Preparing the Apostles for what was to come, Jesus reveals both His divinity and His approaching Passion to them. For his reactions, Peter receives first the praise and then the admonishment of the Lord, and the episode ends with Jesus inviting us to follow Him: “take up your cross.”
Gospel – Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
27 Jesus and His disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way He asked His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” 29 And He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to Him in reply, “You are the Christ.” 30 Then He warned them not to tell anyone about Him. 31 He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. 32 He spoke this openly. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. 33 At this He turned around and, looking at His disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind Me, satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” 34 He summoned the crowd with His disciples and said to them, “Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. 35 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and that of the Gospel will save it” (Mk 8:27-35).
I – The Way Chosen by God for Redemption
The pride of his fallen nature often leads man to imagine himself God, or to seek to equal Him.
Perhaps for this reason, but especially due to the limitations of our state of contingency, if we had to imagine a Saviour, He would necessarily be glorious, and His mission would be the unfolding of one victory after another, crowned by a splendorous final triumph. This is how the sons of Zebedee and their mother conceived Him: “And He said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to Him, ‘Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left, in Your Kingdom’” (Mt 20:21); “Grant us to sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left, in Your glory” (Mk 10:37).
This mentality accompanied the Chosen People—including the Apostles—until the descent of the Holy Spirit, as St. Luke declares in the Acts of the Apostles: “So when they had come together, they asked Him, ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’” (1:6). Jesus had already declared that He would return to the Father, that His Kingdom was not of this world. However, none of this had been sufficient; at no moment did the desire for power lose its grip on them. These were the ingrained ideas that clouded the faith of the Chosen People, hindering their adherence to the dogmas of the Incarnation, Passion, and Death of the Lamb of God.
In fact, the great mystery of a God-Man suffering and dying, nailed to a Cross between two thieves, abandoned by His people, despised by all and especially by the high authorities, is only admissible with a vigorous faith. Nevertheless, this was the way chosen by God for the Redemption.
Glory was not absent from the Lord’s Passion. Much to the contrary, it is impossible to imagine its glory being greater or surpassable in the slightest degree. However, it cannot be seen from a merely temporal standpoint. This glory is only comprehensible from the perspective of eternity. In fact, though we are born within the framework of this world’s calendar, our post mortem destiny is not limited by time, and it is around this destiny that our life should revolve.
This is the backdrop for the unfolding of the Liturgy of the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
The synthesis of the present Gospel concentrates on two harmonious extremes. On the one hand, the Apostles receive the revelation of Christ’s divinity and, on the other, that of the Lord’s Passion. Alongside this tremendously paradoxical context, there is Peter’s reaction and, finally, Jesus’ declaration of the condition for following Him: “take up your cross.”
II – “You are the Christ”
The events take place on the way to Caesarea Philippi. This city was previously called Paneas, since its inhabitants had long paid homage to the god Pan in a natural grotto existing there. Philip, son of Herod—the Great—, spared no effort in its rebuilding, expansion and embellishment. And to curry the favour of the emperor Tiberius Caesar, he changed its name to Caesarea Philippi.
As St. Augustine opines,1 drawing from this narration of Mark and that of Luke, Jesus questioned them after having prayed alone in recollection (cf. Lk 9:18). What stands out in this episode is the Divine Master’s desire to lay the foundations of His Church. He had already carried out extensive public action, and now it was necessary to consolidate those who would continue His salvific work.
To the world, Jesus was a great hero
27 Jesus and His disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way He asked His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.”
In this dialogue, we once again perceive the great inconsistency of the human spirit. In that historic setting, it was commonplace for men to worship the Roman Emperor as god. Hence, in this same city, which had been gifted to Philip’s father, right beside the “shrine” dedicated to the god Pan, an imposing marble temple had been built to pay homage to the emperor. One could object that this project did not originate, nor was it accomplished within the bosom of Judaism; but how many gods had the Chosen People not created in their past? Even the ephod made and used by Gideon became an object of the cult of latria and, for that reason, cause for chastisement (cf. Jgs 8:24-27). In other words, the Jews easily fell into idolatrous mimicry of the pagan peoples. And yet when the true God made Man appeared, performing a series of untold miracles proving His omnipotence, there arose no unanimous opinion that He was the Messiah longed for by patriarchs and prophets, and foretold in the Scriptures. A few did in fact acknowledge Him, but the majority preferred to accept all kinds of chimeras and exaggerations, rather than adhere to a Messiah whose image did not conform to their personal erroneous and capricious dictates.
Jesus puts this question to them in the last year of His public life. The demonstration of who He was had already been made sufficiently conclusive by means of concrete facts. Even the demons had proclaimed Him the “Holy One of God” (Mk 1:24), the “Son of God” (Mk 3:11), the “Son of the Most High God” (Lk 8:28). The Baptist had declared himself unworthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals, such was his own inferiority (cf. Mk 1:7). Nevertheless, the lips of the people did not pronounce the title of Messiah.
This is the result of the human spirit’s sad inclination to error when it loses its innocence. Then, without resistance, it treads the path opposed to the truths regarding salvation. It is not easy for public opinion to acknowledge real values as authentic and worthy of credence, especially when such values denounce tendencies that are opposed to morality and backed by false rationalizations.
Notwithstanding, the hypotheses enumerated by the Apostles indicate that Jesus had been categorized among the great heroes of Jewish history, and even considered a precursor of the Messiah.
29 And He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to Him in reply, “You are the Christ.”
Why did Jesus ask this question?
It was certainly not out of mere curiosity; as the Eternal Word, He knew everything ab initio. It would be highly advantageous to render explicit, in the eyes of His Apostles, the absurdity of the generally held concepts of Him, as St. John Chrysostom2 highlights, for it would oblige them to extricate themselves from the world and soar to the loftiest realms of thought: the supernatural vision of things. This was all the truer, considering that there remained only a few months in which to form them before His ascending to the Father, and it was of fundamental importance to make it clear to them exactly who it was who had transformed them into fishers of men. Thus, He asks the Apostles: “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter responds for himself, and not on behalf of the others, as some authors affirm. This detail will become evident through the other Gospels. Mark omits some important details, such as the Divine Master’s praise of Peter’s declaration before establishing him as the foundation stone of His Church (cf. Mt 16:17-19).
Cardinal Gomá y Tomás makes an accurate commentary on this passage: “Peter responds before the others, perhaps because he had found them to be vacillating in their opinion of Jesus. The grace of God enlightens his understanding, and his impetuous nature, aided by this same grace, made him the first to confess his faith. On another occasion, he had also been the only one to raise his voice to speak of Jesus: ‘Simon Peter answered Him…’ (cf. Jn 6:67-69).
“The definition that Peter gives to Jesus is complete, precise, and emphatic: You are the Christ, the Messiah in person, promised to the Jews and ardently longed for by them. You are the Son of God, and not as the saints are designated—in the sense of a moral relationship of sanctity, or an adoptive filiation—, but rather the Son of God by divine nature, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. If the Apostle had not understood it in this way, he would not have needed a special revelation from God. What the Apostles had insinuated vaguely, on other occasions (cf. Mt 14:33; Jn 1:49), is affirmed by Peter in a clear and categorical manner. The Father of Jesus is the living God: living, because He is essential life, which essentially begets from all eternity a living Son. Living, as opposed to the dead divinities of paganism.”3
Jesus prohibits them from divulging that He was the Messiah
30 Then He warned them not to tell anyone about Him.
Following this magnificent proclamation of faith made by Peter, the first three Gospels record Jesus’ formal and categorical prohibition that the Apostles tell anyone. This order to keep silence had not been the first. He had also regularly imposed it upon sick or possessed persons whom He had cured.
On the one hand, until then, the moment had not come to divulge revelations that the public was not yet prepared to understand. The errors regarding the figure of the Messiah were substantial and excessively naturalistic. For much less, the people had already wanted to proclaim Him king (cf. Jn 6:15), with all the grave and unpropitious political consequences that this would imply. Had they done so, would He not have been arrested and put to death by the Romans? Furthermore, the Pharisees and Sanhedrin could well have taken advantage of such a circumstance to precipitate the carrying out of their deicidal plan.
The Apostles themselves were only prepared to preach with real efficacy on Christ, true God and true Man, after the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them. Before this, the Apostles shared the errors concerning messianism, assumed by all the Chosen People, and it is therefore very likely that they presented a defective image of the Redeemer in their apostolate. Thus, the mystery of the Incarnation being so unsurpassable and sublime by its very substance, only He who is the Word of God could worthily preach it. In accord with eternal decree, the divinity of Jesus must be sealed by the most precious Blood of the Son of God.
If, on the other hand, this revelation had been made public, the faith of the people, most likely weak, would not have withstood the harrowing trial of the Passion, as in the Apostles’ case. To preach on the divinity of a Man soon to be crucified between two thieves did not appear to be an easy task.
III – Jesus Prepares the Apostles for the Passion
31 He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.
Objectively speaking, it was not the first time Jesus had mentioned His future Passion. He had already referred to it implicitly (cf. Mt 9:15; 12:40; Jn 2:19-21; 3:14), but not with the present clarity. Especially in view of the fact that all of them were strongly influenced by the idea of a triumphant and political Messiah, it was indispensable that He be entirely forthright. Now, the moment could not be better for this, since the heart of each one was pervaded with the thought of the Master’s divinity. Nevertheless, this revelation must have been surprising and, for this reason, represented an excellent occasion to introduce the prospect of His Death to them. Our Lord’s divinity would remain as a powerful recollection in the depth of their souls, despite it being not just invisible, but actually destroyed, to all appearances. The fact that His Death had been predicted in such detail, particularly as related in the present verse, would aid them in the virtue of faith and do away with any vestige of scandal. It becomes clear why St. Paul always taught that without the Resurrection, our faith would be in vain (cf. 1 Cor 15:14).
The first to meditate on the Passion
This was also a great privilege for the Apostles. Only they and the Blessed Virgin were able to meditate on the ignominies and torments that the Saviour would undergo, even before these came to pass. They were the first invited to profit from the grandeurs of the divine mercy of a God who takes on flesh and dies for love of each one of us. What consolation, grace, and strength was made available to them with this revelation!
Alliance between justice and mercy
Jesus affirms the need for His Death, which will be unjustly imposed by the Sanhedrin. By unimaginable design, the Father had established, from all eternity, the alliance between the most severe justice and the most affectionate mercy. He did not hesitate to give us His own Son to save us; nevertheless, in consideration of the rights of His justice, He exacted the worst of deaths of this well-beloved Son.
Our Lord suffers as the Son of Man, and being the Son of God saves us by the offering of His torments. His humanity is hypostatically united to the divine nature, and His Passion, therefore, has infinite merit. By virtue of these two natures, united in one Divine Person, Jesus makes reparation for the disobedience of our first parents, as well as for the sins of all of humanity. Being the head and firstborn of men, He establishes a new generation of redeemed and renewed people, by the power of His most precious Blood. This is the most refined essence of the proposal He makes to the Apostles, in revealing His Death to them, as St. Paul would later say: “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second Man is from Heaven” (1 Cor 15:47). It was vital that they renounce the old Adam, originated from clay, so as to give themselves entirely to the New Adam, descended from Heaven.
Love is not satisfied with a little. Now, Our Lord’s love is infinite, and desired His full surrender to those sufferings, the rejection from the highest ecclesiastical authorities, death, and burial. What greater proofs of love for God and for fallen humanity could be given?
Finally, there is a revelation that eliminates any possibility of scandal coming from the Crucifixion: He would “rise after three days.” This is the pledge of our resurrection. Death is the uppermost limit of the world’s power, and its inexorable end. But Jesus’ power is eternal and, after we have suffered and died for Him, we will resurrect to reign with Him eternally.
Peter reprimands Jesus…
32 He spoke this openly. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.
There is a wide gamut of interpretations regarding this episode, from those of Calvinist authors of bad spirit, as Maldonado refers to them,4 to those of the Saints and Doctors. To clearly understand it, we must take into account the Apostle’s lack of comprehension of Our Lord’s Passion. In fact, it was not easy for Peter, right after having proclaimed the divine sonship of the Master to have to admit the need for His condemnation and Death, even though He had spoken of a Resurrection. In this scene, while it was not Peter who spoke, but Simon, the son of Jonas, one cannot deny that he did so with a great manifestation of affection. The good authors highlight the loving character of Peter’s gesture. St. Jerome,5 for example, points to this circumstance, showing that Peter may have erred in meaning, but not in affection. Bede explains it along the same lines: “This, however, he says with the feelings of a man who loves and has good desires; as if to say: This cannot be so, nor can my ears hear that the Son of God is to be slain.”6
Jesus rebukes Peter
33 At this He turned around and, looking at His disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind Me, satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Even the drama employed by the Divine Master in this reprimand is didactic, for in this way He better conformed the Apostles’ mentality to a redemptive messianism by means of suffering. This is the opinion of St. John Chrysostom: “But how is it that Peter, favoured with a revelation, and having been declared blessed, has so soon fallen, and is horrified by the Passion? So that we may perceive how, in his confession of the Lord, Peter had not spoken on his own, and in that which had not been revealed to him, he suffers darkness and perplexity, and had he heard the same thing a thousand times, he would still not understand it. That Jesus was the Son of the living God, this he knew, but the mystery of His Cross and Resurrection had not yet been revealed to him. […] The Lord, therefore, to show that in no way was He going to His Passion against His own will, not only rebuked Peter; but also called him satan.”7
And why does Jesus call Peter satan? Fr. Manuel de Tuya gives this response: “Obviously, it was not that Peter was satan, or that he was under the influence of satan (cf. Jn 13:2), but rather that his affirmation was worthy of satan’s mission, which consists in destroying the authentic messianic work, as he had already attempted to do with the ‘temptations’ in the desert. Thus, Peter’s suggestion to Jesus, overflowing with affection, is a ‘scandal’ for Him: a stumbling block and an obstacle, for following it would amount to boycotting the Father’s messianic work, the spiritual messianism of death on the Cross. Thus, Peter did not see ‘the things of God, but those of men.’”8
IV – The Conditions for Following Christ
34 He summoned the crowd with His disciples and said to them, “Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. 35 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and that of the Gospel will save it.”
Such a categorical affirmation demands our special analysis and appreciation, especially considering that it is repeated in the other Gospels (cf. Mt 10:38-39; Lk 17:33; Jn 12:25). Here we find the conditions for being true disciples of Christ.
“Whoever wishes to come after Me”: This depends on our free will. To wait for a grace that will bring us to the plenitude of our salvation without the least participation of our will, would be to confuse Redemption with creation, or eternal with natural life. Evidently, this invitation requires our affirmative response. And it is indispensable that it also be a fervent, pertinacious, and continuous one. In other words, we cannot forget this resolution for one instant.
“Must deny himself”: The origin of every sin lies in disordered love of self, to the detriment of true charity. And the best remedy for such a terrible infirmity is this renunciation, so that we may find ourselves in God. Its first degree consists in horror for mortal sin, preferring to die than to consent to this turning away from God. The second degree is concerned with conscious and deliberate venial sin. The third focuses on the self-love and imperfections that introduce themselves so surreptitiously into the very practice of virtue. Progress in this last degree increasingly augments our interior freedom and affords us peace and consolations. Whoever lives in a manner opposed to these three degrees has either failed to understand the grandeur of this invitation, or has consciously turned it down.
“Take up his cross”: There are all types of crosses! The extraordinary ones present themselves to us in times of religious persecution. They entail ordeals and death itself. We should face them, just as Jesus and all the martyrs did, never denying our Faith.
Others, though, are common to every epoch. The greater part of them are not sought by us, but are unwelcome, such as illnesses, the debilities of old age, the severity of the climate, etc. Others arise by chance: financial setbacks, disgrace, misfortune, poverty, the incomprehension and gratuitous hatred of others, spite, and injustices. At times, they are the effects of our own character, temperament, and personal inclinations, etc.
The crosses that arise over the course of our life are countless! We cannot avoid them; on the contrary, we have the obligation to carry them. And experience shows us how they weigh all the heavier on our shoulders when we carry them amidst grumbling and complaint, and worse still, if we revolt against them. In this case, we also diminish or even lose the corresponding merits.
Finally, there are the crosses which we have chosen, exercising our liberty. To embrace the way of matrimony or that of a religious community, or even of a single lay person leading a Christian life in the world, requires that we comprehend and desire all of the sufferings inherent to that particular situation. The perfect fulfilment of all the demands of one’s state of life, the subordination of the passions, the restraint of self-will, and the privation of certain comforts; such things constitute a plentiful field of crosses inherent to the path we have adopted through personal deliberation. There is, moreover, the aridity, tedium, and dissatisfaction which assail us from time to time along the way, with no possibility of turning back. However, if our decision was conscious and, above all, if it originated in a prompting of the Holy Spirit, we must never regret it. Much to the contrary, we must walk resolutely toward the final goal of our salvation, full of courage and even enthusiasm.
“And follow Me”: If we were to expend our best efforts, making the greatest sacrifices to carry our cross, but following a path different from that traced out by Jesus, it would not suffice! We must embrace our own cross, through Him, with Him and in Him. In the contemplation of the sufferings of Christ’s Passion, we will find the strength to bear our cross.
Regarding the losing or saving of one’s life, Fr. Andrés Fernández Truyols comments: “What the Master wishes to engrave in the heart of His listeners is that we must be ready to endure all, even death itself, if it be for the salvation of our soul. For it profits a man nothing to gain the whole world if, in the end, he loses his soul—that is, if he does not attain eternal salvation.”9 ◊
1 Cf. ST. AUGUSTINE. De consensu evangelistarum, lib.II, c.53, n.108. In: Obras, vol. XXIX. Madrid: BAC, 1992, p.429.
2 Cf. ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM. Homilia LXIV, n.1. In: Obras, vol. II: Homilías sobre el Evangelio de San Mateo (46-90). (Ed.2). Madrid: BAC, 2007, p.137.
3 GOMÁ Y TOMÁS, Isidro. El Evangelio explicado, vol. III: Año tercero de la vida pública de Jesús. Barcelona: Rafael Casulleras, 1930, p.44.
4 Cf. MALDONADO, SJ, Juan de. Comentarios a los Cuatro Evangelios, vol. I: Evangelio de San Mateo. Madrid: BAC, 1950, p.599-600.
5 Cf. ST. JEROME. Commentarius in Evangelium Matthæi, lib.III (16,13-22,40), c.16, n.41. In: Obras Completas, vol. II: Comentario a Mateo y otros escritos. Madrid: BAC, 2002, p.225.
6 ST. BEDE. In Marci Evangelium Expositio, lib.II, c.8: ML 92, 213-214.
7 ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, op. cit., n.3, p.146.
8 TUYA, OP, Manuel de. Biblia Comentada, vol. V: Evangelios. Madrid: BAC, 1964, p.385.
9 FERNÁNDEZ TRUYOLS, SJ, Andrés. Vida de Nuestro Señor Jesucristo. (Ed.2). Madrid: BAC, 1954, p.369.