The Hero Must Die
Gospel: Mathew 16:13-27
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.18And I tell you, you are Peter [Petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27 ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’
The text of Matthew 16:13-27 is the centre point of the gospel. All that has happened so far brings us to Peter's insight. But the Lectionary splits the pericope into two weeks; I don't see how we can preach upon only one half of the pericope, since the beginning depends upon the end. Although it doesn't work to split it into two, it can easily fill two weeks!
The pericope begins with a question about who Jesus is. What is his significance? People have been comparing him to the prophets of old, but Peter's insight says he is much more than a prophet. In his confession and in Jesus' reply, there is a dense whirl of imagery, largely hidden from us as modern readers. It repeats and magnifies the disciples' cry that Jesus is the Son of God who can walk over water; that is, transcend even the depths of chaos. (Matthew 14:22-33, see comments here.) And then this is all turned all on its head, for the Messiah, the Son of the living God, must die at the hands of those who long for him and who have preserved the traditions which look forward to his coming.
Peter is horrified at this non sense statement from Jesus, and no doubt even more stunned to be called Satan and a stumbling block: if any want to be my followers they must understand that "there is [a] binding necessity to Jesus road to the cross," (Mark D. Davis) which they must in some degree imitate. To state that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of the living God, without understanding that the Messiah dies and is raised again, is to miss the point. The one cannot be separated from the other; it depends upon the other. And Peter can never fulfil his calling, and neither can the church, until we see this.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi…
Caesarea Philippi was in Gentile territory and had been given by the Emperor Augustus to Herod the Great. Herod the Great's son, Philip, renamed it in honour of Augustus Caesar and himself. It is here that Jesus asks who people say he is, after the lessons about God's acceptance of all people, Jews and Gentiles, and the lesson about Jesus' power over the elements of water and chaos.
The setting of the conversation has a clear message: The Messiah, the Son of the living God, is held up as the one who is ruler over all, in opposition to Caesar, and his vassal Philip Herod. The status of Jesus is not as some disconnected spiritual king but has real world political implications.
The significance of the geographical setting is not as clear to us as it would have been for Jesus' people. They knew the promises of old from 2 Samuel 7:4-16 and 1 Chronicles 17:3-15. In these texts it is promised that one of David's descendants will be king over Israel ("and therefore as anointed one," note Davies and Alison. (pp265) A messiah was an anointed one.
Matthew 1:1 has already told us about the beginnings "of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham." 2 Sam 7:14 says, "I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me." And 2 Sam 7:16 says, "Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever."
Rome's rule is over, for Jesus' people and, therefore, for us. Peter's protest is completely reasonable; how can his kingdom be made sure for ever if he dies at the hand of his people!?
Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah…
The people seek to understand Jesus by comparison to other great figures, as we do today when we assess the significance of somebody in the public eye. He is like John the Baptist with his insistence on repentance. He is like Elijah with his miracles; indeed, Elijah would come again before the Messiah, according to some. (cf Malachi 4:5) Jeremiah had things in common with Jesus: "Both Jesus and Jeremiah were prophets of judgement and spoke against the temple. Both were thought of as having Mosaic traits. Both were figures of suffering, and both were martyrs." (Davies and Alison p266)
But Jesus is greater than all these were. He is the Messiah and the Son of the living God.
Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah…
I wonder if Peter is also being compared to one particular prophet. Simon son of Jonah (Bar Jona) is called Son of John (in John's Gospel) leaving Davies and Alison to wonder if "Matthew's tradition inadvertently turned 'John' into 'Jonah' (the name of a biblical prophet) or, alternatively, John's tradition inadvertently turned 'Jonah' into the much more popular 'John.'" (pp267) Or did Matthew deliberately say 'Jonah' to remind us of that prophet who ran both hot and cold in his service to God? It would be a fine introduction to this blessed one, the one on whom the church is built, but who immediately becomes a Satan and a stumbling block!
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven…
Davies and Alison say 'flesh and blood' "came to be a technical term in rabbinic texts, meaning 'human agency' in contrast to divine agency. (pp267)
There is nothing inevitable about Peter's insight, just as there is nothing inevitable about our own. I don't think we can reason our way into discipleship. Something is given to us. Something beyond ourselves leads us to a trust from which flows much other insight. We sometimes condemn those who do not believe, as though trust in God was an obvious choice. I do not find it so.
Peter has come to a new imagination of the world. This phrase, which I've taken from James Alison, expresses my own experience of life. Perhaps in fits and starts, sometimes so fully formed that we know and then have to unpack what it is we know, sometimes flickering in and out of focus, and sometimes at the end of hard thinking, we find ourselves in a new place or understanding. Something we could not imagine is now what we see to be the reality of things.
You are Peter and on this rock…
This is a pun: Peter is petros in Greek, and petra is rock. But the pun is much more than merely being clever with words. There is a tradition of heroes of the faith being given a new name; Davies and Alison remind us of Abram and Jacob. Their point is that each of these are renamed by God at the birth of a people. So Abraham (Genesis 17:5) is told
No longer shall your name be Abram, [that is: exalted ancestor] but your name shall be Abraham; [here taken to mean ancestor of a multitude] for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. [The bracketed material comes from the NRSV footnotes)
We see a similar pattern with Jacob/Israel in Genesis 32:12, 29 as Jacob is promised his offspring will be "as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number."
So, with the pun, Peter is renamed by the Son of the living God at the moment the new people of God are coming into being. In the case of Abraham and Peter the "individual has a name which symbolises his critical function." (pp268)
Isaiah 51 adds to the store of imagery which our text evokes.
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
2 Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
but I blessed him and made him many.
The commentary points out that John the Baptist used the same verses in a negative context, in Matthew 3:9.
9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
"Here the new people of God is brought into being, not hewed from the rock Abraham but instead founded on the rock Peter." (pp268)
And on this rock I will build my church…
Of all the controversy over these verses, Davies and Alison say, "The most natural interpretation of the Greek is that of Roman Catholic tradition: the rock is Peter."
'My church,' interpreted in the light of 2 Samuel 7, evokes the idea of a temple, and the conception of the people of God as a temple was well known in both Judaism and early Christianity. This is important because in Jewish tradition the rock at the base of the temple on Zion is at the centre of the world. It links heaven and the underworld, being the gate to the former as well as the portal to Hades, the realm of the dead… Perhaps, then, the informed reader should imagine the church at the centre of the cosmos sitting above the powers of evil. (Davies and Alison pp269)
and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it...
Davies and Alison's commentary points us to Isaiah 28:15-19
Because you have said, ‘We have made a covenant with death,
and with Sheol we have an agreement;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
it will not come to us;
for we have made lies our refuge,
and in falsehood we have taken shelter’;
16 therefore thus says the Lord God,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
‘One who trusts will not panic.’ [An inscription cut on the stone.]
17 And I will make justice the line,
and righteousness the plummet;
hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and waters will overwhelm the shelter.
18 Then your covenant with death will be annulled,
and your agreement with Sheol will not stand;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
you will be beaten down by it.
19 As often as it passes through, it will take you;
for morning by morning it will pass through,
by day and by night;
and it will be sheer terror to understand the message.
They also reference 1QH 6:19-31 (which I take to be one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) "where the speaker has journeyed to the gates of death but finds refuge in a city founded on a rock."
So here in great conflict between good and evil, in the face of the judgement of injustice, the church will be protected. The church is the cornerstone, a sure foundation for the following of God.
The keys of the kingdom of heaven… are a symbol of authority. God places Eliakim son of Hilkiah, in authority as
a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. 22I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open." Isa 22:22.
We see this imagery quoted in in Revelation 3:7. 7
These are the words of the holy one, the true one,
who has the key of David,
who opens and no one will shut,
who shuts and no one opens:
Similar imagery exists in Rev 1:18: "I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades."
In short, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of the living God, has authority over all things, and this authority is dispensed to a new Abraham called Peter, in great measure.
And whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
What do we do with all this? The whole notion of Heaven, and the gates of Hades, and the church having some role in all of this, sounds somewhere between fanciful and ridiculous to our age. There is something else: We no longer believe in Utopias. In recent history, the Nazis and the Communist states have murdered many millions of people. But through history the church has been deeply involved in similar misery. The veneer of domestic civility of the American Empire, which has hidden its almost constant warfare, is fracturing even at home, trumped by the same violence which always brings us down.
The line and plummet (a plumb-line) of our attempts at justice and righteousness always fails: why would we trust this one more claim to heaven, especially since it has observably failed so badly, in its claim to be a rock of safety? My children's generation either laugh at us for our credulity, or despise us for our hypocrisy. Many, more than the nation deserves, still seek to live a kind of heroism which is a despite— despite the fact that there seems little hope of lasting justice or peace, despite apparent decay of our civility, despite the increasing fear, they seek to live well and compassionately.
Can anyone do more than this?
What is different in the imagination of Jesus is that it is based on inclusivity rather than exclusivity. He does not imagine one more Utopia based on withdrawing from, or by excluding, those who are deemed wrong, or evil. Peter says in Acts 10:28b, "God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean." (Although it is clear that much of the church to this day has not understood this.) James Alison says
It is the only occasion which we have on record in which Peter used the power which had been entrusted to him to bind and unbind things in heaven and on earth. He declares as an absolutely binding part of the Christian revelation that no human is to be called impure or profane. (Raising Abel pp 101)
Even more basic than this insight, is the facing down of death. Jesus leads us 'head on' into our greatest fear: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Matthew 16:24) To unpack some of the meaning of this, we could take some words of John Chrysostom:
[H]e who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying... [But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed 'man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,' [Job 2.4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one's country? For these are small things to him 'who counteth not even his life dear,' says blessed Paul [Acts 20.24]. (Quoted here. Obviously the language is highly gendered.)
Everything we do has the taint of death about it: how often are we afraid of doing what we know to be right because of the cost and danger? Death lurks behind that. We build empires, reputations, stand on our pride, all as projects to achieve some lasting significance in this short life which we know will end too soon. How different we would be, and how differently we would imagine things, if death were not always in the background.
Death is not only something we fear; it is a weapon. We use fear, which is ultimately the fear of death, to dominate and control. And mixed in with that, death is what saves us! We use the death of the scapegoat to bleed off or deflect the violence of the mob. Without the scapegoat, our violence would destroy us.
We live within a terrifying and seemingly inescapable contradiction. I say elsewhere
we are stained, shaped, influenced from the very depths of our being by a culture at once terrified of dying, and yet using expulsion and murderous death of the scapegoat to maintain order so that we do not have to face death.
So for those of us who seek to live well, who heroically who seek to eschew the violence of life, who seek to avoid judging and expelling and scapegoating… well, who is there to follow? And how can anyone live well in a culture which is violent to its core? (If you think I am overstating this, consider: the fact that you and I are reading this on a computer means other people die of starvation, or die at the hands of terrorist and empire, for the sake of funding the infrastructure of our privilege. None of us escape the violence.) And how many heroes are silenced: The White Rose, Steve Biko, Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Annalena Tonelli… and the millions who are not even remembered?
Jesus' new imagination, which Peter finds non sense, and which still eludes us for much of our life, is that death does not exist. Death is a biological marker in a life which does not end. Death is something of our imagining, not God's; we imagine a waypoint in life to be its end. (We say in our funeral liturgy that "we are here to affirm the Christian conviction that while death is the end of human life, it marks a new beginning in our relationship with God," and I'm never quite sure about those words "the end.")
To live free of death and all its confusion of us, we need to seek the imagination which sees death is a point on the way which is not the end.
Which means the hero has to die.
James Alison imagined Cain
swing[ing] between playing the rôle of the hero, who has to face up to a senseless life, or that of the victim, against whom all whisper, and who must protect himself against them all…
The only hope for the victim who sees only death, is to fight back in the role of the violent hero, seeking redemption and salvation from violence by yet more violence. We know this does not work. But if we seek to live as hero above the violence— not going the way of Cain— then violence will come upon us, for we will be the weak ones who stand out because we use no violence, and will thus be the natural scapegoats.
I watched a group of school kids tie themselves in knots over this dilemma. Smart, sensitive, not yet hardened into some kind of resilience, still idealistic— it made them physically ill. Life was senseless. I tried to live the life of despite: it was only despite; I could find no sense in it.
If the hero dies because he sees that death does not end life, then perhaps we can stop playing the hero, and in all the non sense, find some sense after all. "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."
You will see very clearly that I am seeking to articulate how this might work in much of the current work on this website. I am seeking the imagination which sees death is a point on the way which is not the end.
What is clear to me is that we do not enter a new imagination— not here, anyway— through, or as, an intellectual exercise. Jesus says to follow him. To live like him. Compassion, generosity, giving, risking, being vulnerable— all these things which expose us to the risk of death, also practise dying. It is only in trusting the way of the cross, only in trusting that death is nothing to God, that I find a new way of seeing rather than non sense.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Matthew 16 - Of Burning Bushes and Messiahs (2008)
Matthew 16:13-20 - The Roller Coaster Ride (2008)
Matthew 16:13-20 -The Keys to Our Authority (2011)
Matthew 16:13-20 - Cry Out at the Gates (2014)
Matthew 16:21-28 - Take up the cross (2008)
Matthew 16:21-28 - Life (2011)
Matthew 16:21-28 - Lose the Empire, Mate! (2014)
Commentary: Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, W. D. Davies and Dale C. Alison (T. and T. Clarke 2004)
You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.