Peter has a Bad Moment: a Note for the Parishes in Central Exeter

Proper 17A. For the Gospel: Matthew 16.21-28

This morning’s gospel belongs very closely with the gospel story we heard last week. Last week, you may remember, we heard Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter’s response—what we sometimes call his “confession”: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”. To which confession Our Lord said, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” 

So far, so good. But what does it mean to be the Messiah? What does it mean to be Son of God?  This, the evangelist tells us in the section appointed for this morning’s gospel, is what Jesus now proceeded to show his disciples. It would not be the triumphal progress for which I dare say they were hoping—I know that’s what I would have been hoping. No, it would be something quite contrary to that.

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Peter, very understandably, is appalled by this. 

“And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

This is a terrible moment. No one else (other than Satan himself) is called “Satan” in the entire gospel narrative: none of those we might think of as its “villains”—not Caiaphas, nor Pilate, nor even the traitor Judas. For Peter alone is reserved the title “Satan”—“Adversary”!— for that is what the Hebrew word satan means. And indeed, Jesus’ “Get behind me, Satan!” must put us in mind of the “Away with you Satan!” with which he earlier dismissed his adversary at the time of his being tested in the wilderness, at the beginning of his ministry (Matt. 4.10).

Poor Peter! In almost no time at all, it seems, he has gone from hero to zero. “Stumbling block”! The Greek word is skandalon, whence we get our English word “scandal”. In Greek it is a very strong word indeed, and means “trap” or “snare”. So Peter, who had earlier been told that he was the “rock” upon which the church would be built, the church that would be stronger than the gates of Hades—that is, stronger than death—is now told that he is also another kind of rock—a rock that gets in the way and trips you up! Faced with what Paul called “the stumbling block” of the cross (1 Cor. 1.23) Peter has himself become a stumbling block. What on earth has he done to merit this terrible rebuke?

It is not so much that the ways of God are inscrutable, and therefore beyond Peter. Of course they are that, but we must not use that as an excuse to avoid what is actually quite straightforward—as straightforward in its way as the prophet Micah’s, “He has told you what is good— and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6.8). The straightforward essence here is that the way of God’s son, God’s anointed cannot be a way of triumph unaccompanied by pain, because (as Jesus pointed out to Satan in the episode that we call “the Temptation” [Matt. 4.1-11) it is the way of obedience to God, which is to say, the way of love. In this present world that inevitably means a way of suffering, greater or lesser. As C. S. Lewis said, “The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” Jesus’ love is perfect, and it will bring him to his cross. And he knows it. 

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’”

Those who of us who want to follow Jesus—and I stress, as does the evangelist’s Greek, “want to (θέλει)”: for it is always a matter of our free choice—those of us who want to take that path must do our feeble best to emulate such love in our own lives, doing what we can to take up and bear gracefully whatever “cross” is laid upon us, always remembering that the essence of true humanity is, as the old play has it, to “love thyself last” (Shakespeare and Massinger, Henry VIII III.ii.521). That is what it means to follow Jesus. That is why, when Jesus says, “get behind me” to Peter he is actually assigning him the place where we all need to be—in truth, the only place where we can be with any degree of either realism or safety: behind Jesus. And as close behind him as we can get! Then, when he comes in the glory of his Father to face us as our judge, we may by his grace be enabled to raise our faces to his and look into his eyes. God grant us that! Amen. 

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman: a Note for the Parishes in Central Exeter

Proper 15, Year A. 

For the Gospel: Matthew 15.22-28

You sometimes hear people who think that they are being marvellously orthodox saying things like, “If Jesus was God, he must have known everything.” Actually, when they say things like that they aren’t being orthodox at all. They’re espousing a form of the docetic heresy (the name comes from the Greek verb dokeō, meaning “to appear” or “to seem”). Docetists said that Jesus wasn’t really human at all. He was actually God appearing or seeming or pretending to be human. In other words (and if you will forgive the analogy) he was like a chocolate Easter egg covered in coloured paper. It looks like a coloured egg, but really it’s just chocolate underneath! The New Testament, however, says that “the Word became flesh” (John 1.14)—really became it!—which is to say, Jesus was truly a human being, with all the limitations that go along with that. And among those limitations, of course, is the plain fact that we don’t know everything, and what we do know we have to learn. And, of course, that’s exactly how St Luke describes Our Lord. As he grew to manhood, Luke says, he “advanced in wisdom and stature” (2.52). In other words, he learned things! 

Now one of the reasons why I find today’s gospel interesting is that I believe it gives us a glimpse of Our Lord doing just that: learning something, advancing in wisdom. Some of my old students may remember I used to say to them, “There’s only one time in the gospels when Jesus loses an argument, and it’s to a woman and a foreigner.” This is the story I was talking about.

Jesus, the evangelist tells us, was approached by a woman of Sidon, a Canaanite, in other words, a pagan—the very kind of person whom, according to Moses, the good Israelite should “utterly destroy” (Deut. 20.17). She addresses Jesus with profound respect and asks for healing for her daughter. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David,” she says, ”my daughter is tormented by a demon!” At first Jesus simply says nothing—he gives her, as we say, “the silent treatment.” Then, when his disciples fuss at him to send her away, he points out that his primary mission must be to his own people. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Her response is to kneel before him and say, “Lord, help me!” His response—“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”—embarrasses us, and it should. It is an insult, although no doubt it is precisely what Jesus had been told by at least some among his teachers. Israel is God’s child, and Israel’s election must be taken seriously. Non-Israelites are abominable because they do not honour the God of Israel. In their uncleanness they are like dogs, and it would be a poor father who gave the children’s dinner to the dogs! 

Insulted and rejected though she has been, the Canaanite woman neither sulks nor turns away. Rather, she stands her ground, turning Jesus’ family metaphor on its head: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”—a response that shows wit and magnanimity, but above all faith. She maintains her courteous address, continuing to call Jesus “Lord”. She denies neither that Jesus’ primary mission is to Israel nor that the Israelites are God’s “children”, the elect, first in God’s love. She insists, however, on a truth prior even to God’s election of Israel—a truth she seems to know instinctively even though she has surely never read the Scriptures, a truth that was apparently (as St Paul would have put it) “written in her heart” (cf. Rom. 2.15): namely, that “the LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145.9). So then, even mere dogs under the table are surely permitted to pick up the crumbs the children don’t need! In insisting on this, she manifests the essential faith of Israel, the faith of Abraham, the faith of Moses. Like Abraham and Moses, she is willing to argue with God, a willingness that can be based on nothing less than her faith that God is just, good, and merciful. In doing so she shows herself to be at heart a daughter of Abraham. 

Her effect on Our Lord is evident.

“O madam, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

So in this scene we see an occasion when, to use St Luke’s phrase, “Jesus advanced in wisdom.”

I recently came across some important observations about this story in David Brown’s beautiful book, Through the Eyes of the Saints. Commenting on the version found in Mark, where the woman is described as “Syro-Pheonician” rather than “Canaanite”, he writes, 

it is not impossible that it was his [Jesus’] exchange with the Syro-Pheonician woman that led him to give a higher status to Gentiles in the divine economy than seems generally to have been true among his contemporaries. Certainly, all agree that it is an odd exchange, and so possibly may have been preserved precisely because the woman’s quick response led Jesus to think anew: his compatriots’ abusive term for Gentiles as like the despised wild dogs of the day just would not do. None of this can be proved, but, the more seriously we take New Testament scholarship’s contextualising of Jesus’ teaching within the thoughts forms of the time, the more likely such scenarios become. 

Exactly! May God grant us all the faith, wit, grace and tenacity of the Canaanite/Syro-Phoenician woman. Amen.