Jesus isn’t remembered for saying many predictable things.
One minute he is blessing Peter and telling him that he (Peter) had been entrusted with insight that was not given to him by men, but by God (Matt 16:17). Moments later, the same Teacher turns to the same disciple and says, ‘Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me. You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matt 16:23)
Admittedly, the subject of the conversation had changed. In the first case Jesus was affirming Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). In the second instance, the Teacher was responding to the same disciple’s refusal to accept what Jesus said must happen. When Jesus began to tell his disciples that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem to suffer at the hands of the religious leaders, to be killed, and raised the third day (Matt 16:21), Peter reacted with, “Never Lord… this shall never happen to you!” (Matt 16:22).
Peter’s response seems so full of natural affection and good will. The disciple who was known for saying what he was thinking wasn’t willing to accept that his Teacher would suffer and be killed. Yet Jesus responded to one of his best friends as if, in that moment, Peter was speaking like an enemy who had a heart for the things of man– but not the things of God (Matt 16;23 )
Who among us can read this many years later without imagining ourselves as having said exactly what Peter said out of the “goodness” in our heart? And who among us can read our Lord’s surprising answer by realizing how dependent we are on his help to find the treasure he has waiting for us–at the end of paths we would never choose for him, for ourselves, or for others.
But there’s something else I still wonder about here. I still haven’t been able to figure out why, in the first case, Jesus talked to Peter as if Satan would not want Jesus to suffer, and die in Jerusalem (Matt 16:23). Yet, as it turns out, Satan has a hand in bringing Peter to the point of denying that he’d ever known Jesus. Then the same devil enters into Judas to sell and betray Jesus to the religious leaders who wanted to do exactly what Peter/Satan was resisting (Luke 22:3). Did Satan have a plan? Or as events unfolded, was he improvising from the kind of heart that is blindly evil to the point of being irrational and inconsistent in any given moment?
In the first incident, was Jesus just likening Peter to “Satan” because in that moment the disciple was opposing Jesus reason for coming into the world? Or was he implying that man’s ways, like Satan’s, can be so blinded by self-interest that we can be as unpredictable in doing evil as our Lord is unpredictable in the ways he shows his love?
Whatever the answer I find myself reminded in these events of how much we need the Lord to lead us in ways that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves. On our own we’d miss those paths that he always walks before us, and with us…. to take us places we would never see without his presence, humility, mercy, compassion, goodness, infinite foresight, creativity and faithfulness to undeserving people like us.