Spirituality of the Readings

What’s in a Name?

Jesus has a variety of names for Simon Peter. But this week’s is a big surprise.

Last week, in the Gospel, he retired the name “Simon” and replaced it with the name Peter.

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
(Mt 16:18).

At root the name Peter means “rock.” Simon is to be a “Rock,” a foundation of the church.

This week, Jesus bestows on Peter an entirely different name altogether. He calls Peter, “Satan.” (Gospel) If this name were to stick, Peter would be the leader of the very “netherworld” that would prevail against the church, contrary to Jesus’ promise above.

What has happened?

First, it is clear that Jesus’ emotional state has changed. He is obviously dreading the suffering and death that he tells them he will soon have to face. His rebuke to Peter is so sharp, so instant, so contradictory, that its emotional roots are showing. It is a snappish jibe at Peter and even includes name-calling! Jesus seems to sense what a terrible toll human misery and affliction will take on himself.

Second, Jesus had been gradually schooling the disciples about who he really is. Not just a great teacher or good friend or magnetic preacher, but the complete revelation of divine love. They achieved their first high mark last week when Peter said, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus shows the real meaning of Christly love. For the good of the world he must suffer greatly under the rulers and be killed, and on the third day be raised. It is the first time, at least in Matthew’s gospel, that he has mentioned crucifixion.

Shouldn’t they have been able to understand, or at least begin to understand, the real meaning of Jesus as “the Christ”?

No. The gospel reports that Peter “rebuked” Jesus. “No, no, no, no, Lord, we will protect you—this will not happen to you, please don’t worry so much. Everything will be ok, you’ll see. We need you to be alive. I already said that you are the Christ! Use your powers!” This is an impulsive response. Very human.

But Peter is telling Jesus to avoid pain by selfish use of his powers!

This is just what the devil had had seduced him to in the desert temptations! (Matthew 4:1-11) When Jesus was hungry, Satan’s stealth said, in essence, “You are Messiah! Why don’t you simply turn some stones into bread? Or else have your angels save you from danger. In fact, be a real Messiah: take charge of all the lands there are. Why not?”

Because all of this would require bowing down and worshipping Satan’s self-plan.

To put it another way, Jesus would have to act according to the self-seeking, self-interested part of human nature. Go for the wealth, the power and the reputation. Forget Godly love.

Since he was human, Jesus must have felt within himself the rewards that would come under such desert temptations. And he must feel it again this week as Peter gives him a similar enticement. So he reacts strongly.

Does he really mean that Peter is Satan? No. But he remembers with pain the devil’s temptations.

No wonder the name of Satan slips out.

John Foley, SJ

Fr. John Foley, SJ is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson