|The crucifixion of St. Peter:|
The meaning of our Savior's words, "Go behind me, Satan!"
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 16:21-27
He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.”
While some might think it impossible that the kind and loving Jesus should speak an insult to anyone, it is clear from the testimony of the Holy Scriptures that the Savior is willing to apply evil and insulting words to others – he calls the Pharisees a generation of vipers (Matthew 12:34) and the Canaanite woman a dog (cf. Matthew 15:25), among other such instances. In the Gospel of this Sunday, it would seem that Christ even goes so far as to call Simon Peter, whom he had only just established as the rock and foundation of his Church, “Satan”.
How can this be? Did Jesus really call St. Peter “Satan”?
The love and zeal of St. Peter
First, we must recognize the great love and zeal of Simon Peter. It was not out of a desire to harm our Lord or to thwart the divine plan that he sought to dissuade Jesus from undertaking his holy passion. Rather, St. Peter was moved with a most tender love and great zeal – hence, the intention with which Peter speaks is good, though the words spoken are evil.
The “Rock” (i.e. Kepha, or Peter) speaks with an all too human love and an earthly prudence; soon his love will be elevated, he will learn to love as God loves, and he will judge not merely by worldly prudence, but by the Holy Spirit’s Gift of Counsel.
The opinion of St. Hilary
St. Hilary reads the passage as follows: He turned and said to Peter: “Get behind me! – Satan, you are an obstacle to me!” In other words, St. Hilary reads these words was being addressed to two persons, firstly to Peter and then to Satan.
St. Hilary states: “We must not think that the name of Satan and the offence of the stumbling-block are to be applied to Peter after such great words of blessedness and power had been applied to him.” Since Christ had only just named Simon “Rock” and promised that upon this Peter he would build his Church, it does not seem that the Savior would now rebuke him so strongly. Therefore, according to St. Hilary, Jesus does not call Simon “Satan”.
Against this, there is the clear meaning of the text and the interpretation of all the other Fathers.
The better interpretation, from St. Jerome
St. Jerome, whom Pope Benedict XV five times calls the “Greatest Doctor” (cf. Encyclical Letter, Spiritus Paraclitus), offers a better interpretation.
The Father of biblical science states that Peter had not yet been established as the foundation and rock of the Church. Rather, in the Savior’s words which immediately precede this passage, our Lord’s promise to Peter was spoken not of the present but of the future – On this rock (i.e. upon you, Peter) I will build my Church. Jesus did not at that moment establish the Church upon Peter, but only promised to do so after his death and resurrection. It is then in the future that Peter would be constituted as the rock and head of the Church.
However, the words Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me were spoken to Peter not in reference to the future (nor less as a statement of permanent opposition), but only insofar as at that moment Peter resisted the divine will.
Hence, Peter is indeed called “Satan” – not as though he were truly the Prince of demons, but only insofar as he was an “adversary” as being “contrary” to Jesus (and this is the meaning of the Hebrew word satan: “accuser”, “adversary”, “contrary”). Simon Peter acted as a satan and as a stumbling block in that moment, not that he was possessed by the devil (for the intention with which he spoke was filled with a spirit of love, albeit imperfect love), but only insofar as he was opposed to one aspect the divine plan (namely, that the Christ should suffer).
The best interpretation, originally from Origen
Even better is the interpretation which seems to have originated with Origen, and has since been adopted by nearly all the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.
Notice that our Savior does not rebuke Simon Peter in the same words with which he had earlier rebuked Satan. In the desert, after the tempting, our Lord said to Satan: Begone Satan […] Then the devil left him (Matthew 4:10). But the Savior speaks diversely to Simon Peter: Go behind me, Satan (Matthew 16:23).
The Fathers note that our Savior had utterly rebuked and rejected Satan – banishing him from his presence. With Peter, however, it is different. The Lord says, Go behind me, that is “follow me”. Jesus here invites Peter to imitate his humility and his willingness to suffer – indeed, we may well claim that this Gospel passage contains not merely the first prediction of the passion of our Christ, but includes also the promise of Peter’s own suffering and death. [This is the interpretation also of St. Thomas and of Fr. Cornelius a' Lapide.]
The Lord rebukes Peter, but he does not do so in order to banish him; rather, our gentle Jesus calls Peter “Satan” in order to awaken in him (who would soon be his vicar on earth) the call to imitate the Good Shepherd and to lay down his life for the sheep.