What’s the Story? – Satan

File this one under, “Did Jesus really just say that?”

I hope that you had the chance to get to church today. For many here in Houston, my family included, this simple bit of normalcy provided inestimable comfort. Life is inching back toward normal. And that felt good. Right up to the point where Jesus yelled at St. Peter. Then it got weird.

“Get behind me Satan.” Yeah, he really just said that.

Key to understanding what Jesus is after in this passage is knowing a little bit about the history of the term “Satan” and how Peter might have been acting in a way that reminded Jesus of this diabolical character. Jesus was angry, yes. He was being provocative, too. You bet. But don’t really think he meant to suggest that Peter had suddenly grown horns and a tail.

Though Satan is often thought to be as old as the creation itself, the truth is a little more nuanced than that. It’s actually St. John, in his Revelation, that links Satan to the serpent in the garden. In Jesus’ time, the devil (and he wouldn’t have gone by that name) had a far shorter and, more nuanced history than most contemporary folks undertsand.

Satan first appears in the Book of Job as member of the heavenly “court.” I use scare-quotes here, because the image given liessomewhere between the two images that come to mind when we think of ancient courts. The “court” overwhich God provides is something like the Royal Court that we imagine when we think of kings and queens and gods – filled with functionaries and lesser demi-gods participating in, but not strictly OF the created order. This kind of image does not strictly jive with the strict monotheism that we typically think of when when we think of Judeo-Christian tradition and may signal that  this story has non-Jewish roots (but that is the subject of another post). Also present here is something of the notion of a heavenly “court of law”. And, this is where we find a better understanding of the Satan Jesus saw in Peter.

In many ways, ancient courtrooms functioned much the same as contemporary courtrooms. The soverign, or his designee, sits in judgement above the one accused. Some seperate agent serves as a prosecutor, bringing witnesses and evidence to make his case. Missing is any sense of advocacy or a jury, but the scene is familiar enough. And it is complete enough to get us the character that we’re looking for. In the Hebrew of the bible, the prosecutor was called Ha’Satan – The Satan. This is who comes Jesus’ mind when Peter rebukes him. This is who Jesus feels that he needs to move beyond.

Seen through this lens, Jesus’ previous encounter with Satan also comes into clearer light. Far from being a morally neutral figure, Satan’s self-understood role was not simply to gather facts into evidence about crimes already committed, but to encourage the committing of crimes himself, to tempt, to entice the faithful into misdeed and then to run off to God, tattling on poor unexpected humans. This is what Satan does to Jesus, it is indirectly what he does to Job, and it is certainly what Jesus fears that Peter is trying to do in this Sunday’s story.

I think what’s most important for me about this particular story is not he way it might enable us to suspiciously see Satan in others and figure out how to avoid him. Rather, it reminds me that in as much as Satan is a role as much as he is a person, it reminds me that we all have the capacity to be Satan in the lives of each other. When we accuse. When we tattle. When we seek the downfall of others in the eyes of God. We are Satan in the lives of each other.

This, rather than the specific guy with the horns and the tail is what we should avoid.

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