Peter Rebukes Jesus — and Gets Rebuked Right Back

SCRIPTURES & ART: A look at the readings for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, through the eyes of 19th-century painter James Tissot.

James Tissot (1836-1902), “Get Behind Me, Satan”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “Get Behind Me, Satan” (photo: Public Domain)

Last week, we read a very important Gospel: Peter’s confession of Jesus’ divinity at Caesarea Philippi. It told us not just who Jesus is but what the Church and papacy are. It also posed the same question to each of us: “Who do you say” Jesus is?

Last week, Jesus praised Peter for his acknowledgment of who Jesus is: “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah.” This week, Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” a devil.

These two Sunday’s Gospel are not just a coincidence, read one week after another. Nor can they be separated, because they are part of the same text in Matthew 16.

Peter confessed Jesus as “the Christ,” the Anointed One. That doesn’t mean that Peter wasn’t also carrying some intellectual baggage in that term that Jesus wanted him to get rid of.

(It’s one reason why last week’s Gospel ends with Jesus ordering “his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.” One would think that, after calling Peter “blessed” for that admission, he’d want to spread the news. But Jesus is aware that the term was encumbered by accretions of which he wanted to divest it. In Mark, this order for silence is called the “Messianic Secret.” It is not waived until after the Resurrection because — only in light of Calvary and the Resurrection — can Jesus be understood on his terms, not Israel’s.)

Verse 21 of today’s Gospel omits four words that connect it to last week’s Gospel: “from that time on.” Just as soon as Peter declares Jesus is the “Christ,” Jesus starts to speak of his impending Passion and Death. He begins to make clear that God’s Anointed One “must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly … be killed and on the third day be raised.” 

Israel expected God to send a Messiah, an “Anointed One.” The Israel of Jesus’ day was rife with that expectation. But Israel’s idea of that Anointed One was of a conquering figure, not a suffering servant. Victory through suffering was not in their imagery. And, as good Jews of their times, neither was it in the Apostles.

On top of that, nobody deliberately invites suffering. Our own age hardly wants to hear anything but an “optimistic” message. So, in one sense, Peter’s reaction — “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you!” — is understandable.

But it was not God’s will. And Jesus, intending to follow the Father’s will, would not be diverted from God’s will. “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” 

This is the same temptation the devil posed in the desert: “Do things according to your will. Turn the rocks into bread. Presume on God’s protection. Why suffer when I will give you the world?”

There then follows a repetition of the message we heard in the Gospels about two months ago (here and here) about taking up the yoke of one’s cross. “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The paradoxical mystery of the Cross is that the only way to keep our life is to let go. The tighter we grasp things, the more they elude us. Jesus teaches us this lesson on Calvary: In love, the God-Man gives his life to receive it back from the Father in an even more glorified way than before. God is faithful and never outdone in his goodness, but he demands our trust.

“What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” That was the question St. Ignatius constantly posed to St. Francis Xavier. The latter was intent on doing all the things necessary to ensure success in life. If he lived today, he would undoubtedly have an impressive academic resume and be applying to Ivy League colleges rather than the University of Paris. But he wound up with Ignatius as a roommate — and Ignatius’ incessant question which, after all, was ultimately Christ’s. It eventually changed Francis Xavier’s life. Contemplating it may change yours.

Today’s Gospel is depicted in art by Frenchman James Tissot. “Rétire-toi, Satan!” [Get Behind Me, Satan!] is part of Tissot’s “Life of Christ.”

Jesus always appears in pure white in Tissot paintings. Peter, in black stripes, is a clear contrast. So, too, are their postures and hand gestures. Each is turned away from the other: Jesus away from Peter, his hand clearly waving him and his advice off, but Peter, while facing Jesus, bent backward, refusing his message about suffering. Their opposition shows Jesus not willing to be diverted from the Father’s Will and Peter wanting to dissuade Jesus from the path of suffering. Peter is clearly left “behind me, Satan.” While Tissot always sought to make his dress and landscapes realistic (which is why he spent years in the Holy Land), one should also not miss the theological point being made next to the large escarpment on the left: Peter, the rock, has now becomes Jesus’ stumbling stone. 

Four other Apostles are witnesses to this encounter. Why four? Perhaps chance or the demands of the scene. Perhaps some of the inner core: James, John, maybe brother Andrew? Perhaps because, in ancient Israel, testimony stands on two or three witnesses. 

The painting is part of the Tissot collection in the Brooklyn Museum (though little of it is on exhibit).