Jesus gives Peter a new name this Sunday. “Satan.”
Shocking. What is the explanation?
The story is actually one of the great ones in the Gospel. As we saw last week, people were treating Jesus sort of like a performer, a return of the great heroes of the past: Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist. But he did not wish to be a carnival act, someone who dispenses healings. He was so much more.
Jesus asks the disciples simply who they think he really is. Peter had an answer. “You are the Christ,” he said.
With that answer the turning point of the synoptic Gospels had been reached. Peter and the others had begun to realize the crucial depth of understanding that underlies the whole Gospel. They could admit that somehow Jesus was much more than just a buddy or a healer. He was the long awaited Messiah, whatever that was.
Jesus was ready to teach them what it meant. He could begin to water the plant that now had roots. Today we know it meant unstoppable love, of course, but Jesus blurted it out in a few words: “The Son of Man must suffer greatly… and be killed, and rise after three days.”
What? This was the last thought they possibly could have had. Suffer? The Christ be killed? No! Peter, the very leader who had just announced his divinity, now actually “rebuked” him for saying this stupid thing. “This will never happen to you, master, we will not let it!” What pressure his answer had led to.
Jesus seems to have been under pressure too, realizing what kind of revelation he had just given. In anguish he flares out at Peter. “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” An intemperate remark to be sure.
Why would he go this far? Why go to the extreme of comparing Peter to Satan?
Check out the temptations in the desert to see an answer (Matthew 4:1-11). Notice particularly that the devil’s enticements had the same hidden motivations as Peter’s did. Save yourself. Do not give up your life for others. “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [from the temple roof]. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you’” Finally, the reasonable conclusion: “Prostrate yourself and worship me.”
That is why Jesus calls Peter “Satan.” Peter is saying “Run away, run away!” We all have to save ourselves, just as Satan said!
It will take a while more for the apostles to understand this mystery, just as it will for you and me. They actually run away when Christ has to “suffer greatly and be killed.” But this reality had been in the Jewish tradition for a long time. Read about the “Suffering Servant” in the First Reading. This servant actually gives Jesus’ real answer to Peter, as well as to the devil. “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… . The Lord God is my help; who will prove me wrong?” Jesus has “set his face like flint” toward love’s agony.
So he was not exaggerating when he used the name Satan for Peter. He was showing the difference between the life of Satan and of Christ for all of us.