Imagine Peter’s surprise after he declares Jesus to be the Christ, the anointed one. In his stubbornness, Peter believes that his knowledge and understanding gives him permission to correct or give guidance to Jesus. Although Peter was probably not consciously exercising arrogance, he certainly was claiming a level of authority to which he had no right.
The struggle that Peter had in his day is the same struggle that we have today. Because we are familiar with the Scriptures and think we know so much about Jesus, we periodically believe that we have the right to tell God how He must act; or be angry and upset when God does not live up to our expectations. The image of the suffering servant presented in our reading from the Prophet Isaiah for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time shows us the difference between who Peter thought the Christ was and the image of Christ in Isaiah.
The picture painted in the prophet Isaiah of the Anointed One speaks clearly about the response to violence visited upon Him. He gives His back to beating, He allows people to spit on Him. Powerful people and leaders don’t usually act this way. The leader usually exacts retribution and punishes to a greater degree those who strike the leader or question his authority. But the Anointed One, the Christ, doesn’t act that way, which has caused a problem with His followers from the beginning.
Jesus confronted this dilemma directly in His teaching and in the way that He lived. When faced with the more traditional teaching of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” He rejected that wholeheartedly. He instructed His disciples to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, to give our cloak as well as our shirt, to forgive those who have hurt us and to die for our enemies.
History repeats itself, unless we learn the lessons from the past. Our fear of being controlled or taken advantage of continues to fire our hatred for our enemies and our willingness to seek retribution. Even though we say we know God, we are telling God that we know best. Any of us could take the place of Peter in the Gospel. We would be willing to claim that He is the Christ, the Anointed One but we would also be willing to correct Him when He tells us that we must die for our enemies. What must change in us, what conversion of heart and mind must happen with us, before we can actually claim that Jesus is the Christ and actually do what He tells us to do?
Writing these words and trying to live them causes fear and trembling in me. I’m sure that’s why I — and probably you — seldom embrace the fullness of the teachings of Jesus. If we truly were to follow in His footsteps, we would end up on a cross before our resurrection. How is it that we can prepare ourselves to more clearly walk in Jesus’ footsteps?
The excerpt from the letter of James gives us some hints. He clearly directs us to show no partiality in our lives. He encourages us not to be impressed by the wealth of another or the influence of another or the social standing of another. In fact, he reminds us that God often chooses the poor and the lowly to show us what real faith and real discipleship looks like. It might help us to purify our faith walk by rubbing shoulders more consciously with the poor and the lowly. At the least, this might help us to become more comfortable with the poverty we find in ourselves and the lowliness that we know to be ours. We might feel less defensive when that is brought to the surface by another’s strength or attack.
Father Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.