by Mike Kuhn
In Matthew 16, Peter has just made his confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds with affirmation, the likes of which we scarcely hear from his lips.
“You are Peter (the rock) and on this rock, I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:18-19)
In the next scene of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus predicts his suffering in Jerusalem evoking a rebuke from Peter, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen.” Now Jesus’ response is a 180-degree about-face!
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mt 16:23)
In the previous paragraph, Peter is the rock on whom the church was built. How did he so quickly become “Satan?” Peter was given tremendous authority to bind and loose on earth and in heaven. Now his mind is set on the things of man, not of God. He was given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Now he is holding Jesus back–a hindrance!
Matthew arranges the two events in immediate succession as if to urge us to ask the question “why?” What is it that so subverted Peter’s discipleship that Jesus himself refers to him as Satan?
Perhaps the answer seems obvious. Peter was not prepared for a suffering Messiah. Fair enough, but I’d like to push in on that.
Peter’s rebuke of Jesus was not simply a misplaced desire to avoid suffering. It was much more. It was a product of the cultural narrative that Peter had imbibed since his childhood—synagogue sessions, rabbinical discussions and a general expectation that Messiah would liberate Israel and re-establish the Davidic kingdom. That narrative established the boundaries of plausibility, confining Peter’s expectations to a well-worn cultural script. A suffering Messiah could not be. Peter felt it his duty to admonish Jesus that he was in line for greatness, for notoriety, for victory as he liberated Israel. What we see so clearly in hindsight was unthinkable to Peter—that Jesus’ sacrificial death would establish a universal kingdom into which peoples of all ethnicities would be swept, that his resurrection would ensure victory, not over Roman oppression, but the oppressive domination of sin and death over humanity, indeed all creation.
Simply put, Jesus could see what Peter could not because Peter’s culture (his upbringing, social network and education) had conditioned him to see something else.
What has our culture conditioned us to see?
It’s not only Peter who had to have his cultural blinders removed by Jesus. We do too. Though our cultures offer us much good, they also establish our boundaries of plausibility, limiting the horizon of our expectations. As happened with Peter, it’s nearly impossible to see beyond those. Yet, for all who would follow Jesus, we must.
Jesus’ stern rebuke of Peter means the gloves have come off. Peter must rip off the cultural blinders. He must learn to see things as Jesus does, moving beyond the boundaries his culture has drawn for him. Following Jesus reconfigures Peter’s cultural identity. Yes, he will remain a Hebrew ethnically and linguistically, but a Hebrew of a different sort. His core personhood will shift to an “in-Christ identity.” His expectations will be rooted in a different kingdom. His plausibility boundaries will be completely redrawn. He will eventually learn that Samaritans and Romans are his brothers and sisters, that all foods are clean, that Jesus’ kingdom is universal.
So what are the blinders of my culture?
Speaking from my current vantage point in the US, I am often struck by the fact that Christians of previous generations could not see the manifest evils of slavery, for example, or the displacement of native populations. My surprise turns to shock as I learn that they often found justification for their positions in the pages of Scripture, read through the lenses of their own cultural narrative and its preferences.
There’s little doubt that future generations will look back to my generation, shocked by our unwillingness to face our self-gratifying tendencies. I think of unbridled consumer capitalism that drives our economic engine, our political posturing to evade responsibility for the violence in our streets, our entertainment-oriented worship coupled with our failure to serve the poor of our communities, our political partisanship masquerading as a moralistic gospel. I think of the thousands fleeing violence and oppressive poverty while we insist on our rights. I think of our addiction to social media against our unwillingness to quiet our souls in humble dependence on God. And yet the haunting reality is that I may be no more aware of my cultural blind spots than the next person.
What can be done? How do we begin to set aside our cultural blinders?
Here are two steps that have been helpful to me. There are more, but these two are basic. 1) Listen to the Word and 2) Listen to those around us.
First, listen to the Word. Start with Peter’s story. Is it true that Peter’s culture blinded him to Christ’s call? This story is given to us, not to surprise us by Jesus’ change of tone, but to change our lives as we observe Jesus’ discipleship of Peter. Peter was not altogether different from us. His story is for our benefit. If Peter’s culture obscured his discipleship, we should expect no less from our culture. So opening my heart to the Word of God, inviting the Spirit to teach and change me is the first step.
Secondly, listen to those around us. It is imperative that we listen to disciples who have a different perspective from ourselves. By congregating with our affinity group, we create an echo chamber where we hear exactly what we expect to hear such that our own presuppositions are endlessly affirmed. Seeing issues from the perspective of brothers and sisters from a different culture or social class is vital. It’s the only way I know to get outside my culture and look back on it from the perspective of another. For example, in the US, I think it’s critical for white Christians to listen carefully to African American Christians, native Americans and immigrants. The same is true in the Middle East. Lebanese, Jordanians, Egyptians can learn a lot by thoughtfully listening to believers from outside their borders. Recent displacement due to war and suffering allows us to listen empathetically to brothers and sisters from Syria, Sudan, Palestine, Iraq and many other tribes and languages. We should also listen to those who don’t identify as Christians to understand their perspective and how we are perceived by those outside our affinity group.
Taking off our cultural blinders can be a long and painful process. It requires humility…the prerequisite to all personal change. Peter can be our example. He allowed himself to see the world differently and found himself using those keys to open Jesus’ kingdom to people of all cultures and backgrounds.
Mike is a Christian author and educator who spent most of his adult life in the Middle East and now lives in the U.S. His recent book, In Quest of the Rock: Peter’s Transformative Journey with Jesus, explores many dimensions of Jesus’ discipleship of Peter.