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. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But 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.’
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For 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? 27 ‘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. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’
Translation: From then on, Jesus began to show his disciples that it is necessary (for) him to depart into Jerusalem, and to suffer greatly from the pastors and chief priests and lawyers, and be surely killed, and on the third day be raised up. And Peter, taking him aside, began to censure him, saying, "Mercy to you, Lord. Surely this will not happen to you." He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me for you do not understand the things of God but the things of humanity."
Then he said to his disciples, "If anyone desires to follow after me, let that one deny themselves and raise up their cross and follow me. For if that one desires his life saved he will destroy it, but the one who might destroy his life on account of me will eventually get it. For what will it benefit them if they might gain the whole universe but their life might suffer loss? Or what will a person give in return for their life?"
For the son of man intends to be coming in the glory of his father with his angels, and then he will deliver each according to his doings. Truly, I say to you, some are standing in this place, the ones who will surely not be tasting of death until they might see the son of man coming in his kingdom."
Background and situation: Matthew has three statements concerning the passion of Jesus--16: 21-28, 17: 22-33, 20: 17-19. His source was Mark--the parallels are Mark 8:31-38, 9: 31-32, 10: 33-34.
This section of Matthew's gospel, which began in 14:1, is characterized by increasing controversy, and a darkening mood. The cross, which has been looming in the background ever since Herod's rampage against the innocents (2:16), now comes increasingly to the fore.
The issue of the cross: It seems odd to say, but the cross was an issue for the people of the early church. For Jewish Christians, to be "hung on a tree" was associated with an ancient curse. Paul refers to it in Gal 3: 13: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’" (The reference is Dt 21:23.)
That was one thing. The other was that the Romans used crucifixions as a campaign of domestic terror against anyone plotting against Rome's interests. It was a humiliating and gruesome way to die. No Roman citizen could be crucified. It was only for slaves and political rebels. The message was clear: This is what happens to people who rebel. Do so at your supreme peril.
The cross did not become a popular image for Christianity until the 5th century. The earliest image of Jesus portrays him as the good shepherd, not the crucified. The earliest known image of the cross is a piece of grafitti making fun of the very idea of the divinity dying on one.
The cross needed explanation. Mark and Matthew have Jesus trying to break his own disciples in on the idea. It is said here first, has to be repeated twice, and they still don't get it. (This week's lection says Jesus "began to show" his disciples that the cross was coming, apparently with the idea that it would take some repetition.)
Mark and Matthew say: It was not as it appears. It was not the inglorious and humiliating death of our leader, our master, our lord, and our movement! It was, rather, "necessary" (dei) that this happen. The messiah is the messiah precisely because he suffers and he loses all. (The phrase regarding "suffering" is explicit and emphasized in the Greek text. The Greek "be killed"--apoktanthenai--carries the sense not only of death, but also annihilation and "complete perishing.")
Peter as Satan: In Mark, both Peter's confession and his subsequent rebuke by Jesus are held together closely. Matthew generally follows Mark, but, in this case, softens the anti-Petrine position of Mark by inserting a paragraph on the new name, Peter, that Jesus gives Simon, and then asserting Peter's central role in the church (16:13-20).
When Jesus says that he will suffer and be killed, Peter speaks (unlike in Mark) and says: "Mercy to you, Lord. Surely this will not happen to you." The NRSV has "God forbid it." NIV has "Never, Lord!" The word is helios, which means "mercy"--more specifically, God's mercy. Peter is calling for God to protect Jesus.
In Mark, Jesus is specifically said to "rebuke" Peter. In Matthew, Jesus does not rebuke Peter. Instead, he simply "said" to Peter: "Get behind me, Satan"--yupage opiso mou, satana.
The temptation to power and glory was Satan's idea in the first place (4:8). It was the last of three temptations in the wilderness. The temptation, we remember, was to assert divine perogative in order to make things come out well for Jesus. (He could be the benevolent dictator of the cosmos, which, actually, most of us would favor.)
Already in the 4th chapter, the idea of avoiding suffering and the cross so that Jesus himself would be better off is associated with the "satanic," which is why Jesus refers to Peter as satan here. He "must" (dei) go to Jerusalem (16:21). This is a divine imperative, and he is not to be diverted by appeals on behalf of his personal safety.
While Matthew's view of Peter is, over-all, more positive than Mark's, it should be noted that Peter does not get off the hook in Matthew. As Peter was taking Jesus aside, Jesus "turned" and, it would appear, called Peter a "stumbling block" right to his face--from "rock" (16:18) to "stumbling block" (16:23) in only five verses!
The cross is laid on every person: In Mark, Jesus addresses crowds at this point. In Matthew, he addresses only the disciples. If any want to follow Jesus, he says, they should take up "their cross." I interpret ton stauron autou--literally, "the cross of him"--in two ways:
(1) Earlier in Matthew, Jesus had said that his followers can expect no different fate than that of their master. Most of chapter 10 is about the difficulties that will be faced by his followers.
They will "hand you over" (10:16)--the same phrase will be used about Jesus when he is "handed over" to his persecutors. They will "flog" you. You will be hated. "A disciple is not above the teacher," he says in 10:24. His followers can expect the same treatment as Jesus.
Later, in 10: 38-9, Jesus says, "And whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." (Those words will be stated again in this context.)
This is rather classic exhortation to a beleaguered minority. Hang in there. Stay loyal. No matter how bad it gets, keep the faith!
(2) The word "him" (autou) is genitive--literally, "cross of him." "Him" could refer to Jesus, in which case the reference is to the cross of Jesus. On the other hand, the context seems to infer "him" as the individual follower--not Jesus' cross, in this case, but the burdens that come with being a human being. Every person has issues. They are to be dealt with, not swept under the rug.
Take up the struggles of your life, yes, but note as well that Jesus never glorifies suffering simply for the sake of suffering. Life is tough enough as it is. Besides, buying in to that kind of logic is eminently a human way of thinking, to wit: "If it takes suffering to be a great Christian, I'll be the champion sufferer of all time." Suffering is not an achievement. There are crosses enough in life without making them on purpose.
The "things of God" vs. the "things of humanity": Human standards are about striving and achieving, becoming king of the hill, or having the most money. One should resist making a moral judgment about this. The impulse to strive and achieve has at least some evolutionary advantage. The ones who did so tended to survive.
That's one reason a lot of what Jesus had to say went right over peoples' heads. He talked to them about a different way, one that was not, it appeared, in one's social or financial interests, and one that was not, it was sure, in one's survival interests. Who helps the poor? There's no advantage in that.
It took some creative thinking for people to begin to realize that maybe "the way we've always done things" is not really life-giving. It took a real leap of insight--then and (especially) now--for some of Jesus' ideas to even begin to sink in.
In human ways of thinking--the default survival mechanisms embedded in our ways of thinking and acting--the one who saves their life saves it. The one who gains the whole universe gains the whole dang universe, and everybody else has to figure out a way to get their own universe.
Jesus completely upends all customary conceptions of gain and loss. True life is not in getting but in giving. Trying to save your life--looking out for yourself--is the path of destruction. The one who lives like Jesus--one who gives for others--will "receive" life. Where's the benefit if you own everything, but have no life?
The promise: Jesus is going to come with the angels "in the glory of his Father." Power and majesty are on their way--Oh frabjous day!
And when he comes, he will "repay everyone for what has been done." Clunk. (Or better: Lutherans will feel a clunk. We get neuralgic at the merest hint of any reward being given to any human effort.)
This is not about that. Matthew means these words as words of reassurance. There will be a reward for the sacrifice of Jesus' disciples. Even though there may be dark days ahead, calling for every reserve of emotional, physical, and spiritual strength, nevertheless God knows their trials, and God will reward their endurance.
The lection concludes with these puzzling words: "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 is writing in AD 80, or thereabouts. He knew full well that some people had indeed died before Jesus came in the fullness of his kingdom.
He is not talking about timetables regarding the so-called second coming. He's talking about the transfiguration of Jesus, which immediately follows, and, more broadly, the resurrection itself. "Some standing here" would have included Peter, James, and John. In six days--and in the very next verse!--these three of the disciples will see Jesus in his glory on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Image: Follow me, Anthony Falbo