Faith Column: Who or what is Satan?
September 18, 2015
In our tradition we have a set prayer, or collect, that is designated for every week of the year, as well as for special saint's days and other days of national observance. The collect for this past week stated simply, "O God, because without you we are not able to please you mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen." It serves as a constant reminder that we are unable to please the Lord under our own abilities, but must have direction from the Holy Spirit to truly please the Lord.
In the readings that I would like to examine today, specifically Mark 8: 27-38 (also to be found in Matthew 16: 13-23 almost identically, and Luke 9: 18-22 without the mention of Peter being called Satan), and the Letter of James 3: 1-12, which refers to how difficult it is to tame the tongue. In the Gospel readings, Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is, and his disciples tell him that people say that he is John the Baptist, Elijah returning or one of the prophets. Jesus then asks the disciples who they say that he is, and only Peter rises to the challenge to say, "You are the Messiah." Peter is warned not to tell anyone, but must have been feeling pretty good about himself that he gave the correct answer. When Jesus taught his disciples in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders and chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again, Peter began to rebuke Jesus, saying that this must not be so. Jesus then rebuked Peter; saying to him, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." What a roller coaster of a ride this must have been for Peter, going from a high of Jesus praising him for his answer, to a low of being called Satan, of all things. Was Jesus really saying that Peter had physically changed into a man wearing red leotards, sporting a long red tail, horns and a long forked spear?
Who or what is Satan? Is Satan that caricature that I just described above, perhaps with the addition of a Van Dyke beard and mustache? Can Satan be something other than a person? Does Satan have to be a male? Can Satan be a thought or a concept instead of a human being like being? Is Satan just a misunderstood angel? The simplest answer, in my opinion, is that Satan, by definition, is anything that is an adversary to God, whether in person, thing or concept. So when Jesus called Peter Satan, he was referring totally to the fact that Peter's mind was on his own concept of what the Messiah is, rather than what the Messiah truly is. Peter had taken it upon himself to define the Messiah, to place the Messiah in a box of his own making and demand that his desires were to be more important than the will of the Lord. Peter would later be called the rock upon which the church would be built and that he would possess the keys to the kingdom of heaven, but at this moment I am sure that Peter felt very small indeed. This is what the Epistle of James was referring to when it stated that "the tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature and is itself set on fire by hell" (James 3: 6, NRSV). James further states that the tongue cannot be tamed, that it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we both bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the image of God.
We are told that the tongue cannot be tamed, that it is capable of both good and evil, and that, although very small in nature, can be exceedingly vicious in action. This, in my opinion, is why the opening collect asked us to pray that the Holy Spirit may direct and rule our hearts. We cannot make it without the Divine will that our tongues may bless, and not curse, and give glory, laud and honor to both the Lord God Almighty as well as our fellow human beings. I pray that the Holy Spirit will indwell not only our minds, but our hearts as well and direct us in the straight and narrow path that gives glory to God in the highest.
The Rev. Bain White is the pastor of St. Mark's Episcopal Church/Lutheran Church of Grace.