Thought for the day
Jesus had the gift of saying things directly and plainly, with a power to penetrate all our defences and lead us to a new awareness. Today’s message puts before us the paradox of the Gospel: we gain life by letting go of it. If I put my happiness, my being loved, at the centre of my life, then I will surely fail, even though to be loved and to be happy are really important. If on the other hand I put the happiness of others first and love them unconditionally, then I too will know unselfish love and deep happiness. This is the very insight and wisdom that Jesus puts before us as the key not just to love but to life and within that, the key to authentic discipleship precisely as a way of life.
Teach us, Lord, that nothing is more life-giving than to love and be loved in return.
Matt 16:21 From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him: “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you!” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.” 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it. 26 For what does it benefit a person if he gains the whole world but forfeits his life? Or what can a person give in exchange for his life? 27 For the Son of Man will come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.
Our passage is in two parts, vv. 21-23 and vv. 24-27 (really to v. 28). The same sequence can be found in Mark and Luke. There are three predictions of the Passion in Matthew, of which this is the first (16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19). The first prediction is the only one followed by the negative reaction of Peter. From a historical point of view, moderate scholars would say that Jesus could have foreseen the outcome of his ministry, along the lines of what happened to penetrating prophets in the OT. The gospels, of1course, were written a long time after the events and the same moderate scholars would also understand that the “predictions” have been rendered more precise in the light of what actually happened. It might be worth looking at all three:
Passion Prediction 1
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. (Matthew 16:21)
Passion Prediction 2
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” (Matthew 17:22–23)
Passion Prediction 3
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” (Matthew 20:17–19)
It is, of course, surprising that the firm denial by Peter should follow on his firm confession of faith and his commissioning as “the rock”! This is surely historical because Peter was a key figure in the early church and they would never have made up such an awkward story about him. We who are used to the teaching of a crucified Christ should not forget that the expectations surrounding the Messiah included restoration, peace, victory but never really suffering, not to speak of the gross humiliation of the cross. In that sense, Peter’s reaction expresses the reaction of the ordinary hearer and believer at the time. Perhaps even today?
Kind of writing
These are two chreiai, that is, scenes illustrating the “needful.” The first chreia must have included the reaction of Peter. However, the five sayings on suffering which follow come from various sources, but fit well Matthew’s purpose here.
Old Testament background
(i) The OT texts in the background must be the Suffering Servant Songs in Second Isaiah (Is 52-53). For example, Matt 8:17 (This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases”) cites Is 53:4.
(ii) V. 27 is a clear echo of general religious teaching at the time.
And steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. For you repay to all according to their work. (Ps 62:12)
If you say, “Look, we did not know this”— does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay all according to their deeds? (Prov 24:12)
(iii) It is a pity that the excerpt ends at v.27, as the concluding v. 28 is a much more hopeful conclusion (added above).
New Testament foreground
(i) This Gospel teaches clearly that suffering was to be part of Jesus’ ministry. This is clear not only in the Passion Predictions, but also in the teaching of Jesus (20:28—see Is 53:12), in the parables (21:33-42), at the Last Supper (26:26-29) and in Gethsemane (26:36-46).
(ii) The impulsive character of Peter shines through the various stories: his confession followed by his rejection (today’s text), his reaction at the transfiguration (17:1-8), his self-confidence after the supper (26:30-35) and his actual denial during the trial (26:69-75).
(iii) Taking up the cross is also found in Matthew 10:16-19.
(iv) From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. (Matthew 27:45–50)
or the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18–25)
Verse 21 Peter has just made a tremendous confession of faith. The identity and destiny of Jesus continue to be the subject of discussion. Verse 21 is a Passion Prediction. Notice that there is no “in accordance with Scripture” or “for our sins.” Instead, Matthew employ a small Greek word dei meaning “must.” God is always the subject of the divine passive.
Verse 22 Very strong words open a brief conflict story ending in the judgement of v. 23. The primary dictionary meanings are: to express strong disapproval of someone, rebuke, reprove, censure also speak seriously, warn.
Verse 23 Even stronger words. Calling the “rock” Satan is a bit of jolt. A “demonic” mind-set is simply incapable of receiving this further revelation. The necessary help comes later in the story of the Transfiguration (17:1-8). Stumbling block in Greek is skandalon, i.e. a hindrance to Jesus’ calling.
Verse 24 The original is in the singular (“he”) and more direct. The teaching here is for the disciples, not for the crowds in general. The cross was a familiar tragedy. Before Jesus’ time, the Jewish leader, Alexander Jannaeus, crucified eight hundred coreligionists at one time. Shortly after the death of Herod the Great two thousand Jews were crucified. Naturally, “to take up your cross” was not an idiom before the death of Jesus; it makes sense only in the light of Jesus’ death. It is noticeable that to deny and to take up are aorist verbs (once and for all), whereas to follow is a present imperative, indicating an ongoing process of discipleship.
Verse 25 The central paradox expressed in the appropriate chiastic form ABB1A1:
A. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
B. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?
B1. Or what will they give in return for their life?
A1. 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.
Verse 26 Rhetorical questions to which the answer arises in our hearts.
Verse 27 Cf. the so-called parable of the Last Judgment in Mt 25. The sense of assessment fits with v. 25 here.
Pointers for prayer
1. Short-term loss is sometimes necessary for long-term gain as a student studying or an athlete training can testify. When have you found that denying yourself proved to be worthwhile because of what you gained afterwards?
2. Jesus was teaching his followers that the path of discipleship would involve pain and suffering. Peter would have none of it. When have you found that taking up your cross brought you life, even though at the time it may have been difficult?
3. Jesus knew that because his good news message was not acceptable to the authorities he would suffer and die, but God would see that evil would not have the last say. Have you seen a good news message survive even though opponents tried to stifle it?
4. Jesus promised that those who suffer for the kingdom would be rewarded. Perhaps, even in this earthly life, you have experienced reward.
O God, whose word burns like a fire within us, grant us a bold and faithful spirit, that in your strength we may be unafraid to speak your word and follower where you lead.
We make this prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.