Historical Cultural Context
The verse that immediately follows today’s reading helps us better understand what preceded: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Mt 16:28).
Mediterranean people of antiquity and the present are primarily oriented toward the present. It is difficult and sometimes impossible for them to think “future.” The best they could imagine would be called “forthcoming.” The birth of a baby is a forthcoming event for an already pregnant mother. A harvest is a forthcoming event from a crop already planted and growing.
This perspective is starkly evident in Jesus’ stated conviction that those who heard him speak would still be alive when God would bestow his gifts upon that very generation through the mediation of the Son of Man.
Jesus died, was raised, and ascended to the right hand of the Father. And still the Son of Man has not come in his kingdom. It is the long delay (now centuries old) that sparked a vague idea of a real “future” among some Mediterranean Christians.
Peter Challenges Jesus
In his own lifetime, Jesus was able to read the handwriting on the wall. He had made an ever-growing number of powerful enemies. Their desire to have him put to death was no secret.
After learning from his disciples that others held him in high repute, ranking him along with Elijah, John the Baptist, and other worthies, Jesus could not turn away from the ominous destiny he began to perceive on his own horizon.
But when he stated the obvious to his disciples, Peter took him aside and said he had other plans for Jesus. Peter and Jesus now engage in a common Middle Eastern strategy revolving around honor: challenge and riposte. One person makes a claim to honor, another person challenges that claim. The first person must defend or vindicate his claim or he will be dishonored, shamed.
Jesus’ claim to honor is that God wills his suffering and death at the hands of his enemies (he must die), but that God will bestow even greater honor by raising him from the dead.
Peter’s challenge is: “God forbid it” (Mt 16: 22). Jesus has just enunciated God’s honorable will, and Peter seeks to divert Jesus from fulfilling it. He wants God to change it. Jesus perceives that Peter is testing his loyalty to God, his very claim to honor.
Jesus’ riposte (a fencing term describing a sharp, swift thrust after parrying an opponent’s lunge) is to call Peter a “satan,” a tester of loyalties. Jesus continues the insult by reminding Peter that he sees only the human way of thinking and doesn’t understand God’s plan.
Jesus’ exhortations shatter the normal cultural vision of an honorable life and invite his listeners to consider reorienting their lives by means of disorientation. A fitting message for anyone searching for new direction in life.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University