Today’s reading is Mark 14:66-72:
While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
I am indebted to James Alison and especially to Melinda Selmys for the following interpretation.
Peter’s denial of Jesus, immediately after the confrontation in the garden of Gethsemane, is commonly interpreted as a moment of fear. Peter, we are told, is afraid to be publicly identified as a disciple of the man who is going to the gallows. He therefore pretends he has no idea who Jesus is – a thin pretence – and curses and gets quite upset, and we are given to believe that he is scared witless. Peter’s denial of Jesus, we are told, indicates that even the bravest hearts falter and fail when the going gets really tough (cf. Mk 14:27-31, 14:50).
This is not a bad interpretation. And yet it is an uncompelling psychological portrayal of Peter.
Peter, remember, is the gung-ho one, the most ardent, the most zealous of the disciples. Peter is the one who’s always going “ready… fire… aim”. Peter is the only one in Gethsemane who fights back against the soldiers who have come to arrest Jesus (according to John 18:10). Peter follows Jesus and the battalion of soldiers right into the high priest’s courtyard.
Peter is probably not scared right at this moment.
Now of course the high priest’s courtyard would have been an inconvenient time and place to start making introductions to the effect of, “Hello, I’m Jesus’s disciple, Peter.” It makes sense that Peter would want to go undercover, as it were. But why, then, does this passage say that Peter denied Jesus three times? What does “deny” mean here? What is being emphasised by this choice of language?
Somehow, Peter’s actions in this passage are spiritually significant, but cowardice doesn’t seem to be the right interpretation.
What we do know about Peter is that he’s exceedingly zealous for Jesus.
According to John, he also just got told off by Jesus.
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (Jn 18:10-11, NRSV.)
What if Peter is hurt and angry and confused that Jesus told him off, even when he thought he was doing the right (noble, brave, honourable) thing? He thought he was the A+ student who was willing to defend his Lord when no one else would – only to discover that his Lord didn’t want to be defended by violence?
What if Peter denies knowing Jesus because he doesn’t really know who Jesus is or what He stands for?
Here’s Melinda Selmys, to whom I owe this whole line of reasoning:
At this point, Peter draws the sword that Christ told him to bring, and he rushes forward against this mob of men armed with swords and clubs. He’s making good on the promise that he made at the Last Supper when he assured Christ that he was ready to die for Him. The odds are hopeless, but perhaps Peter has in mind the great victories of the past, when the Lord drowned the Egyptian chariots, laid waste to the armies camped outside of Jerusalem, or gave victory to Judas Maccabeus and his small band of fighters. Or maybe he has internalized Christ’s words about the necessity of His death. Perhaps Peter simply longs for the opportunity to prove his loyalty and die at the side of his master.
Either way, I’m sure Peter expected to be rewarded for his courage. Instead, Christ turns and utters the only military command in His career. “Peter, put down your sword.” Then, having rebuked His loyal and faithful follower, He turns to the man that Peter has wounded – the sole enemy casualty in this exchange, and He reaches out and He heals the ear of the servant of the High Priest. This is a man who came to arrest Him.
I suspect [this is] part of the reason why Peter got into such a funk in the courtyard outside of the High Priest’s house. Peter was ready to die for Christ, and to die with Christ: he had declared this publicly, and he proved it when he stood to fight at Christ’s side. To conceive of Peter’s denial in the courtyard as an act of cowardice is to miss the psychological unity of the narrative: Peter denies Christ here because something happened to his courage between the moment when he drew his sword and the moment that he said “I do not know him.” These words have a particular poignancy if we consider that, in a sense, Peter may really have meant them. Not “I don’t know the man” in the sense of “I don’t know who he is,” but “I don’t know the man” in the sense that He is not who Peter thought. In Gethsemane Christ confronts his most ardent defender with a mystery that Peter cannot understand, and that he is not yet ready to accept: The mystery of a lover who is willing to lay down His life for the sake of those who persecute Him.
For further reading on the theme of human militaristic zeal being deflated by the gentle God, see also the beautiful essay “Theology Amid the Stones and Dust,” by James Alison. In this piece, Alison offers further reflections on the crucial moment of collapse when we perceive that God does not command sacred violence.
May we lay down our arms, too.
Stephen Mackereth ’15 lives in Mather House and concentrates in Mathematics and Philosophy. He is a former editor-in-chief of the Ichthus.