There are high points and low points in everyone’s life. We are all aware of this and if we take a look at ourselves we will surely be able to recall extremely difficult times as well as those intense moments of exhilaration. In the case of Peter, we see here in this Gospel extract a high point when he declares his faith in Jesus as the Messiah and then immediately afterwards a very low point when Jesus says to him, ‘Get behind me Satan!’
Peter must have been crestfallen at these harsh words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark, especially as they come so quickly after a moment of exaltation. However, if we look at Matthew’s account of the same event we see that after Peter’s confession of faith he is highly praised by Jesus who says to him, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.’
Mark omits these particular words and instead has Jesus stressing the importance of the Apostles not saying anything about it to anyone because his time has not yet come. However, both Matthew and Mark then move immediately on to the prediction Jesus makes about his passion and death. And both of these Gospel writers tell us how Peter takes Jesus aside to remonstrate with him. There is a similar passage in Luke but it omits Peter objecting to the need for Jesus to suffer.
We note these differences in the Synoptic Gospels; but the fact that there are differences between them does not make us question their authenticity but rather strengthens our belief in the truths of the Gospels.
If we were in a court listening to the accounts of various witnesses to, let us say, a car accident we would observe that they were all slightly different. The different witnesses would see different things; overall their accounts would be broadly the same but the details would be different. It is the same with the Gospels and we realise that the various discrepancies are actually a sign of their authenticity.
In the case of Mark’s Gospel, it is generally believed that Mark listened to Peter’s teaching and from his words compiled his Gospel. As anyone would do, Peter does not want to put himself in a leading role but actually stresses his moments of shame. Peter unflinchingly tells of how on the night of Jesus’ arrest he denied him three times. Likewise, here, after telling the people about his confession of faith, he does not neglect to tell them about his subsequent humiliation. Mark records what Peter has explained and transmits it to us in his Gospel text.
Something common to Matthew, Mark and Luke is that after Peter’s declaration of faith Jesus warns his disciples about his imminent passion and death. It is important that he prepares them for what is to happen. But I think that when Peter expresses his incredulity he is surely speaking for all the disciples. To them Jesus must have appeared to be superhuman; after all, he had extraordinary miraculous powers and he was clearly someone sent by God into a troubled world.
It is obvious that Jesus’ followers had great difficulty coming to terms with this prophecy of his passion. Peter remonstrates with Jesus but the others say nothing. They probably just decide to ignore this prediction by Jesus and hope that this threat of violence will go away. None of them see that it is precisely through his suffering and death that salvation will be won for the whole human race.
We cannot blame the Apostles; probably, if we were in their shoes we would have done just the same. And indeed, despite his several predictions of his passion and death the Apostles were unprepared for it when it did happen. As we know, all of them except John simply ran away.
What these predictions did help with was the Apostles reflection on the events of Christ’s death after the event. They remembered that Jesus had told them several times that he was to suffer and then they understood that this suffering was undertaken on behalf of mankind and that Jesus’ death was actually a victory over death itself. They realised that his death opened up for us all the way to eternal life.
There is also a message for us in Jesus words. He says, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ If we want to call ourselves a true disciple of Jesus then we are invited not only to imitate him in his good deeds but we are expected to follow him in the manner of his passion and death.
We are expected to see the deeper meaning of suffering and to realise that far from being something undesirable it is the very thing that brings healing for the whole human race. We do not seek out unnecessary suffering but we do not cringe from it when it does come along. We embrace the suffering we experience, and we realise that through it we can identify ourselves with Christ’s passion. We realise that the suffering we experience is our small share of what Christ endured and actually becomes our modest contribution to the salvation of the world.
As you know, I recently spent a month in hospital and I was able to observe the other men on my ward coping with pain and injury. It was an orthopaedic ward and so the others there had experienced car accidents or serious falls. One man lost a foot and another had multiple injuries to his legs.
What impressed me was how the suffering of these patients actually brought out a real nobility in them. They did not despair but they coped with the pain and the consequences of their injuries in a very positive way. Also, very evident was a real camaraderie and concern for each other. I found this to be rather impressive.
We should not regard suffering as an unmitigated disaster or as an evil, even if we do realise that it is one of the consequences of sin in the world. We know that Jesus has won the victory, we know that he has won the battle with evil and we look forward to that great Day of Days when the whole universe will be brought under his dominion. In the meantime, we accept our sufferings and see them as salvific. We offer to God the pain we endure; whether it be physical pain or emotional agony. We see in our troubles the hand of God and know that through our experience of these torments the world is gradually being redeemed.