Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Incredible Humility of St. Peter

(Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 16, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Mark 8: 27-35.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fourth Sunday 2012]


Would you have left it in, or would you have taken it out?

If you were telling the story about yourself, would you have left that part of the story in, or would you have taken it out—like Peter did?

That’s the question that I believe God wants each of us to reflect on today.

And he wants us to reflect on it HONESTLY!

Let me now help you to understand the question more completely.

The story we just heard in this gospel reading is one of the best known in the New Testament.  Jesus says to his 12 Apostles at Caesarea Philippi, “Who do you say that I am?”—“You’ve just told me who everybody else says that I am—you’ve just told me what the current ‘polling data’ is concerning me and my identity; but what about you?  Where do you gentlemen stand on the matter?  If someone said to you, ‘Who is Jesus of Nazareth?’ how would you respond?”

Peter immediately gives the answer that every Christian echoes in his or her heart: “You are the Christ.” 

Here it’s important for us to remember that “Christ” was not Jesus’ last name (as I mentioned in a homily I gave several months ago).  The word “Christ” is from the Greek word “Christos,” which means, “Anointed”.  It translates the Hebrew word for “Messiah.”

So Peter was actually saying, “Jesus, I say that you are the Messiah—the Anointed one of God—the one our people have been waiting for for centuries!”

Then Jesus begins to tell Peter and the others what kind of Messiah he will be—which was definitely NOT the kind of Messiah they were expecting!  The Jews thought that their Messiah would be a great earthly king like King David, who would bring back the glory days of Israel by restoring the nation to its former greatness.

They thought the Messiah was coming to establish an earthly kingdom for one small country.

Given the way that kingdoms and empires come and go, I think that was a pretty small expectation.

But Jesus indicates to them that he’s come not just to save Israel; he’s come to save the whole world, by offering his life as a sacrifice for sin—all sin.

Jesus indicates, in other words, that the true mission of the Messiah is to establish a kingdom for all people that will never end!

But only his death—and his resurrection—will be able to establish that kind of eternal kingdom.  This is the idea that he tries to get across to his apostles in this scene.  And so, as the text says, “[Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.”

To which Peter responds, “Jesus, this does not compute!”  Or, as St. Mark puts it, “Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”—“No way, Jesus, this can’t happen to you!  You’re the Messiah; you’re the Son of David who’s going to rise to power, and assume your throne, and get rid of the Romans, and make us the number one nation in the world again!”

At that moment Jesus turns on Peter—the man he would someday make the leader of his Church—and says, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Why Satan?

Because at that moment, without realizing it, Peter was saying to Jesus exactly what Satan would have wanted him to say!

Satan knew that without the cross there would be no resurrection—and consequently no salvation for the human race!

He knew that without the death of Jesus we could not be forgiven for our sins; he knew that without the death of Jesus we could not be reconciled to God the Father. So he used the words of Peter at Caesarea Philippi to try to tempt Jesus to give up his mission of dying on the cross to save the world—which, by the way, is also what he had tried to do at the very beginning of our Lord’s ministry, with the 3 temptations he threw at Jesus in the desert.  Those 3 temptations were all attempts to get Jesus to avoid the cross.

Thankfully Jesus resisted at Caesarea Philippi just like he resisted in the desert.

Now that’s pretty much where the story ends in St. Mark’s Gospel.

Of course, since you are all highly intelligent and well-informed readers of the Bible, I know exactly what you’re thinking right now.  Each of you is thinking, “But Fr. Ray, there is something missing here; there’s a part of the story that for some reason St. Mark left out!”

To which I say, “Ah yes, O wise one, you are indeed correct!”

And here are those missing lines—which are preserved for us in St. Matthew’s Gospel, in Matthew’s account of this same event.  They come immediately after Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah, but before our Lord begins to speak about his suffering and death.  Matthew writes:

“[Jesus] said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?  Simon Peter said in reply, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’  Jesus said to him in reply, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.  And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.   Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

That section of the story in which Peter is extolled for his God-inspired insight; and given universal authority in the Church; and made, in effect, the very first pope—that section of the story which makes Peter look really good is completely eliminated from Mark’s account!

Was that just a coincidence?  Did Mark forget that part of it?  Did Mark dislike Peter and want to make him look bad?

I would say No—on all counts!  No, it was not a coincidence; no, Mark didn’t forget that part of the story; and no, Mark did not dislike Peter, nor did he want to make Peter look bad (the two men, after all, were very close friends!).

I believe—and so do many others—that this was all Peter’s doing!  He (believe it or not) is the one responsible for the omission! 

You see, many Scripture scholars are convinced that St. Mark was Peter’s scribe—which means that the Gospel which bears Mark’s name is actually the Gospel that St. Peter preached in Rome.  He either dictated it directly to Mark, or he had Mark follow him around and take notes while he preached.

So apparently this is the way Peter told the story—or at least it’s the way he wanted the story to be told.

Now you might say, “But, Fr. Ray, that makes no sense.  Why, oh why, would St. Peter leave out that part—the one part that makes him look really, really good?”

And I would respond, “That’s precisely the reason he left it out!”  Peter was a man of deep and profound humility, who wanted the focus to be always on Jesus Christ and his saving work, and not on himself.  So, in all likelihood, he either didn’t mention that part of the story when he preached about the event—consequently Mark never wrote it down in the first place; or Mark did write it down initially when he took notes, but Peter had him remove it from the final version of the text.

Which brings us back to the question I posed at the beginning of my homily:

Would you have left it in, or would you have taken it out?

If you were telling this story about yourself, would you have left that particular part of the story in—the part that made you look great—or would you have removed it like Peter did?

We live in a world right now where many people are filled with pride.  They long for their “15 minutes of fame.”  They want people to tell them how intelligent or talented or great they are.  They want to be noticed, even if they have to compromise their morals and engage in perverse activities to get others to notice them (just think of what goes on in some of those so-called “reality TV shows”).  Politicians and other public figures are often obsessed with their legacies—and their egos.  (They’re more concerned with those things than they are with governing!)  On that note, I read about a national politician the other day who attended a fundraiser recently with NBA stars—among them Michael Jordan and Carmelo Anthony; and during the event he said (and here I quote): “It is very rare that I come to an event where I’m like the fifth or sixth most interesting person.”

Somehow I don’t think St. Peter ever said anything like that about himself.  He was much too humble.

That politician needs to remember these words of Jesus, as we all do (words which St. Peter obviously lived his life by): “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.”