"Get Behind Me, Satan!

Ordinary 22A

Matthew 16: 21 27


Only a short time before this event occurred Jesus had asked his disciples, in private, "Who am I, according to what the people are saying? Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." We there have a rare glimpse of Jesus excited. "Blessed are you… you are the rock on which I will build my Church. My Father has revealed this to you". How wonderful. Now, here, our Lord is telling Peter (Rock) "Get behind me, Satan! Your thinking is not God's way!" How terrible. What has gone wrong?

Press here for a more detailed introduction and summary.

Some Notes On the Text

Verse 21

From the time Peter proclaimed our Lord to be the promised Messiah, Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things. There are three groups of people who are determined to make sure he does just that. They are:

Elders: the rich who can afford to isolate themselves from the rest of people.

Chief priests: the ambitions and covetous religious types.

Teachers of the Law: conceited scholars who are more concerned about criticising the behaviour of others than to ensure they practise what they preach.

Despite such formidable opponents, Jesus is able to take his teaching to a new depth in the company of people, namely, his chosen twelve, who recognise who and what he is.

Verse 22

On hearing our Lord say that he must be killed, yet on the third day be raised to life, Peter is deeply disturbed. He takes Jesus aside by the hand, as people do to familiar friends. With the best of intentions and genuine affection he says to Jesus: "Be merciful to yourself Lord." In other words, "Why let yourself be dragged through all that when you don't need to!" He seems to want Jesus to exert power on his own behalf for once. Unwittingly, he confronts Jesus with the temptation to be Messiah by some other path than God's holy will. Satan himself tried that on Jesus and even he didn't get very far! Peter, like the other eleven, simply could not understand that tragedy, deception, and all manner of misdeeds, can be used by God to achieve his plan.

Verse 23

In a strictly verbal way, Jesus reacts violently to Peter's earnest but improper suggestion:

He turned and said to Peter, Get behind me Satan. You are a stone in my path, because your thoughts are not God's thoughts, but men's".

Clearly the temptation from Peter is naturally attractive to Jesus: thus the response. Some explain that our Lord, in answering in this way, does not intend to distance Peter from him. Rather, he pulls Peter in behind him, for his own safety. Whatever the explanation for the unexpected outburst, we know he saw himself as their leader and shepherd who expected his disciples to follow him and not step out in front.

Not long before, Jesus called Simon Peter "Rock" solid enough to build his Church on. Now he calls him pebble to be kicked out of the way so as not to stumble on it! Jesus also tells Peter that while he judges his master's actions by (his own) human standards, and stubbornly clings to an image of an earthly messiah-magnate, he will remain a worthless pebble. If he wishes to live up to his new name and title, he will have to be ever vigilant to look at things as God does, and not as man does.

An addendum to verse 23:

This is a very significant moment in the unfolding story of Jesus and his gradual revelation of himself. One moment he is pronouncing a unique blessing on Simon and giving him a title, Peter. Almost, one could say, in the next breath, he is pronouncing the worst indictment ever spoken to a human being:

"You are Satan!"

What is really going on?

We need to remember that this account would never have been recorded by the other apostles, nor told by them, had not Peter himself insisted they tell it exactly as it occurred. This was the nature of their relationship.

By the time this Gospel was written and read at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, Peter had well and truly come to understand, probably more than anyone, that the Rock could disintegrate to small stones if he did not remain focused on his Lord, and abide constantly in his Word. Only by abiding in Jesus and remaining attuned to the in dwelling of the Holy Spirit would he (and of course the other 11) bear true witness to what Jesus came to achieve. There were no shortcuts for the Saviour, nor his disciples!

Now, back to the narrative.

Verse 24

Having dealt with Peter's slight indiscretion Jesus now speaks to his disciples to sort out a few of their inadequate ideas!

"If anyone would come after me,
 (and it's your choice)
 he must deny himself

and take up his cross and follow me.
 (And that means behind!)"

It is clear that discipleship means:

  • Identification with Jesus: this involves giving up self centred ness;
  • Abandonment of self-assertion and self-seeking for the sake of Jesus;
  • Acceptance of the trials God allows us to experience;
  • Rejection of temptations to go back to personal interests and ambitions which are incompatible with our Lord's call.

Verses 25 and 26

Jesus continues:

"Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?"

There would be no one reading these notes who has not heard much eloquence and oratory expounding these two verses which have inspired many a writer and poet! We choose to draw on John Meier who spells out our Lord's law of existence in his Church: giving up and going without in this life is gladly chosen by those who wish to gain eternity with Him.

Commenting on verse 25 Meier writes:

"A truly fulfilled life eludes the grasp of the person who selfishly seeks self-fulfilment. Only those who cease to grasp at life, only those who give up their little projects of a tailored-to-order existence and who surrender their lives to God in imitation of and for the sake of the crucified Jesus will receive the fullness of life as a gift from God."

Doesn't that warn us about much contemporary popular psychology, which is often totally preoccupied with one's rights to satisfy one's own needs before all else. And as it promotes this teaching, modern psychology frequently attempts to discredit the teaching of Jesus and ridicule his approach to finding personal fulfilment.

Commentary on verse 26, Meier writes:

"All human conceptions of loss and gain have been turned upside down. Winning the whole world is not success but failure, because this world is passing away, along with anyone who pins all his hopes on a universe under Judgement. On the last day, not all the treasures a person has gained on earth will buy the one thing he has lost: his own salvation, his own, true, eternal life (see Psalm 49: 5 9).

Verse 27

Jesus concludes his instruction with an apocalyptic vision we are meant to keep before us:

"For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done."


We close with a sentence from Charles Peguy:

"One must not save one's life as one would save a treasure but as one would lose a treasure, by spending it."

Further reading: J. C. Ryle

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