a bit into Peter’s psychology, it’s not just concern for Jesus’ well-being that leads to his vehement protest. Peter loves and cares for his Lord, but he must also have been wondering what’s going to happen to him now. Yes, this movement that Jesus started is not about Peter; it’s about Jesus. But Peter didn’t leave everything behind to join Jesus so that the movement would end with the leader’s death and execution. And what would then happen to him and the other disciples? Peter had been hoping to share in the power and glory that would come with being part of Messiah’s inner circle. Imagine becoming Jesus’ lieutenant. Moses’ right-hand man, his lieutenant, was Joshua. And look what happened to him. Joshua succeeded Moses and took charge of the Israelites to carry out the conquest of the Promised Land. He brought himself and the Israelites wealth and power. When Jesus promised Peter that he would be rock on which he would build his church, Peter must have been heady with visions of grandeur of being the Messiah’s right-hand man.
But before Peter has had time to fully enjoy his fantasies, Jesus utters something strange and disturbing. He is going to suffer and die soon. We can understand why Peter reacts the way he does: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). What kind of Messiah suffers and dies at the hands of his enemies?
Jesus presents a radically different vision of the Messiah than what the Jews had believed. As he explains to Peter, “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matthew 16:23). What are these human things with which Peter is preoccupied? Simply put, power and glory. Jesus’ chastisement of Peter finds a parallel with his rebuke of Satan earlier in the Gospel of Matthew during his temptation in the wilderness. Satan takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows him the kingdoms of the world in all their power and glory, and he makes an offer: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus responds: “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (Matthew 4:8-10). Jesus’ rebuke of Peter “Get behind me, Satan!” is a direct allusion to “Away with you, Satan!” It isn’t that Peter has actually become Satan; Peter is expressing Satan’s opposition to God’s will. Or to put it another way, Peter would have been happy with Jesus the Messiah taking possession of all the kingdoms in the world.
The kingdoms of the world stand on the foundations of power and glory. They rely on mechanisms of domination and coercion, and make war on each other. But the reign of the Messiah, as preached by Jesus, rests on a different foundation. The great theologian Saint Augustine, whose feast day we just commemorated this past Monday, wrote a book in the fifth century titled The City of God. He composed it soon after the city of Rome was overrun and sacked by Germanic tribes in the year 410. In the book Augustine juxtaposes two different visions, an earthly city and the City of God. Here is a brief excerpt: “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by love of self, even to the contempt of God, the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The earthly city glories in itself, the heavenly city glories in the Lord. . . . In the one, the princes, and the nations it subdues, are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love.”
The City of God, for Augustine, is the city based on the love of God and love of one another, in opposition to the earthly city, based on love of self and power and glory. And it is to that City of God that we aspire.
To go back to the parallel between Jesus’ rebuke of Satan and his rebuke of Peter, there is one crucial difference. To Satan Jesus says “Away from me!” but to Peter, Jesus says “Get behind me!” In spite of his rebuke, Jesus still wants Peter to follow him. The Greek word here is, in fact, the same one that Jesus used when he first called Peter to be his disciple” – get behind me (Matthew 4:19).
Just as Jesus invited Peter to “get behind him,” to follow him, he extends that same invitation of a life of faithful discipleship to us. He calls us away from setting our minds on the human things – power and glory – and to focus on the divine things – self-denying love and service. He invites us to become citizens of the City of God, where love reigns supreme.
Audrey West,“Commentary on Matthew 16:21-28,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4565.
 Augustine, On the City of God Against the Pagans, Book XIV, Chapter 28.
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