September 13th 2015
Twenty Fourth Sunday of the Year
The New Testament epistle today offers a text that has often been employed by Catholics in debates with Protestants on the issue of justification: "Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (James 2:17). I would like to examine it in a different light, comparing it and James' conclusion which follows from it to the words of our Lord in the gospel. There Jesus asks Peter "Who do you say that I am?" and when Peter responds "You are the Messiah" and begins to remonstrate with Jesus regarding his prediction of his future suffering the Lord says sharply: "Get behind me, satan" (Mark 8:29-33).
Now in the very next verse of the epistle of James following today's passage, we read: "Even the demons believe, and tremble". What is the difference between "the demons" of which James speaks, and Peter who is referred to as "satan" in the gospel?
The demons certainly tremble, just as Peter must have done after Jesus sharply and publicly reproved him, yet their trembling was for a different reason. They understood perfectly who Jesus was and knew that his presence spelled the end of their reign. Though they continue to cause great heartache through history in their last-gasp efforts to derail human beings from salvation, they are aware that with the inauguration of the Kingdom of God their number is up, and unable to repent on account of their pride they have no recourse except to tremble and await their self-wrought judgment.
Peter by contrast trembles like we often do, if inwardly and in hidden moments, afraid because he did not fully understand who Jesus was and did not know what he would ask of Peter and the other disciples. He was fearful still more because Peter was so attracted and drawn to the person of Christ, yet at the same time he wrestled with the tendency to run away from one whose company was so life-giving but so all-consuming.
For their part, the demons fell once and for all on account of their pride and have already spurned any possibility of forgiveness or the acceptance of God's renewing love, since this requires humility. Peter on the other hand fell many times as a disciple of the Lord, including the moment when he denied even knowing Jesus at the moment of his passion when his Lord and friend needed him the most. Peter however was able to get up again after each of his painful falls and outbursts, humbling himself in order to receive anew the forgiveness and offer of friendship with Christ.
Jesus calls Peter "satan" then, not because Peter was evil, but because he was inadvertently tempting Jesus (a "satan" in Hebrew is a sort of tester or tempter) and trying to get the Lord to see things according to Peter's will. This rebuke was truly an act of kindness on Jesus' part, since he did not want Peter to end up like the demons, who have been granted their will-to be separate from God-in eternity.
Blessed are we who have a redeemer who has become one with us and thus understands the movements and fragilities of the human will, and who desires to repair what is wounded and disordered in those wills so that we might humbly receive his salvation. To bring this reflection back to where it started, we have access to this saving grace precisely through faith in Jesus, faith which of course always works itself out in the works of Christian love (see Galatians 5:6).