Peter and Jesus feature in yet another story for the Gospel reading in this twenty-second Sunday in ordinary time. Jesus orders his spokesman to Get behind me, Satan! At the same time, he asks the disciples to take up the cross. This account represents an unusual turn of events, since Jesus had just extended Peter the keys of the kingdom. Setting aside the strong language, we can see the Jesus defines and narrows the mandate given to his closest disciples. He has given Peter the keys to the kingdom, but Peter and the disciples are still obligated to obey the Lord and to live out the more challenging aspects of the faith, including, taking up the cross.
When Peter suggests that Jesus should not suffer an anticipated death, Jesus responds rather forcefully, stating get behind me, Satan. This translation is reasonably accurate. Some scholars have misunderstood the order as “go away” or “leave.” However the original Greek states, in virtually every available translation, that Peter should “go after” Jesus (“upage opiso”), rather than tell him what to do. In colloquial terms, Jesus commands Peter, ‘fall in line and follow me.’
Take Up the Cross
After telling Peter to get in line, Jesus conflates his own fate with the obligation of all Christians to take up the cross. We should consider what he says:
Then Jesus said to his disciples,
“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?
For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory,
and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”
These lines can seem confusing as we are not sure where he is going. On the one hand, his reflection about life and death seems rhetorical, as if he were talking about himself in the third person. On the other hand, we are told very clearly whoever wishes to lose his life for my sake will find it. Speaking to his disciples, Jesus tells them that they too must carry a cross, just as Jesus will. We can understand why Jesus would say, Get behind me Satan – since Peter, in proposing to deny the cross to Jesus, would be denying his own obligation to follow Jesus.
He will repay all according to his conduct
The last line of this passage is often overlooked. Far from saying that our faith alone will save us, Jesus says that upon his return, all will repaid according to their conduct. This theme is consistent throughout the Matthean Gospel – that we are called to imitate the life of Christ, not merely to believe in him. Thus to take up the cross means more than having faith, it is to make obedience to the Lord our own personal vocation.