Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day. Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.” But he turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.” —Matthew 16:21-23, CEB
Peter confronts Jesus. Jesus rebukes him for it. I thought I was familiar with this exchange. I saw Peter being his typical self—clueless and protective—when he tells Jesus, “This won’t happen to you;” like he’s kindly looking out for his master. To me, Peter always sounded like a timid friend at a thrash metal concert yelling in their buddy’s ear, “You don’t have to get in that mosh pit! You might lose a tooth! Save your winning smile!”
Reading it again, I feel like Peter is not being sweet and protective; he’s being rude and controlling. How did this not occur to me before? Peter takes hold of Jesus (grabbing him by the shoulders?), scolds him (pointing a finger in Jesus’ face?), and corrects him (maybe in a patronizing tone?). I don’t hear Peter saying, “I’m concerned that if you go there you’ll get yourself hurt,” but instead, “Suffering is beneath you, Jesus, because messiahs are above that stuff. Don’t be foolish! You’ll make us look bad.”
And where I once saw Peter being kind, I had seen Jesus responding perhaps too harshly to Peter’s concern for him. I heard Jesus saying, “Get in the back of the line, you devil! And let that be a lesson to you!” It felt like Jesus was dismissing Peter, sending him to the principal’s office and turning to the other disciples, asking, “Anyone else?” But a closer look gave me a different understanding.
When Jesus says “get behind me,” it’s commonly understood as a stern rebuke. The Greek ‘opisou mou’ where we get “get behind me” is the same ‘opisou mou' that Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s gospel when he invites the first disciples to follow him: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19). Instead of a dismissal, Jesus’ supposed rebuke could be an invitation to even deeper discipleship—a doubling down of Jesus’ call to get squarely behind him as he ventures onward to Jerusalem where a cross awaits, and, with it, resurrection and new life.
To me, that’s grace. That’s what Jesus shows. And, for me, that’s the lesson. Jesus never gives up on Peter even when he’s acting out of fear, behaving from his fearful self, which isn’t who Peter is, and Jesus knows it. He always does.
Made in God’s image, our authentic selves are always trying to do our best: to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God and one another. May we be reminded of that today and tomorrow and always as we follow Jesus into the mystery of God’s abundant love that never gives up on us; and may that reminder inform how we see one another and treat one another. That’s the lesson Jesus offers to us and through us.