In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus summoned the Twelve Apostles and sent them out to proclaim the Good News to the lost sheep of Israel, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to cleanse the lepers, and even to raise the dead. Before sending them on their way, he instructed them. Today’s Gospel reading is a continuation of that instruction.
Now, Jesus’ words are meant to give encouragement to the Twelve, and to us. But the great demands he makes of his disciples just might have the opposite effect. For unless our faith is strong, the costs of discipleship that Jesus warns about might overwhelm us.
Jesus begins by telling the Twelve to expect no better treatment that he has received. In other words, they should expect to be mistreated and threatened and lied about. Even so, he urges his disciples to have no fear, but to proceed with their mission at any cost. They are not to fear those who can destroy their physical bodies. They are to fear the One who can destroy both their bodies and their souls, that is, the Lord God.
“Get behind me, Satan!” and “Let them take up their cross!”—these are the two standout phrases from today’s Gospel. Now, the word gospel, by definition, means Good News, but the Good News in these two phrases is far from apparent. One phrase is a harsh rebuke. The other phrase is an order to carry a deadly burden. No, the Good News is not apparent, but it’s there nonetheless.
Let’s start at the beginning. Today’s reading from Mark, chapter 8, takes place immediately after the Confession of Peter, in which that saint rightly identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Despite the fact that Peter got that bit right, Jesus knows full well that he is not the kind of Messiah that Peter and the other disciples expect. They expect a military leader who will free the people of Judea from the yoke of Roman imperial rule and who will sit on the throne of David. Dashing the disciples’ hopes, Jesus begins teaching them that this Messiah “must undergo great suffering…and be killed.” Peter is understandably dismayed. So he takes Jesus the Messiah aside and attempts to set him straight. There’s a bit of a role reversal going on here. Peter assumes the role of the master correcting an errant disciple. But this attempt at role reversal doesn’t last for long. Jesus turns his back on Peter, addresses the on-looking disciples, and rebukes Peter, saying: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It was a teaching moment intended not just for Peter but also the other disciples.
Jesus’ rebuke of Peter comes across as unduly harsh (at least in the English translation). Here, as is sometimes the case, a knowledge of Greek can further our understanding. That command “Get behind me!” is ambiguous in the original Greek. On the one hand, it can mean something like “Get out of my way!” On the other hand, it can mean something quite different: “Keep following my lead!” I suspect that Jesus intended the latter meaning. He is not pushing Peter aside; he is reminding Peter who is the leader and who is the follower. As for calling Peter “Satan,” that was to drive home the point that Peter was playing the part of the Tempter, even if unintentionally, by encouraging Jesus to avoid death on the Cross at all costs.