This Gospel passage is very often interpreted as a test of the disciples’ faith by Jesus and, at least, a passing grade on the part of the disciples. I think, however, the overwhelming evidence to the contrary invites us to look for a different interpretation of Jesus’ words and Peter’s response.
This event takes place after the feeding of the five thousand which we read a few weeks ago on the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. The Gospel tells us that Jesus was alone with his disciples. He began to question them about how the crowd reacted to the multiplication of the bread and fish, and what had been said about him.
The disciples responded that some people said Jesus was “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen’.” (Luke 9:19) Then Jesus asked what his disciples thought about him, and Peter responded, “The Christ of God.” (Luke 9:20) It is important to keep in mind that this was the same Simon Peter who misunderstood Jesus’ parables (Luke 12:41), complained that he had left his old life behind to follow Jesus (Luke 18:28), and when Jesus was arrested, denied knowing him (Luke 22:57).
If Peter had really recognized that Jesus was the Messiah, it is highly unlikely that he would have spent the rest of Jesus’ ministry failing to understand Jesus’ words, actions and life. It seems much more likely that this statement was another example of Peter’s lack of understanding and lack of faith.
About a week after this event, while seeing Jesus transfigured before him, Peter blurted out, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Luke 9:33) The Gospel says that Peter “did not know what he was saying.” (Luke 9:33) We should probably make the same assumption about Peter’s so-called “confession of faith” in today’s Gospel reading.
If we make this sensible and safe assumption, that Peter had no idea what he was saying when he claimed Jesus was “the Christ of God,” then two questions arise. First, we should ask what this passage is really saying to us. Second, we might also ask why we are inclined to credit faith to Peter when he had none.
How should we understand this conversation that Jesus had with his disciples? It might be helpful to understand this in the same way that we understand Jesus’ parables and miracles. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel Jesus had said, “Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of God has been granted to you; but to the rest, they are made known through parables so that ‘they may look but not see, and hear but not understand.” (Luke 8:10)
Jesus offered insight into his teaching and ministry to those who were willing to trust him; those who were unwilling to believe were prevented from understanding his words and actions. Jesus recognized that some people would believe in him, and others would not. The conversation that takes place in today’s Gospel reading was another attempt by Jesus to help the disciples come to faith. He invited them to believe in a Messiah who would give his life for God’s people, a sacrifice represented by the food he gave to the five thousand.
The disciples’ response (including Peter’s), was another example of their lack of faith. Jesus tried to explain to them that he was not going to meet the popular expectations about the Messiah. “He said, ‘The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised’.” (Luke 9:22) He went on to explain that anyone who aspired to be his disciple must imitate his example. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily.” (Luke 9:23)
It is accurate to interpret this passage as a test of the disciples’ faith, but it was a test that they all failed. The fact that “he rebuked them,” (Luke 9:21), should make us hesitant to give them credit for understanding and believing in him. Peter’s statement was probably nothing more than an insincere attempt to flatter Jesus. Jesus “directed them not to tell this to anyone.” (Luke 9:21) The Gospel is instructing us that Jesus’ actions, just like his words, can reveal the truth to believers, but hide the truth from the faithless.
Why, then, are we so inclined to view this conversation as a ‘confession of faith” on the part of Peter? I think our tendency to do so says more about us than about the Gospel.
The basic requirement of the life of baptism is to confess our faith in Jesus. We do this as part of the ritual of the Eucharist when we recite the Creed. We ought to make a similar confession of faith by the manner in which we live daily. Each of us knows, however, that we do not adequately live up to this requirement of discipleship. Can anyone here today say, with confidence, that they spent all of last week being an exemplary disciple of Jesus? Most of us are satisfied when we can point to a single example from the previous week in which we lived our faith adequately.
Our tendency to credit Peter with actually having faith (when he didn’t), might be an attempt to cover up our own lack of faith. We are tempted, I think, to be overly lenient with Peter because we know we are too often overly lenient with ourselves. Today would be a good day for us to see Jesus looking directly at us, and speaking directly to us, asking, “Who do you say that I am?”
It shouldn’t surprise us that we fail in our faith as often as the disciples failed. They struggled, sometimes unsuccessfully, to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words and actions. We should be prepared for the same struggle. Temporary lapses in faith are an unavoidable consequence of our human nature; they are part of the cross that we bear daily. Those temporary lapses are not destructive of faith, as long as we are willing to pick up the cross of discipleship, and try again.
This conversation between Jesus and his disciples is not an example of their deep faith in him, or Peter’s good grasp of the meaning of Jesus’ ministry. Rather, it is instruction to us that success in the life of discipleship does not consist in a perfect faith, but in a faith that is willing to be called to further growth. Failure in the life of faith does not come from weakness of faith, but from the inability to recognize, and acknowledge, the weakness of our faith.