So far our Lenten Sunday readings have been giving us a crash course in temptation. Last week’s Gospel reading told the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Today we have the story of Peter rebuking Jesus for saying he would be rejected and put to death. Here we see temptation in a subtler, but no less dangerous, guise: the people who love us most, both in their genuine concern for us, but also their expectations of us.
As Mark tells the story:
Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8.31-33).
Christians have been telling this story for two thousand years now, so it’s hard for us to read it with fresh eyes. It seems obvious to us in hindsight that Peter is off the mark here and working against Jesus’ purposes. But, we’ve got to give Peter some grace. From the disciples’ perspective, Jesus’ teachings about suffering, rejection, and death are a sharp and unexpected turn. In this chapter alone, Jesus has manifested the Kingdom by miraculously feeding thousands of people with just seven loaves of bread and a few fish and giving sight to a blind man, and has affirmed Peter’s belief that he is the Messiah, Israel’s long-expected divinely-appointed hero who would set everything to rights for God’s people. But now, the tone of his teaching has taken a sudden u-turn. Jesus’ words come as a shock to Peter, both as a friend and a disciple — the last thing he wants is for this man he loves and admires to suffer. And, it is also profoundly confusing, since Jesus was redefining what God’s presence with the people of God looked like. And so Peter’s rebuke of Jesus is understandable on both relational and theological levels.
But, understandable as it was, Peter’s rejection of Jesus’ path was also wrong-headed, a temptation to pull Jesus away from his vocation, which was to embody, yes, the hope for a Messianic prophet and king, but also Isaiah’s vision of the Suffering Servant. Peter knows but does not understand. He knows that Jesus is the Messiah, but he does not understand what that actually entails. He has faith but his faith is based more on popular fairy tales of divine retribution and redemptive violence than on the vision of the Kingdom of God imagined in the Prophets and which Jesus was living out. And so Peter rebukes Jesus. And in so doing, he repeats Satan’s temptations of the desert: If you are really the Messiah, do it the easy way. If you are really the Son of God, call down the heavenly host to defend you. If you are really the Son of Man, be the kind of king we expect you to be, the kind of king who will put Rome and all of our historic oppressors in their place.
It’s no wonder that Jesus turns on Peter with those chilling words, “Get behind me, Satan!”
And so Peter’s urging Jesus away from his path is both completely understandable but also, well, a Satanic (i.e., deceptive) temptation. And, as is so often the case with these Bible stories, it’s something we all continue to repeat time and time again in our own lives, in many ways.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we too would often prefer it if Jesus had been the kind of conquering hero Messiah Peter had been expecting. We want to see the mighty fall and our enemies punished. Glory is far more attractive to us than the cross. Retribution is more attractive than forgiveness. Righteous anger is more attractive than reconciliation. We can so easily slip into this ‘old’ way of thinking, and this is the first way we repeat Peter’s “Satanic” attitude. And to it, Jesus would tell us, as he told his disciples:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it (8.34-35).
There’s always a lot of talk about what exactly ‘taking up our cross’ entails. To some it’s about the inevitability of suffering in the human life; to others it can be nothing less than taking up the cause of radical justice in the world. I think it’s a big enough symbol not to be reduced to either of these, or any other, options. Taking up our cross is about doing whatever the moment in front of us calls us to do in order to manifest the Kingdom of God. Sometimes that may look like taking an unpopular stance or following a path our loved ones don’t understand; sometimes that may look like bearing life’s grief and sorrows through loss or illness; sometimes that may look like being so committed to the cause of justice that you end up executed as an enemy of the state.
And the thing is, as we take up our crosses, in big and little ways alike, often it will be the people who love us most who will be the ones who stand in our way. Again, this is natural. At its most basic level, love makes us want to protect our loved ones and shield them from pain and suffering. We don’t want to see our loved ones take a hard path. And we certainly don’t want them to take the kinds of risks that ‘taking up our cross’ often involves. At the same time, our love can also blind us to the reality of who are loved ones are and what they might be called to do. Our preconceived notions, desires and expectations of them can stand in the way of them following the path set out for them. We see this dynamic play out classically in the tensions between parents and children, as there is inevitably a separation between the child’s path and the one their parents have envisioned for them. But it also plays out among friends, love interests, spouses, colleagues, and employees.
Taken together, these two things — the protective force of love, and our tendency to project our own desires onto others — mean that often with the best possible intentions, our friends and family can be ‘Satan’ to us, trying to convince us to stray from our path. It also means that often with the best possible intentions, we can be ‘Satan’ to our friends and family too.
So what is the point of all this? It seems too flippant to say “Don’t listen to Satan, and don’t be Satan either,” so I’ll articulate it like this: We are called to love, but we need to be aware that our love can often blind us, tempting us away from the path set before us in order not to cause our loved ones pain, or causing us to tempt them away from their paths.
I’m reminded of the image of an acorn. An acorn may be precious and beautiful, and we may be tempted to pick it up and keep it. But that is not what an acorn is for. An acorn is meant to become an oak. But it can’t do that without falling from the tree, without being planted, and without being broken down. So too is it with each of us. We are precious and beloved, but we aren’t meant to stay the same, to stay safe and secure, like helpless infants. We are meant to change, to grow in love and faith, and into the fullest and most whole version of who we were created to be within the circumstances of our lives. And that will mean struggle and pain. It will mean risk. It will mean taking up all sorts of crosses.
For me at least these are good and important messages to meditate on this season. Are there places where I still prefer a violent and vengeful Messiah over the humble, forgiving, and reconciling way of Jesus? Am I shying away from my path because of others’ expectations of me? Am I letting love get in my way? Am I interfering in someone else’s journey, whether out of a protective impulse or because I’m projecting my own expectations onto them? Big questions for the week ahead.