Some variation on the story that we just heard appears in all three Synoptic Gospels, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Luke shortens the story considerably, omitting the startling anger of Jesus’ reaction to Peter: in Luke, Jesus’ words, “Get behind me, Satan!” are gone from this conversation. Here in Matthew, by contrast, the rebuke remains (“get behind me,” by the way, does not have any of the modern connotations of getting behind someone, of “having their back”: what Jesus means is “Get out of my way!”). And Matthew adds something else. In Matthew, Jesus tells Peter:
You are a stumbling block to me.
Depending on which translation of Jesus’ words you read, you may also hear these words rendered as “You are an offence to me,” “You are an obstacle to me,” “You are a hindrance to me,” even – and this phrase from the New Living Translation kind of blows my mind – “You are a dangerous trap to me.”
That kind of variation in the translation is a clue that we are encountering a word that is either ambiguous in nature (in other words, scholars aren’t sure what it means) or that holds a meaning or flavour doesn’t quite have an English equivalent. In this particular case, it’s probably the latter.
The original Greek term that is translated in so many different ways is skandalon. Here is the root or ancestor of our modern-day word, “scandal.” And as the translation that we heard today suggests, a skandalon does indeed refer to a stumbling block, it does indeed refer to something left in the middle of the hallway by a toddler that you trip over in the night (that is an example drawn from personal experience). But that definition is incomplete.
Because in the original Greek, a skandalon is something that is both repulsive and attractive. An addiction or a compulsion or a terrible obsession or a relentless habit are skandalon: if you’ve ever stayed up altogether too late watching shows on TV or on Netflix or surfing social media (and forgive me if that is a trivial example, but it is real), you’ve experienced repulsion and attraction all at once. More seriously, the gambler who cannot leave the casino, the drunk who can’t leave the bar, the sex addict who can’t switch off the pornography are in the grip of skandalon. To slow down when you pass the car accident in the hope/fear that you will see blood on the road is skandalon.
What Jesus is talking about here is that thing that we don’t want to do but that we do anyway. Or maybe that’s backwards. Maybe what Jesus is talking about is that thing that you want to do but that we know we mustn’t do.
Given that definition, it makes sense that Jesus’ accusation comes right after calling Peter “Satan” or, as we sometimes call Satan, The Tempter. Because the repulsive and attractive thing that Peter offers to Jesus might be the biggest temptation that Jesus has ever faced, bigger even than the temptation that the actual Satan offers him at the beginning of his earthly ministry.
Let’s back up a little.
The passage that we hear today in Matthew comes immediately after the passage that we heard last week. So, Jesus has no sooner praised Peter for identifying him as the Messiah, as the Son of God, Jesus has no sooner declared that Peter is the rock upon which will build his church, than today’s reading begins.
Jesus tells the disciples he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and be killed. This is a theme, by the way, that shows up in all four Gospels. Jesus says that he must suffer and die; not that he might suffer and die, not that it is a risk, not that it is a distinct possibility. But that he must.
One possibility – and it’s a Biblical one – is that Jesus must die in order to fulfill the scriptures. I’m willing to take that answer seriously, to listen to it and to wrestle with it. But that wrestling is going to have to wait for another sermon.
A second possibility – one that really got a foothold at the beginning of the second thousand years of the Christian movement and that lasts right up to this day – is that Jesus’ death is necessary in order to pay some kind of cosmic debt to God the Father. I don’t find that argument persuasive. Indeed, I find it the very opposite of persuasive: to my mind it paints an appalling picture of God as someone who is petty and violent and small and selfish.
But maybe that’s just me.
A third possibility behind Jesus’ must is the one that I’d like to wonder with you about this morning. This possibility is almost the very opposite of the second one. And, like the first possibility, it is thoroughly Biblical. This is the possibility that Jesus must suffer and die because he has confronted a brutal government and a brutal religious structure and the brutal practices that surround and support them. He has confronted them by telling subversive stories, by engaging in promiscuous acts of healing and transformation, by persistently choosing non-violent resistance, and by sharing food and community in acts of radical inclusivity and radical hospitality. In doing so, Jesus has revealed that the laws and rules of Empire are neither inevitable nor obvious nor immutable nor irresistible nor God-given.
And that kind of behaviour is hugely threatening to Empire. And so the government and the religious authorities will respond in the only way that Empire knows how to respond: by sending the death squads for Jesus.
Jesus will go to the cross, totally innocent – or, in theological language, totally without sin. The one whom his followers call The Son of God, the one whom the Christian movement in the first centuries after his death came to understand as God himself, the one whom we confess in the Creeds to be God, will be murdered by the government. Let me say that again: God will be murdered by the government.
And by freely accepting this death, Jesus will demonstrate the utter brokenness of Empire and the violence and selfishness that supports it, he will demonstrate God’s absolute and unreserved solidarity with those who suffer and who endure injustice, and he will demonstrate God’s absolute refusal to respond to violence with violence of God’s own, God’s absolute refusal to respond to exclusion with exclusion of God’s own.
It is this act of sacrifice which Jesus must do that Peter tells him he must not do.
God forbid it, Lord!
This must not happen to you.
Peter’s response, let’s be clear, is totally reasonable. If a friend and leader whom I loved told me that they must be tortured and killed I would say the way same thing. And it is its very reasonableness that makes Peter’s words such a temptation to Jesus, such a skandalon. Because what would make more sense, what would be fairer, than for Jesus to refuse a brutal and painful death? No one would blame him, no one would think less of him if he stopped preaching and quietly went back to carpentry. Nor would anyone blame him if he were to try to assemble an army and to try to go defeat the Romans, if he were to build crosses and nail their soldiers to them. People would cheer!
This is as big a skandalon as there can be for Jesus. The possibility that Peter has named, the possibility of stepping aside from his collision course with Empire and with the cross is the most attractive idea that anyone has presented to him ever. But it is also the most repulsive. Because Jesus knows that it means abandoning his calling as Son of God, as Messiah, as Christ.
Jesus almost says “yes” to Peter. But through nothing more or less than force of will, he shouts, “No!” He says to his best friend:
Get behind me!
Get out of my way! I know you don’t mean to, I know you don’t want to, but you are tempting me like no one else. Not even Satan could match what you are offering now. I want what you are offering so much, Peter. But get behind me, normalcy. Get behind me safety. Get behind me power and status and dreams of leading an army. Get behind me dreams of holding a scepter and wearing a crown.
I want more than anything to life my life and grow old and maybe get married and have kids.
But I can’t. I mustn’t.
Peter has understood that Jesus is the Messiah. But like you and me a lot of the time, he doesn’t understand at all what that means. He thinks that Jesus is a worldly King, that he is a King in much the same sense as Caesar, except that Jesus is a King on Peter’s side. What you and me and Peter don’t get is that Jesus is a King whose power comes through powerlessness, whose love is shown when he is abandoned, who will show us who God is and what God is like as he goes to the cross.
Jesus pushes through the skandalon. He stumbles for a minute, but then he regains his balance and keeps on walking. And because he must, he continues the journey to Jerusalem.