“Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” These words of rebuke spoken by our Lord to St. Peter are immediately challenging. That challenge grows the more we read them and ponder their meaning. Why is it that Peter has become an obstacle to Jesus, when just a verse or two before he was the rock on which the Church would be built? The stumbling block Peter has laid out is the obstacle of earthly logic. When the saving plan of God is revealed, the fact that it involves a suffering Messiah is more than Peter’s humanity can stand, and he cries out his objection. That Peter (and all who would hear the Gospel) might understand that the suffering that the savior of the world would freely take on is no mere symbol but a necessary part of God’s plan, Jesus uses the strongest possible language. Do not think as men think, He says, but rather conform your mind to the Divine mind. At the risk of spoiling the ending, I can tell you that Peter slowly comes to understand this, though it is not always easy for him. In fact, something tells me that Peter made sure this story was committed to paper so that he would always remember that examination of conscience: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Thinking as human beings do, that is, thinking according to worldly, earthly logic is an obstacle to Jesus. Our Lord has just handed Peter the keys to the kingdom, given him authority to teach the truth and to forgive sins. But if Peter is bound up by worldly ambition, thinking only in terms of human comfort, and, in some misplaced pride trying to tell the Incarnate God what His plan ought to be, Peter himself becomes the obstacle to Jesus accomplishing His saving plan. Peter learns in this moment that he must be ready to surrender his own plans and accept the plan of God. Peter has to get out of the way and let God be God. The authority given to him is a gift through which Jesus desires to pour out grace upon the world, but if Peter clings to his own power and authority, he actually becomes an obstacle.
If those words were an examination of conscience for Peter, how much more ought they be a point of reflection for us? St. Paul tells us “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). At times all of us will discover that our way of thinking is more in line with the popular culture than with the Gospel. If we’re doing verbal gymnastics to try to find Biblical justification for our political ideology, social agenda, or even just our preference for our own comfort, we might need to hear the rebuke of Jesus repeated again. What happens when our Christian beliefs are soft-pedaled so that we can be more appealing to the secular masses? We find that the secular masses are not that interested in what we offer. The Gospel becomes less compelling, the grace of God seems less important. In other words, our thinking and speaking with the mind of the world is an obstacle to Jesus winning hearts, minds, and souls for the Kingdom.
Is it hard sometimes to keep our way of thinking and behaving in line with Jesus? Yes, of course. And it was for St. Peter, too. The one against whom the gates of hell would not prevail had to be reminded again and again. He did not want to allow Jesus to wash his feet at the Last Supper. He cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant in the Garden of Gethsemane, only to be told to put away his sword. He denied Jesus three times while staying warm by the fire and trying to keep himself safe. When Jesus was on the cross, Peter was nowhere to be found. In each of those moments, “you are thinking as human beings do” must surely have echoed in his mind, calling him back to the way that Jesus laid out, challenging him to put aside his own preferences and desires, and reinforcing his resolve to stand firm against the gates of hell. However many times he stumbled, Peter still held the keys. He learned gradually, sometimes painfully, but because he continued to hear those words of Jesus echo in his heart, Peter’s authority was no obstacle, but rather an asset as he sought to let Jesus work in and through him. We all stumble and fail, and need the grace of deeper conversion. If Jesus did not take the keys away from Peter even after calling him Satan, what will He do for us? Today, may we have the grace to think as God thinks.