“Get thee behind me, Satan!” This phrase isn’t meant just for the waiter who is carrying the dessert tray. To tie it to the first reading [24th Sun in OT, Cycle B, 9/15-16/2012]: Somebody out there must have accidentally misread Isaiah’s line, “My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting” to read “[buf-fayz].” People who shield themselves from [buf-fayz] would also be likely to quote Our Lord in the context of the dessert tray. (But it's all about choices!)
There is a fascination today with the demonic. The marketplace of opinions rivals any superstore; so it’s best to go to the Catechism, which I’d liken to the store’s courtesy desk (why wander around the aisles for hours?). Paragraph 391 of the Catechism states that “Satan was at first a good angel, made by God,” but, like the other angels in that league, “they became evil by their own doing.” They chose contrary to the divine will with complete freedom and understanding.
In paragraph 395, we are reminded that Satan is “powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature.” By nature, angels are spiritual beings; they have no body, no outward form, except for their appearances to human beings. Whenever the authors of Scripture have described angels, especially in the apocalyptic literature (e.g. Revelation and portions of the prophets), they seem rather fantastical. Rightly so, for they are radically different from us! What’s important is that Satan and his associates are not on par with God. As crafty as they are, they are no match for God and His Kingdom. Their best and only strategy is to tempt individuals to deviate from the Way of Christ—to disobey the Commandments, to minimize or ignore the Beatitudes, and to doubt the convictions of their own properly formed conscience.
Consider the startling rebuke that Jesus gave to Peter. Jesus revealed the divine plan to the disciples: He told them of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. It said He “began to teach them,” so we may suppose either that the disclosure mentioned in Mark 8:31 wasn’t the very first, or that He had been talking about it for some time. Whether Peter’s rebuke was knee-jerk or the fruit of reflection is not clear. The Greek verbs are in tenses that suggest a gradual, non-specific disclosure. In any case, Jesus was forming their consciences in how His life would end and what it was for; and Peter would have none of it.
Both Jesus’ and Peter’s rebukes were strong. Peter adopted a more discreet manner, perhaps out of consideration for a Guy who was just talking crazy, or perhaps because everyone else was buying it except Peter. Maybe he doubted Jesus’ credibility, or was embarrassed because, as far as he could tell, everyone else believed Him. Maybe that’s why, in 8:38 (not in the reading), Jesus would warn the disciples about being ashamed of Him and His words in time, promising an equal response from the Son of Man in eternity.
When Jesus rebukes Peter, He turns to look at the other disciples. It’s as if Jesus wants them all to hear the content and tone of His words, and probably to make an example of Peter. The moniker “Satan” takes us back to the book of Job, where the character is a regular in the heavenly court and not a denizen of damnation. He acts as an advocate for rebellion, to fabricate for Job a situation that might prompt him to question God’s goodness. God seems to be complicit in the Adversary’s actions. Indeed, the word Satan sometimes was used even of human beings who incite evil. But in a later location, I Chronicles, we begin to find the understanding that God is not responsible for evil, which mindset carries over into the time of Jesus. That is why He definitely considers Peter an “outsider” to the Truth in this scene.
Jesus clearly affirms that the Messiah must conduct Himself on the Father’s terms, and not on Peter’s. Otherwise put, "His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts" (Isa 55:8-9). Once he was informed of the Truth, Peter was out of line to entertain doubts. Unlike Jesus in the desert and in Gethsemane, Peter had not subjected his human hesitation to what he knew to be true. The initial difficulties that human beings have are normal; what we do with them is crucial. Do we keep mulling them over in our heads to the point of mental stupor, or do we reaffirm the faith we have received? If we are not certain of the truth, do we investigate—by asking someone whose opinion we trust or by consulting a reliable text or a website? When we have a genuine difficulty the first line of action is always to pursue the Truth. Once we are convinced of the Truth, the discussion is finished—unless we start it up again.
With the power and wisdom of God, and only so, we can face the confrontations and difficulties of each day. By lovingly and persistently subjecting our minds and wills to the Lord, we gain true understanding and true freedom, and Satan is no match for us.