I can sympathise with Peter. In so many ways he is just like us. If you have grown up in the church, as I have, you will know what I mean when I say that “being on fire for God” is regarded as the optimal state of being for any believer. In other words, the church equates faith with zeal. And who can blame them? That is an age-old belief that is woven tightly into our cultural fabrics: fight for what you believe in. Peter’s heart is in the right place, but his zeal makes him a guided missile just waiting to be pointed at a suitable target.
That is the problem with zeal – it is easy to mistake it for devotion. But devotion builds; zeal ultimately destroys. I think the reason Paul converts on the Damascus road is that he is finally able to uncouple the two – remember that the question that shifts his perspective is the risen Jesus asking him: why do you persecute me? I think that deep down, we see the truth of the matter: that we ought to be suspicious of zeal. We can recognise that zeal is admirable and praiseworthy when it is demonstrated in the name of our own causes, but we decry it as radical and myopic when the missile is aimed at us. We are capable of seeing, as Paul did, that zeal and terrorism are two sides of the same coin.
I don’t think that zeal has a place in the Kingdom. There is a pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry, described in Matthew 16, which is illustrative. Jesus has informed his disciples that he is travelling to Jerusalem and that there the Chief Priests and teachers of the Law will have him killed, but that he will rise again on the third day (Matthew 16: 21). Peter’s response is the response of the zealot:
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22)
Now bear in mind that this revelation by Jesus directly follows the disciples’ affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah. What is happening in this discussion is directly related to Jesus’s adoption of that title, and it is Peter himself who ascribes it to Jesus in verse 16. Now, recognising that Jesus is the Messiah, Peter confronts Jesus on this prophetic foresight of his impending death. It is inconceivable to him that the Messiah should die. In Peter’s mind the Messiah is a Davidic warrior come to liberate the faithful, probably from both the Roman oppressors and the unfaithful Jews, and that is a cause for which Peter is prepared to fight. For Peter, faith and zeal are the same. What follows provides tremendous insight into the theology and the mission of Jesus:
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matthew 16:23)
First note: Jesus does not have an anthropomorphised understanding of the satan. If he did, we would need to conclude that somehow the devil had possessed Peter and motivated him to challenge Jesus (I like that he took Jesus aside instead of questioning him publicly – there is something quite endearing about the bloke). It is far more likely that Jesus was using the word ha-satan in the context it is, in fact, used throughout the Scriptures: as a word meaning adversary or accuser. Peter is satanic only in the sense that by proposing violence as a viable alternative, he is opposing the will of God. Peter wants to fight, yet Jesus has spent the last three years of his ministry arguing that God is essentially non-violent. And Jesus is so moved by this challenge from Peter that he goes out of his way to make sure that this fundamental misunderstanding of who the Messiah is does not spread to the entire group:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Matthew 16:24-26)
The way the Messiah saves, argues Jesus, is by refusing to be complicit in violent relationships. Violence may be the way of the world, Jesus says, but it is not the way of God. You are infinitely diminished by employing violence: that is Jesus’ message here. That is what he means by “forfeiting your soul”. Justice achieved through violence is equated with selling your soul. The way of God, Jesus reiterates to the disciples, rejects violence. He later repeats this message to Pilate when he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, and that if it took on the pattern of this world, his servants would fight (John 18:36).
I use this example because it is one of the few times when we get a glimpse into how Jesus understood what it was to be tempted. I can think of no instance in any of the gospels where there is even a suggestion that Jesus resisted temptation by refusing to transgress a holiness code. On the contrary, Jesus is criticised by the religious leaders for being too liberal in his association with “sinners”, or for healing on the Sabbath. The only hints we get in the gospels about the nature of temptation come from Jesus’s temptation in the desert, from the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus yields to the will of the Father, and here. In each instance, temptation is directly linked to participation in the world’s ways of relating, ie violence. Temptation in the gospels is never a concept linked to holiness codes. Let that sink in.
That is why I would encourage you to rethink what Jesus was teaching when he taught his disciples to pray “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. In the light of what Jesus has been doing with the Lord’s Prayer up to that point – ie. unpacking what it means to live in the Kingdom of God – it is only logical that this line cannot mean “don’t let the devil entice me into doing naughty things”, which is – I think – how it is generally understood. It is clear – to me, anyway – that the notion of evil, for Jesus, is synonymous with complicity in violent relationships, whether physical violence, emotional violence or social and systemic violence. These are the things he rails against, as I have hopefully shown in the above example.
Similarly, then, our understanding of temptation needs to be refined. If temptation is what leads to evil, and evil is synonymous with violence, then temptation is being put in a position where the use of violence becomes appealing. And that is precisely what happens when Peter confronts Jesus about going to his death in Jerusalem. You are the Messiah, Peter is suggesting. That makes you God’s chosen warrior. We will fight with you. You cannot die. That is not how this story ends. And I am sure Jesus was tempted to give in to the satanic principle that Peter was offering him, and spare his own life. I am sure he was tempted in Gethsemane to resist those who came to arrest him. Instead, he rebuked Peter’s violent zeal (again) and healed the soldier that Peter wounded (John 18:10-11). I am sure he was tempted years before, in the desert, when he wrestled with what it meant to have power, to bend the world to his will through force and let the end justify the means (Luke 4:5-7). But he didn’t.
And that is very fortunate for us. We can be grateful that although Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, yet he was without sin, as the writer to the Hebrews notes (Hebrews 4:15). Because I think if Jesus had picked up the sword and resisted through violence, the world could not be saved. He would have legitimated every atrocity in history. Jesus, the logos, the structuring principle of all reality, would have become complicit in a violent relationship. He would have made God a monster and shaped the world in that image.
Jesus did not come to save us from the violence of God. God is not violent. Jesus came to save the world from the destructive path it was on. The message of Jesus is consistent throughout his ministry: the world cannot be saved through violence. It can only be saved through self-giving love. Jesus, the logos, the structuring principle of all reality, by enduring the cross and absorbing our violence without retaliation, ensured that the arc of the universe is bent towards peace and love. All that is left for us to do is to pick up our crosses and follow him.