"Get behind me, Satan"

By Christian Bergmann

If I was being honest, I would say that I have encountered so many people who almost deride the idea of trying to think ‘like God’. Maybe they think it’s presumptuous. Maybe they think talk like that is too dangerous, too open for abuse by undiscerning minds. I’m not sure. But the idea of trying to pause and think through the issue along the lines of how Godmight want us to think through the issue – it can be a bit like walking on a glass floor you aren’t certain was constructed thickly enough. There’s more certainty in our moral systems, in the codes we hold inviolate with absolute certainty and fiery passion.

This isn’t to say there is anything wrong with having a moral framework. Not at all. The moral framework provided by Catholicism is, I would argue, the most robust and rigorous and interesting moral framework ever provided. The moral life is part and parcel of holiness.

But what we are reminded of in today’s readings is that to be a follower of Jesus is to be more than simply an upright individual: it is to begin to see the world from God’s perspective. In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul urges us to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (12:1-2). We see how this plays out in the Gospel, too. In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus revealed to his disciples that he was going to suffer and die, Peter dared to rebuke him: “God forbid, Lord!” To which Jesus responds, harshly, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (16:21-27). This is where the text pivots into Jesus famous saying that “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”. He is introducing his disciples, in a deeper and more frightening way, to the logic of God; the way God sees thing.

The Catholic anthropologist René Girard’s commentary on this passage is fascinating: he says that what is at play in this passage is a competition of desires and ambition. What Peter is doing here is trying to instil some worldly ambition into his master. Jesus announcing his suffering and death would be like a modern politician having his own crucifixion as part of his platform while campaigning for presidency. It doesn’t make any sense. If anything, you would think that Jesus’ message is the scandal, the “obstacle”. Peter was being perfectly reasonable.

But, he wasn’t thinking like God. If he had accepted Peter’s rebuke, then Christianity would have simply become a political “Jesus movement”. What Jesus was inviting the disciples into was a kingdom that saw the world upside down. Like God sees it. A kingdom where death is not the scandal, but we, the followers of Jesus, who try and get in the way of what Jesus is doing are the scandal. What we need to do is step out of the way, in some sense, and let Jesus work. We need to let his mission become ours.

When it does, hopefully we can become like the prophet Jeremiah in today’s Old Testament reading, for whom the word of Lord “becomes like a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it” (Jeremiah 20:7-9).