What the hell was Peter thinking, (literally)? Last week he seemed so on-the-ball on the identity question: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16.16). He seems to have a grasp on both who Jesus was and whose Jesus was. That is, his identity and his relationship with the Father. Bummer for him that these were just warm-up questions for today’s challenge: What Jesus was.
First, a quick footnote about Messianic expectations in first century Palestine. Yes, there were Jews that were expecting a Messiah, but there were also those who weren’t. Further, some seem to distinguish between several different Messiahs. So the notion that there was some consensus about what the Messiah was to be like (e.g. a military leader to kick out the Roman occupation) and that Jesus failed to meet that expectation is well-meaning malarchy. It’s a tidy narrative that fits well (especially with John’s Gospel), but the truth is that Messianic expectations were all over the map.
This is important because it means that Peter was not simply repeating the conventional wisdom of his milieu when he rejects Jesus’ own holy “what” of suffering, death, and resurrection. Peter had put some thought into this. Peter had ideas. Peter had plans. And when those ideas clash with those of Jesus…Peter chooses badly.
The satanic temptation is to forget that following Jesus means leaving other things behind. Part of the price of costly grace is abandoning false ideologies no matter how satisfying or comfortable they might feel. Instead of jumping to the defense of his ideas about the what of Jesus, Peter should have just shut the hell up (literally) and listened.
Was Jesus too harsh? I don’t think so. I’m reminded of Zen masters who whack their meditation students with sticks to help them focus. Nothing sharpens the mind like a short, sharp, smack. It’s not punitive, it’s corrective. In our efforts to make a “buddy Jesus” we can put on our dashboards (all thumbs-up and smiles), we ignore moments like this corrective smack.
How often in my own life have I jumped to the defense of my own carefully carved idols? Am I able to hear the rebuke of Jesus as a critique of my own failures to be intellectually and theologically humble?