There are phrases in the bible that seem so harsh that you have to do a double take when you read them. This Sunday we encounter one of those phrases. Even in context the harshness of the statement stands out. Peter, get out of my way, Satan get lost! That is from the message and almost seems tame compared to the NRSV version, which reads “Get behind me, Satan!” WOW, especially since this follows a moment when Peter is trying to give “comfort” to Jesus.
Setting up this passage is very important to understanding what is really going on. This is smack dab in the middle of Jesus’ ministry. He has been with his disciples for a while so they know his capabilities. One of the more recent miracles was the feeding of the Four thousand found at the end of Matthew 15. This miracle becomes a backdrop for an interaction with the Pharisees and Sadducees. As always in these interactions the Pharisees are working to trip up Jesus. So they ask for a sign to prove his connection with God.
Essentially he calls them out saying that when it is things that effect themselves like the weather, they can tell the signs that it is going to change. But, he goes on to say that God will not give a sign to people who do not have faith in their hearts, moreover, even if he did they could not see it so he leaves with the parting promise that there is one sign for people like that, the sign of Jonah. This is a harsh curse. The sign of Jonah is one that says repent or die. Or better yet, you must choose to give yourself fully to God or risk complete isolation.
Following this, Jesus is walking with his disciples and he gives a strong warning against listening to the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Within this context the teaching that are so wrong are the teachings about one-self and like bad yeast need to be avoided.
Now we get to one of the most important passages setting up this harsh statement. Almost out of context the journey switches from understanding the place of the Pharisees and Sadducees the extent of their unfaithfulness and their teachings to Jesus asking the disciples “who am I.” I argue, as most, that this is not out of place, in fact, it is placed here strategically and exemplifies the state of faith.
Some call Matthew 16:17-20 Peter’s commissioning or ordination. It is here where Christ established Peter to be the foundation of the church. But, as with a lot of what Christ does, he adds a caveat in 19b “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” While the first part of this is clearly understandable, the second half is, well, more difficult.
A lot of the interpretation has to do with this crazy word “loosed.” In Greek the word is λύσῃς. Some translations will use abolished, others to dismiss or destroy. But it is also the type of word where it’s definition out of context can seemingly contradict itself let go or permit. In the case of this passage it is clear that this is being set up as a balance to the binding in heaven and thus is connected with the letting go, specifically the letting go of human things.
So when Jesus begins to foretell his last days, Peter’s very human response garners this very strong rebuke. Even though as most of us read these and see that what Peter is doing is really out of compassion albeit an ignorant one. As the reformers interpreted the passage, and is seen in the way the Message translates it, it is not Peter who Jesus is calling Satan, but the part of Peter that was so bound to this world that it could not see the greater witness of what was to happen.
This is flushed out in the second half of the pericope as Jesus makes it clear that here in this life we have the choice to give ourselves over to God and Live, thus dying to this world, or we can continue to live into this world and subsequently lose our connection with God, just as the Pharisees and Sadducees had.
*From Matthew 16:23b
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Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen