Matthew 16:21-27. Get behind me, Satan! The Disciples are called to take up the cross.

Readings for August 28th.   22nd Sunday, including Matthew 16:21-27.

Our Gospel passage for today is a short discourse by Jesus on the true nature of discipleship.  The theology in the passage is consistent with the general message of salvation through Jesus, the importance of good works, and the theme of “taking up the cross” (Mt 16:24) in the Gospel of Matthew.   First, we’ll consider the comment Get behind me Satan! Then we’ll look at the themes of taking up the cross, and giving up one’s life for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Get behind me!

Historical-critical scholars have often provided over-wrought and excessively dramatic motives for Jesus saying to Peter, get, behind me, Satan.   Why, they ask, would Jesus speak to him so harshly, after extending the keys to the kingdom to Peter just a few verses before?    The answer is quite simple. Peter does not yet understand that the mission of Jesus entails the act of the shepherd laying down his life for his flock (John 10:11).   Furthermore, Peter does not yet understand that as a future shepherd and pastor, he will be asked to do the same.

Peter takes up the cross. Here lies the true meaning of discipleship, and for Peter, the responsibility that comes with sharing the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

In a previous post, I discussed Peter receiving the keys to the kingdom in Mt 16. It should come as no surprise that, after extending the keys of the kingdom to Peter, Jesus then explains that the disciples are themselves to take up the cross.

When Jesus says to Peter, Get behind me, Satan, just four verses after giving him the keys to the kingdom, Jesus is saying “follow me, because it is not for you to change my destiny nor yours as a future pastor of the church.”

Even much later in the ministry of Jesus, Peter (like the rest of us) still struggles to comprehend the full extent of a minister’s self-sacrificial role.  When the soldiers lay their hands on Jesus to arrest him in the garden, one of the disciples draws a sword and cuts off the ear of the servant Malchus (Mt 26:51; Mk 14:46-47; Lk 22:50; John 18:10). The Gospel of John names the disciple who did this: Peter.  And of course, Jesus reverses the rash act by healing the ear of Malchus.

“Take up the Cross.”

The phrase “take up the cross” occurs in the same context in the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  The general outline of Matthew 16:15-28 is repeated in Mark 8:27-35.  This structure includes a) Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, b) Jesus’ prediction of his own destiny, c) Peter’s refusal to allow any harm to come to Jesus, and d) Jesus’ challenge to his disciples to take up the cross.   Luke 9:18-27 omits b) and c).

After rebuking Peter for suggesting that Jesus should not lay down his own  life, Jesus explains that the true meaning of discipleship lies is self-sacrifice and love: even if that means giving up one’s life for the sake of another.  Jesus speaks somewhat rhetorically in Mt 16:24-26: so the words do not carry the full sense of the meaning we might find in other Gospel verses:

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?

The Gospels Do Not Ask Us to Behave Like an Outlaw

We need to digress a bit to point out that to “lay down one’s life” is a self-sacrificial act – not an act of religious extremism.  In John 10, Jesus explains this himself in the story of the Good Shepherd.  Jesus tells the crowd in Jerusalem that a Good Shepherd is a not a violent criminal.  He contrasts his own ministry with that of brigands and  outlaws.  Consider what Jesus says about those who lead a life of political violence in John’s Gospel:

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber (verse 10:1).   All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them (verse 10:8).   The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy… (verse 10:10).

Jesus is not speaking of larceny in John 10. He is speaking of those who take advantage of the flock.  These are not necessarily religious leaders. They may be those who abuse political power or those who try to seize it, even if in the name of God.    In the Gospels, Herod typifies a ruler who oppresses the faithful, while Bar Abbas represents someone who would over-turn the political order in the name of the faith.  If you read the four Gospels, you will realize that Bar Abbas is, like Jesse James, more outlaw than petty thief.   Jesus argues in John 10, that as a Good Shepherd, he does not seek to abuse political power, engage in mayhem, or to overthrow the political status quo.

Laying Down One’s Life

However, Jesus does challenge the disciples, and all followers of Christ, to be radically unselfish.  And the cost of unselfish discipleship can be great. Many scholars of Sacred Scripture and Christology ignore the Gospel’s redemptive or soteriological theology. Soteriology is the theology of salvation, and Jesus does explain this theology to us in the Gospels.

In John’s Gospel, the sacred author repeats the theme of “laying down one’s life” for a friend no less than eight times.  Here is one of Jesus’ classic characterizations in John 15:12-13:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Matthew’s Gospel also speaks of this theology. Jesus reminds his disciples to “take up the cross,” and be prepared to lose their life for his sake.  Later in Matthew 20:26-28, Jesus continues to explain to his own disciples the connection between soteriology (salvation through Christ) and Christian ministry, that he hints at in Matthew chapter 16:

It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave;  even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

In conclusion, Jesus asks his disciples in Matthew 16:21-27 to unselfishly take up the cross, as Jesus himself does.  Peter’s destiny is, indeed, to take up the cross.  Of the twelve apostles, eleven give their life for the faith. The only apostle to die of natural causes, according to church tradition, is John.

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