“…You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…”


Twenty-First Sunday of the Year

This Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matthew 16:13-20) identifies Simon Peter as the “rock” upon which Christ’s church is to be built. Jesus made this promise in response to Simon son of Jonah’s confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

In this dialogue between Jesus and Simon Peter, there is a very clever play on words that is completely lost in our English translations. After declaring him blessed for having recognized his true identity, Jesus addresses Simon by what seems to have been the nickname “Peter” (Cepha in Aramaic and Petros in Greek, meaning “Rocky”), promising to build his church on this “rock” (also cepha in Aramaic and petra in Greek).

This scriptural play on words once prompted the Irish novelist and poet, James Joyce, who was quite fond of using puns, to make the observation that the Church was “founded on a pun.” More recently, my friend and colleague in ministry, Fr. Ben Innes, OFM, suggested that the other disciples might well have given Simon Peter something of a bad time about the new nickname that Jesus gave him: “You are ‘rock,’ and you sank like a rock that time when you tried to walk on water!”

Some Scripture scholars believe that Jesus himself extended the play on words when he rebuked Simon Peter for telling Jesus “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Jesus had just told the disciples that as the Messiah he would have to go to Jerusalem where he would be killed and on the third day be raised.

In response, Jesus told Simon Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me…” Here the word translated as “obstacle” is the Greek word skandalon, which is more literally a “stumbling block.”

For some years, the New American Bible translated Jesus’ rebuke to Simon Peter as, “Get out of my sight, you satan! You are trying to make me trip and fall…” I much prefer the new revised translation in which Jesus tells him: “Get behind me, Satan…” And I can imagine Jesus going on to say, “…so that you can take up your cross and follow me, as I lead you through suffering and death to new and everlasting life.”