This is the sixth article of a series commenting on Matthew 15-16. Previous posts:
- Jesus defines defilement
- Persevere in humble prayer
- Bread to feed and liberate mankind
- They asked for a sign
- Peter: sign and destiny
Death and Resurrection announced
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matthew 16:21-23)
We are reading what I call “the cycle of Peter” in the Gospel of Matthew. The chapters we have considered so far can be used as a parable mapping the history of the papacy. In that cycle, the actions and words of Peter appear to be a prophetic representation of what is to come. Peter is also introduced to us as the seed of an institution (the Papacy) that will grow as the Church reaches the ends of the Earth fulfilling her mission.
Isaiah seems to announce that same prophetic model in his”prophecy against the Valley of Vision.” (Isaiah 22:1) Remember Caiaphas means “dell” or “valley” (kaiapha) The “rocky promontory” which is Kepha [Simon Peter] needs to minister and suffer in the same way that his Master did. He is called to replace the unfaithful steward and he will reach Heaven through the cross. (Isaiah 22:25) Peter will contend with the fallen condition of mankind but not from perfection like his Master. The human frailties are part of the fisherman. He confessed that much before Jesus at the beginning: “Depart from me, Lord for I am a sinful man.” That is why Jesus calls him “son of Jonah” (right after Peter declares Jesus is the Son of God.) In a spiritual way Peter is a son of the disobedient prophet, a blurred reflection of Jesus’ perfect obedience to God the Father.
In the same manner that Jonah tried to run away from his mission, Peter will run away from the Cross at first, only to be led back to his destiny by God who will lead Peter to a great new Nineveh, the world.
The fact that Peter was crucified upside-down shows how the Fisherman’s cross on Earth reflects the heavenly reality of his Master’s Cross. Peter walks the paths of his human imperfection to reach the perfection of the Cross, the same cross he tried to avoid the night before Calvary.
Compare with Isaiah’s prophecy against Shebna the unfaithful royal steward:
“In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the people of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I will drive him like a peg into a firm place; he will become a throne [or seat] of honor for the house of his father. All the glory of his family will hang on him: its offspring and offshoots—all its lesser vessels, from the bowls to all the jars. “In that day,” declares the Lord Almighty, “the peg driven into the firm place will give way; it will be sheared off and will fall, and the load hanging on it will be cut down.” The Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 22:20-25)
Eliakim and Shebna are prophetic models of Peter and Caiaphas and their respective ministries. This passage of Isaiah aptly represents the cycle of Peter. From his ascension to the highest throne under Christ to the moment when it will be “sheared off” and fall when the hour of the Passion of the Church arrives.
When Jesus announces his own death and resurrection, Peter resists the idea of his Master’s death. The rebuke that follows is part of Peter’s training. Jonah resisted going to Nineveh; Peter resisted the Cross when he denied Jesus and fled from Calvary along with nine of the Apostles.
Blessed Jacobus de Varagine describes in his Golden Legend how Peter fled the city when the Roman Emperor Nero began to persecute the Church. On his way out of Rome, Peter runs into Christ Himself carrying the Cross and going in the opposite direction. Moved by this sudden vision, Peter can only manage to ask “Quo vadis, Domine?” (“Where are you going, Lord?”) Jesus responds that he is going to Rome, to be crucified again (“Romam eo iterum crucifigi”) because His bishop has fled. That was a searing reminder of Peter’s shortcomings at the hour of Calvary. Peter understood that the time had come for him to give his life to Christ. Returning to Rome, Peter was crucified.
Jonah tried to run away from his assignment and so did Peter. He went into hiding at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, and tried to flee Rome when Emperor Nero began persecuting the Church but he finally accepted that his destiny was to reflect the sacrifice of Christ.
His Cross and our cross
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:24-28)
When Jesus selected St. Peter to be his first royal steward, our first Pope, he chose a man who confessed to be a sinner, a failure. Since Adam’s fall, mankind has been fruitlessly toiling in darkness. In the same manner, Peter and his men were casting their nets all night for naught. Jonah, Peter, and all of mankind share the same trait: we run away from our destiny because we fear the sufferings of the Cross. The lesson of Jonah and the lesson of Peter are one and the same. Jonah had to give witness to Nineveh, Peter had to give witness to Rome and the world. Now it’s our turn to give witness, even at this time when many run away from their Christian duty to be “ambassadors for Christ” to a dying world. (2 Corinthians 5:20)
At the end of his life, Peter understood that to die in Christ was to live in truth. The Roman order passed away but the Church that Peter worked to establish continued to live to this day. In accepting his destiny, Peter saved himself and gave a glorious example for all of us. A new day is dawning upon the world. We have worked through the night of history and have nothing to show for it. In spite of that, if we fearlessly follow Christ “into the deep” the catch will be plentiful. We only have to trust and go forward without fear. A glorious morning is ahead of us.