God doesn’t need our advice
There is no servile veneration of Peter in the Gospels. Certainly, he’s first among the apostles. But he also suffers the harshest of the Lord’s rebukes. The rebuke takes place not long after Peter witnesses to the divinity of Christ and Christ responds by identifying him as the first among the apostles: “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mt 16:18)
Immediately after the conferral of this unique sacred office, Peter changes his perspective from giving witness to tendering advice. When Jesus reveals to the apostles his mission to suffer and die in Jerusalem, it was too much for Peter. Peter’s Messiah would be a divine ruler according to his preconceptions, not the suffering servant promised by the prophet Isaiah. So Peter “…took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, ‘God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
The Lord’s response is immediate and stinging: Jesus “…turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.’” (Mt 16:23)
The Lord’s rebuke may be harsh by our standards. We mostly tend to share Peter’s fear of—and contempt for—the necessity of suffering in the struggle against evil in this life. But we would do well to examine other Gospel passages that reflect Peter’s—and our—tendency to give advice to the Lord.
The Devil has high standards and challenges the Lord to live up to them. In the desert before the public ministry of Christ, Satan tempts the Lord: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (Mt 4:3) And, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’“ (Mt 4:6) Finally, “…the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’” (Mt 4:8-9)
At the foot of the Cross, the taunt is similar: “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (Mt 27:40) Jesus just doesn’t measure up to most of our ancient and modern messianic expectations.
In contrast, true prayer approaches the Lord, not with advice, but with honesty and deference to His will. There is no sin in Jeremiah’s lament, a lament every mature priest could occasionally make his own: “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me.” (Jer 20:7-8) There is no sin in complaining to the Lord: “Hear me, my God, as I voice my complaint; protect my life from the threat of the enemy.” (Ps 64:1) Mary at the Annunciation in humility sought a deeper understanding for what she accepted humbly in faith: “How shall this be done, because I know not man?” (Lk 1:34)
The blind beggar surrenders to Christ: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Lk 18:38) The centurion with a sick servant: “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.” (Mt 8:8) The Good Thief on the Cross: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Lk 23:42)
All these biblical characters recognize the Lord’s dominion and by their example give us permission to pray for a variety of purposes and with many emotions. The diversity of these encounters is in stark contrast to Peter’s presumptuous advice to Jesus and Satan’s blasphemous demands.
Attitudes toward priests also need a proper perspective. Priests are not customer-relations clerks (although priests could learn a thing or two from the studied patience of business professionals). The job of a priest is to preach the Gospel of Christ, to administer the sacraments, and to wisely govern his parish according to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Saint Paul captures the essential perspective of the Gospel. “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Rom 12:2)
It’s comfortable—at least for a time—to be conformed to the world. It’s easy for priests, like the false prophets, to keep the customers satisfied by preaching the comforts people want to hear. Jesus Himself experienced this consumer mentality: “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’” (Lk 7:31-32) We are all too eager to expect Jesus to dance to our tune.
But Peter’s lapse of perspective was only temporary because he loved the Lord and repeatedly took His correction. Peter’s final perspective was from his cross in the Circus of Nero and Caligula. Said to have been crucified head down—because he thought himself unworthy to suffer as Christ did—he, at last, took to heart the lesson he heard from the lips of Jesus following that awful rebuke: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt 16: 24-25)
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