Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Matthew 16:21 – 28
September 8, 2020, Words By: Jenna Smith, Image By: Homeless Jesus
It was an awful week for our neighborhood in Montreal.
On Monday morning I received a phone call from a colleague. There had been another incident in front of the church where our ministry rents space. Blood was all over the doorstep, in the gardens that our youth work in, and on the sidewalk. “The police are cordoning off the yard,” she said, “and they want to know if we can access the video feed?” I will be right in, I reply.
Another attack. Another encounter with trauma for those in our neighborhood. I have witnessed more violence in these past 4 months than I have in the past 15 years combined.
Our downtown is hurting. Day shelters were shut down during the pandemic due to public health directives, driving thousands of itinerant and homeless people back to the street. Open air food and health stations were set up all over the urban centre of Montreal. The one located near my work is in an historically wounded spot—Cabot Square—which for years has been the object of political tensions between Aboriginal populations who find home here and municipal and police authorities. Years of work towards a spirit of cohabitation have been undone; resources are lacking, housing needs are still not being met and we all—neighbours, workers, and residents of the Square—have been heaved back into a climate of violence, despair and distress.
I am reading about situations across cities in North America dealing with their own hurdles of despair around covid-related homelessness issues. I take no comfort in this, but I do relate.
Right now you might say I have a few, as Jesus puts it, human concerns.
Peter also had some human concerns. A Palestinian living in Roman-occupied territory, he had watched his teacher and friend heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, redeem the lost and feed the hungry. Then Jesus tells him he intends to go into Jerusalem and face certain violence and death. Peter has a human reaction. Don’t do it! Stay with us. Look at all the good we could accomplish! Stay near me—this world is in distress, and you can be its balm.
I was taught to read this passage as another one of Peter’s “mess-up moments.” At best, he didn’t understand. At worst, he was tempting Jesus to disobey God’s will. “Get behind me, Satan,” rebukes his rabbi.
Today, instead of this classic reading, I will indulge Peter and take pity on his human concerns. I share them. If my near and present leader was proposing to walk into the jaws of violence and death instead of retreating to safety, I might, just like Peter, attempt an intervention. Stay here. The world is bad enough as it is. We could use you with us. Don’t you see there is still work to do? Lessons to be taught? Friends to pass the day with? The lame to heal? A homeless population to love?
And Jesus was tempted. We might do well to read that rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan!” as a lens into Jesus’ mental state rather than a scale through which we measure Peter’s spiritual maturity.
Jesus was tempted. To stay amongst allied friends. To continue to win arguments over the Pharisees. To bring comfort to a crowd of grateful, forgotten Others.
Jesus was tempted. Our human concerns were his concerns, too. This is why he had given them over to Peter’s care. You are the rock, he claimed a few days prior. You will lead this community whose job it is to love, to teach, to heal, to advocate, to sanctify.
Jesus’ work of peace would lead him to the cross. Peter’s work of peace would grow out of that cross and flow with the leadership of the Holy Spirit into the first community of believers for whom human concerns was the sacred work of love.
Veni, Spiritus Sanctus.