A week ago, in last Sunday’s Gospel, on the mountain, Jesus announced that Peter was “blessed” because the Father had revealed to him that Jesus was “the Messiah and the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:17). Jesus declared that Peter would be the rock on which Jesus would build His church (Mt 16:18).
Yet, in our Gospel, for today, Matthew 16:21-27, Jesus scolds Peter and warns him to get behind him because he speaks like Satan. What happened?
Jesus waited until His disciples’ had a better idea of who He was before telling them about His approaching suffering and death. The Gospel tells us that after Peter made his declaration, Jesus began to speak of His future sufferings: “From then on Jesus started to indicate to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem to suffer greatly there at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and to be put to death, and raised up on the third day” (Mt 16:21).
Peter made a big breakthrough when they were able to express who Jesus was. Now, Peter is startled with this talk of suffering and death. If Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, wouldn’t His mission be blessed and protected? Peter takes Jesus aside to assure Him that such suffering will never fall upon Him. St. Jerome assures us that Peter speaks out of “affection.”
Jesus wouldn’t allow any “affection” to distract Him from His determination to follow God’s will: “Get behind Me, you satan! You are trying to make Me trip and fall. You are not judging by God’s standards but by human ones” (Mt 16:22).
St. Thomas Aquinas wonders how, at one moment, Peter could have been such a clear idea of Jesus’ identity and then, shortly afterwards, completely misunderstand Jesus’ mission.
Thomas finds the answer in an explanation of St. John Chrysostom that Jesus wished to show Peter what he could do by himself and what he could do by the grace of God. Through grace, Peter realized that Jesus was the Son of God but when God withheld His grace, Peter fell back into his old ways of thinking. God allows people to fall so that they may know their humanness as well as their need for grace (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew).
Probably, each one of us has had times when we have understood God’s actions in our lives and then suddenly reverted to confusion, like a camera losing its focus. Jesus’ correction helped Peter recover, as Jesus will also keep us focused.
The idea that God would allow Jesus to suffer and die was incomprehensible to Peter, as Thomas notes: “’Satan’ has the same meaning as ‘adversary.’ Hence, he who contradicts the divine plan, is called a satan. You are a scandal to Me; that is to say, you wish to impede My plan” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew).
Matthew indicates that this suffering and death would take place in Jerusalem. Why, Jerusalem? Thomas identifies Jerusalem as the city of the Temple, where the sacrifices were made. According to Thomas, these sacrifices were symbols of Jesus’ sacrifice that would be fulfilled on the altar of the Cross.
In addition, Thomas recalls Jesus’ words “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you killed the prophets and stoned those sent to you” (Mt 23:37). The sufferings of the prophets, such as Jeremiah in today’s first reading (Jer 20:7-9), were indications of what would happen to Jesus. In His human understanding, Jesus may have seen His inevitable destiny from the sufferings of the prophets.
Jesus believed that He must suffer and be put to death. There are many important explanations, but the essential one is that Jesus saw His dying as an act of love: “No one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).
Thomas recalls that Jesus’ death was understood as a sacrifice by the Letter to the Ephesians, “Live in love, as Christ loved us and handed Himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma” (Eph 5:2).
It was not difficult for the disciples to see their own future if they continued to follow Jesus. They had expected that He would restore the kingdom to Israel – and they would be right there with Him (Acts 1:6). James and John asked Jesus, “Let one of us sit at Your right hand and the other at Your left when you come into Your glory” (Mk 6:27).
If Jesus, the “Son of God” would suffer and die, what about His followers? Jesus informed them: “If a man wishes to come after Me, he must deny His very self, take up His cross, and begin to follow in My footsteps” (Mt 16:24).
Thomas points out John Chrysostom’s attention to voluntary following of Jesus, “who wishes,” which is greater than being forced. One who follows Christ “ought to be ready to suffer whatever whatsoever death on account of God. To suffer on account of one’s sins is shameful: but to suffer for God’s sake is not shameful” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew). None of us knows the type of death by which God will bring us to Him nor the sufferings that lie before us. We can pray for the grace to see our own sufferings and death as our way of following Jesus.
Thomas reflects: “It is as though He were to say, ‘It is necessary that you be prepared to imitate Christ’s Passion.’ Martyrs corporally imitate the Passion in a special way, but spiritual men imitate it spiritually, by spiritually dying for Christ” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew).
How can we die spiritually? Thomas recalls the teaching of Gregory the Great on “spiritual mortification,” that the one who would follow Jesus must first of all, die to sin: “You too must think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11).
Another form of self-denial is to give up one’s own will: “For I, through the law, am dead to the law, that I may live to God; with Christ I am nailed to the cross” (Rom 2:19). If we realize that God is acting in our lives as He acted in Jesus’ life, we must be ready to accept our lives as they unfold.
Being “nailed to the cross” with Christ doesn’t only mean physical sufferings, although many people do suffer physically. Thomas connects the Latin word for “cross,” Crux, with the Latin word Cruciatus, meaning “tormented.” Thomas relates them through compassion: “A man is spiritually tormented whose mind is tormented on account of his compassion for his neighbor as the Apostle Paul says: ‘Weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Thomas points out that our compassion won’t do us any good if we don’t also give up our sins because we are not following Christ (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew).
Jesus declares: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul?” (Mt 16:25-26).
Thomas comments that there is a well-being of the soul and a well-being of the body. A person will sacrifice the means for something more important, as when a person spends his money on his health. So the soul is more important than the body and the person should be ready to give up things for the body for the sake of the soul.
Thomas says: “It is natural to love the soul more than the body… to prefer to suffer bodily to choose the salvation of his soul than the health of his body.” This doesn’t mean ordinarily that we mistreat ourselves or our bodies.
Jesus calls us away from what St. Catherine of Siena called “selfish self-love,” not that we shouldn’t love ourselves or our bodies. According to St. Thomas, we should love ourselves as belonging to God: “Among these things which he loves out of charity because they pertain to God, he loves also himself” (2a2ae. 25, 4).
In a similar way, St. Thomas emphasizes that our bodies are basically good: “The nature of the body was created, not by an evil principle, as the Manichean pretend, but by God… Consequently, out of the love for charity with which we love God, we ought to love our bodies also…” (2a2ae. 25, 5). The Manicheans were a heretical group that were very negative about material things, including the human body.
Thomas recognizes that we should not love the effects of sin in our bodies “…we ought rather, by the desire of charity to long for the removal of such things” (2a2ae. 25, 5).
Related to our bodies, in the second reading for today, St. Paul speaks of offering our bodies to God as a sacrifice: “I beg you through the mercy of God to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1).
According to St. Augustine, a visible sacrifice is a sign of an invisible sacrifice offered to God. Sacrificing our bodies is tied in with our interior sacrifice of ourselves. We do this first of all by sacrificing our soul: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a contrite spirit” (Ps 51:17).
Another way of sacrificing our bodies is the use of “fasts and watchings in the service of God”: “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27).
A person also makes a sacrifice by giving to the poor: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb 13:16).
A person sacrifices himself when he or she suffers for God, as Christ did: “He gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice for God” (Eph 5:2). Paul speaks of his being poured out for the Christians: “Even if I am to be poured as a libation upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I rejoice” (Phil 2:17).
A person also uses his or her body to perform acts of justice or worship: “Yield your members to serve justice unto sanctification” (Rom 6:19).
Thomas notes that Paul spoke of a “living sacrifice,” which means that it is more than an external action: “That the offering we make to God of our body be living by faith transformed by love: ‘the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God’ (Gal 2:20) (Commentary on Romans, 960).
Paul speaks of the sacrifice as “holy.” In the Old Testament, the act of sacrificing made an object holy: “The sacrificial offering presented to God was sanctified in its very immolation… Therefore Paul adds ‘holy,’ made so by the devotion with which we bind our bodies to the service of God: ‘Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy’ (Lev 20:7). Holiness in the proper senses is a relation to God, insofar as one does what is just before God” (Commentary on Romans, 961).
At times, some people discipline their bodies to an excess. Thomas explains that external actions are done for the sake of the internal:
“For a man’s good and his justice consists mainly in the internal acts, by which he believes, hopes, and loves. Hence it says in Luke, ‘the kingdom of God is within you’ (Lk 17:21). For it does not consists principally of exterior works, as is said ‘the kingdom of God is not food and drink’ (Rom 14:17). Hence, internal acts stand as an end sought for its own sake, whereas external acts, in which our bodies are presented to God, stand as means to an end”
“No limit is set on something set as an end; rather, the greater it is the better it is. But on what is sought as a means to an end, a limit is set in accord with its proportion to that end. Thus, a doctor seeks as much health as possible, but he does not give as much medicine as he can; rather, he limits it to the amount required for restoring health. Similarly, person should set no limit to his faith, hope, and love; rather, the more he believes and hopes and loves, he better he is. Hence it is said in Deuteronomy, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart’ (Deut 6:4).”
“But in external acts a discreet limit is imposed by the requirements of love. Hence Jerome says: ‘Does not rational man lose his dignity, if he chooses to fast and watch at the expense of his bodily health or incur the marks of madness or sadness from singing the Psalms and office” (Commentary on Romans, 964).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew are taken from the translation of Fr. Paul M. Kimball, published by Dolorosa Press in 2012, pp. 569-677.
References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on Romans were taken from the translation begun by Fr. Fabian R. Larcher, O.P. and edited by J. Mortensen and E. Alarcón. The translation was published by the Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, Lander, Wyoming, in 2012.