Jesus was annoyed with Peter, very disappointed in him, as we just heard in the Gospel excerpt, and for good reason. Probably frightened by the prospect of violence and even death in his following of Jesus, Peter, at least for the moment, stopped listening to the Spirit within him and returned to merely human instinct and strategy.
For that moment, too, Jesus was harsh with him, calling him the worst of all possible names: “You are a Satan!” The rebuke was a shaking up, an insult that Peter badly needed in order to get himself back into the light of faith that he had stepped out of. Jesus’ choice of the hurtful word was deliberate, you can be sure. The word Satan includes the meaning: one who prefers the darkness to the light. We still use the term, Prince of Darkness.
What happened in that incident was passed down through the centuries for our sake. The message is a prod, a challenge, meant to stop us in our tracks and get us to examine the quality of our lives as professed Christians. No need to beat our breasts or to fear an angry God – nothing like that. Just, maybe, a shift in emphasis and a keener awareness that our Christian commitment is proven, not only in prayer and worship and religious piety and generally decent living, but far more in our relentless efforts to think and speak and act as Jesus, who is always with us, would want us to.
The late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, not all of whose views are to my liking, did leave us with some immortal gems. I recall a half century or so ago his saying that, whenever he approached a counseling or similar situation, before exchanging even one word with the person sitting opposite him, he would mentally withdraw from the scene and address the Spirit of God that he believed was in and around them. He said he would ask for the grace to put aside his limited human powers of insight and judgment and to make ample room instead for the divine insight and divine judgment. I confess, with gratitude to him, that, ever since I read that, I have tried to practice it, even though the intention has not always fully achieved.
I read once a priest scholar’s definition of the true disciple or follower of Jesus: he wrote, it is the one who listens to the Spirit of God all the time. He went on to say: as soon as the feet of such persons hit the floor in the morning, their ears are attentive to the mind and the will of God. It isn’t step-by-step marching orders that they get; they are not robots who are programmed by an intelligence outside themselves. On the contrary, what they try to open themselves to is unprejudiced wisdom, clear vision, the capacity for right judgment – and always the loving thing to do. They want to do what is right in all situations, no matter the personal cost or sacrifice that may be involved. They ask for Jesus’ attitude of abandonment to the urging and direction of the Creative Spirit that we call God. From there on, the choice of what steps to take remains up to them. They are still apt to make mistakes in our common human weakness, and they may never become absolutely perfect. Sin is possible for them and indeed very likely from time to time, but they want to do, not only their human best, but what most completely expresses and facilitates the divine wisdom and love.