In this series we are examining various points in the life of Saint Peter. This is a small advance of my long promised book They Asked for a Sign – Meaning and Destiny of Peter the Fisherman still in the making. The last three posts are part of the series. In this fourth post we find Jesus and Peter again by the seashore. One more time we revisit Matthew chapter 16. I must ask you to forgive me for coming back to the same part of the Gospel so many times. It seems to me that Matthew 16 is a place in Scripture with many layers of meaning that one has to contemplate, orbiting around it until one can take in the whole landscape. I am afraid it may be necessary to return many times, an infinite number of times may be, until the work of the Holy Spirit in that passage can be fully appreciated.
We have seen briefly how Peter met Jesus, how Jesus manifested his power in the first great catch of fish, and how the Master challenged Peter to make him grow in faith, preparing the Fisherman for a future mission. Often these lessons took place by the seashore, this is not different.
The Demand for a Sign
The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ Then he left them and went away. (Matthew 16:1-4)
The religious adversaries of Jesus ask him for a sign. To us it seems almost asinine to ask for one more sign after all the miraculous events connected to Jesus’ public ministry. What else do they want? I imagine they wanted to see proof that Jesus was the Messiah they were expecting. That is: a military commander who could liberate Israel from Roman domination. But Jesus manifested his power in an unexpected way: healing the sick, resurrecting the dead, feeding the hungry and teaching in such a marvelous way and with such authority that no one could dispute his wisdom was divinely inspired.
Jesus responds to them in riddles: they can look at the sky and predict the weather, can’t they see the signs he is producing? The Teacher is telling them that his ministry is nothing but a small sample of something much bigger that is still to come. Like a red sky that announces a storm approaching from the desert, Jesus’ ministry has the tone, the color of God’s love that is about to effect a change in the world when it arrives.
The Teacher also explains to them that there is something that is impeding them to see the meaning of the signs they are observing: the evil disposition of their unfaithful hearts. It is important to remember this. Make a mental note because that is the central element of what Jesus is about to explain to his disciples as they leave the shore to cross to the other side of the lake.
Yeast and Bread
When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ They said to one another, ‘It is because we have brought no bread.’ And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!’ Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:5-12)
Human providence fails often but not Divine Providence. The disciples forget to bring bread to sustain them through the long hours that it will take to cross the lake. Jesus brings the subject of yeast: “beware of the yeast of my adversaries” that is the yeast of those unfaithful men: their arrogant lack of faith. Of course, the disciples are on a different plane, and they misunderstand the parable. Jesus talks to them adroitly to elevate their attention from the material to the spiritual level.
He reminds the disciples of their little faith. Jesus runs a tight ship: He finds little faith in those poor men who have left everything to follow him! But his is only a loving barb. Those men have to grow to be leaders of the Church, the new Israel. They can’t remain at the same elementary level forever. Let us recall the wise words of British apologist C. S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory:
“I think [God …] wants us to grow up […] You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel which hurt us so much are what make us perfect.”
Jesus appears frustrated by the obtuseness of his disciples. Didn’t he tell them that he is the Bread from Heaven? Didn’t he feed multitudes with bread in the middle of nowhere leaving many baskets of leftovers? The problem is not material! It is something else. The material level is behind them. That was yesterday’s lesson! They will never lack anything while they are with Jesus: bread, fish, gold coins to pay taxes … Please, disciples! Wake up!
Finally they understand it was the teaching of Jesus’ adversaries that they have to avoid. It is an empty teaching, adversarial, mistrusting, accusatory, legalistic, evil! That is a teaching that betrays their lack of faith in God, the faith that Jesus is presenting to them little by little: God wants to be a friend of men, God loves men more than men love themselves and each other. The complete trust in Jesus, a trust barely developed in the disciples is what the adversaries lack completely. The Pharisees lack of faith is like leaven invading and fermenting a loaf of bread, making it puffy and soft. That kind of bread can only be baked in the oven. The humble flat unfermented cakes can be carried and cooked over hot stones anywhere, hot delicious bread for those who labor far away from home. If you have seen a fleeting image of the Eucharist there … you are not too far from the meaning of this lesson. But Jesus also talked about the “sign of Jonah” — that is the prophet that was sent to Nineveh, the one that spent three days and three nights in the belly of the big fish. How do we connect the bread with Jonah? Make a second mental note because Jesus will bring that again into the lesson.
Who do they say I am? I am Who I am
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16:13-20)
Notice the disciples land in Caesarea Philippi: the area of residence for the gentiles, mainly Romans and some Greeks. There Jesus asks the disciples who do people say he is. Apparently the adversaries of Jesus were the only ones suspecting that the Master could one day declare himself to be the Messiah. Most of the commoners had Jesus for a great prophet but nothing else. He did not cut the figure of a great military commander but of a gentle Rabbi full of wisdom and compassion.
Then Jesus asks: “Who do YOU say I am?” Impulsive Simon Bar Yohanan jumps forward as usual and declares what he has in his heart: “You are the Christ! the Son of God!” and Jesus confirms the divine origin of that exclamation but as he blesses Simon he changes his father’s name from Bar Yohanan to Bar Jonah. First of all, Jonah is the name of the prophet already mentioned in ‘the sign of Jonah.’ The name means ‘dove’ in Hebrew. In it we find a connection to the Holy Spirit and to the ancient prophet of Nineveh as well. [NOTE: If you have a chance, please read this excellent article by Irish theologian Emmett O’Reagan: The Sign of Jonah and the Binding of Satan.]
That thought was placed in Simon’s heart by God. That is also a manifest sign from God the Father to the God the Son via the God the Holy Spirit that Peter is ready for his mission. The Holy Trinity appears here just as it did when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. That is one of many parallelisms between Jesus and Peter that will appear from this moment until Peter is gloriously martyred on a cross as alter Christus.
Before we go into the anointing of Peter, let us look into why Jesus changes Simon’s surname. Fathers in the ancient world passed on to their children not only their names but their profession and skills. For example, Saint Joseph passed his carpentry skills to young Jesus. By changing Simon’s surname to Bar Jonah, Jesus seems to point at the prophet that prefigured his own Resurrection. Simon, who is about to be turned into the first leader of the Church militant, is also made a son of the Resurrection. Why? Because the Church itself will be made possible by Christ triumph over death in Calvary.
After changing Simon’s surname, Jesus then renames him Kepha, Peter. The Rock is another parallelism with Christ. Our Lord is building a strong parable here. From “who do you say I am” he goes into “you will be a Rock like Me!” Jesus, the Rock that the builders rejected is going to copy his mission on to Peter. He will be a sign of contradiction to the world just like Jesus was. The power conquered in Christ’s Resurrection, the keys of Death and Hades will be given to Peter. The Church Militant on Earth will cast the nets fishing for men of good will. Death will not prevail over them: they will ascend to Heaven to complete the number of the Church Triumphant until Christ returns. The Resurrection is the nexus between Peter and his successors on Earth and Christ in Heaven. What Jonah was to Nineveh, Peter will be to the world at large and specially to Rome, the city at the center of the world that he has to conquer for Christ.
See, the adversaries of Jesus expected to defeat Rome militarily. The Messiah had other plans: his victory over the powerful Roman Empire will be as spectacular as it will be subtle. All of that is concealed in Peter’s Aramaic name: Kepha.
What’s in a name
Remember this whole scene is taking place in pagan territory. Why? Because the Romans had taken Zion, the citadel of David and installed their governor there. They had also modified the role and attributions of the High Priest. To avoid a political conflict with the Roman Emperor they made the High Priesthood alternative among the males of the ruling family of Levites. The false High Priest that year was a man called Kaiaphas (Aram. for dell, depression, little valley. Possibly indicating humility or some identifying physical trait.)
Only the Roman Emperor could be Pontifex Maximus for life. Remember also that Roman soldiers mockingly crowned Jesus with thorns and dress him with a purple cloth, as if he was a Roman Emperor being crowned with the ceremonial olive wreath and the Purpura Imperialis, the red cape symbolizing the power of Rome. Well, Jesus had a surprise for those jokers and their emperors.
First, Christ takes his disciples to a specific place in Caesarea Philippi just a stone throw from a cave that was turned into a temple of Pan, one of the pagan gods of Hell (Hades) and also the ruler of the basest human passions. Pan was depicted as half goat and half man. The cave in question had iron gates guarding the offerings left there by the pagan worshipers. Christ comes to conquer Hades and also man’s animal concupiscence.
Notice the contrast between the Aramaic names Kaiaphas and Kepha. They sound very similar but they point in opposite directions. Kaiaphas points down (a dell) and Kepha points up (a rocky promontory) while one is a false High Priest of Israel, the other is going to be the High Priest of the New Israel, the Church. The old religious order is waning but the star of Peter and the Church is rising. The Church is the universal destiny of Israel.
A Roman destiny for Peter
In time, Peter Kepha will be the Bishop of Rome and will be crucified in the Mons Vaticanus, Vatican Hill. His successors will wear the purple, not the Imperial Purple but the purple cape symbolizing the blood of Christian martyrs. Only three centuries later the Roman Emperors will be Christians, and the city of Caesar will become the center of Christendom. Even Latin, the language of Rome will be conquered and remain the language of the Roman Catholic Church.
The ‘gates of Hades’ that guarded the temple of Pan will one day fall after Christ’s victory in Calvary. Paganism will be defeated among the Romans and other peoples of the world. We have traced the path of Peter from that encounter by the seashore all the way to his anointing on the other shore. Meditate in the magnificent parable that Christ has built around the humble Fisherman. We have seen only the beginning so far. The training of that ‘man of little faith’ will fill history because his life, when observed carefully, contains prophetic models that shed light on the destiny of his successors until the end of the age.
“Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.”
— St. Catherine of Siena
Continued in The Fisherman’s Destiny.
The Cycle of Peter
- Made Anew
- The First Great Catch of Fish
- Peter Grows in Faith
- Peter: Sign and Action
- The Fisherman’s Destiny
More articles will follow soon.