Stranger danger is a lesson many parents provide to their children, repeatedly, going through "what if" scenarios, and hoping against hope that their child will get it right, so that if the moment ever comes, they'll make the right choices. One mother explained that she asked her young son what he'd do if a stranger approached him and asked him to help find a missing puppy. She was happy to hear her son respond, "I wouldn't help him, Mom." Fortunately, she took it a step further. "What if he needed help finding a missing kitten?" Her son responded, "Well, I'd have to help, 'cause kittens are littler than puppies, so that would be okay."
What we have to remember is that each person's perception is their reality – and that's the place they act from. In the little boy's experience, kittens were smaller and therefore should be protected; his reality dictated his thoughts and actions.
So undoubtedly, when Jesus was asking the questions in today's Gospel, questioning who others thought he was, the disciples were glad to provide him answers. Then Jesus asked the tough question: "who do you think I am?" Peter, bless his heart, got his own aha! moment, and came up with the answer of "the Messiah." And Jesus was pleased with the answer.
Jesus went on and explained what he would have to go through, but this didn't fit with Peter's reality of who the Messiah was, so he really didn't pay attention at that point.
What we have here is a failure to communicate.
In Peter's reality, the mashiach or Messiah, obviously had the following qualities and plans: he would be a great political leader descended from King David, according to Jeremiah 23:5. He will be well-versed in Jewish law, and observant of its commandments according to Isaiah 11:2-5. He will be a charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example. He will be a great military leader, who will win battles for Israel. He will be a great judge, who makes righteous decisions according to Jeremiah 33:15.
But above all, he will be a human being, not a god, demi-god or other supernatural being. God is Eternal, above time. He is Infinite, beyond space. He cannot be born, and cannot die. Saying that God assumes human form makes God small, diminishing both His unity and His divinity. As the Torah says: “God is not a mortal” (Numbers 23:19).
Now, in Jesus' defense, He did give the disciples the particulars of God's plan. But to them, the one word – Messiah – said it all, and apparently, they stopped listening. And as the saying goes, "that's when the fight started."
Words can have such different meanings, depending on where your reality is; and that reality colors every perception you have. But, then again, so can cultural differences. It doesn't necessarily take words to insult your dinner guests and compare them to farm animals, as my mother discovered when I was little and living in Germany. Like any good mid-west city girl, she served corn with dinner, not realizing that in Germany, corn was food reserved for livestock.
So while Peter and Jesus' backgrounds seemed similar, as two Jewish men, we forget that Christ has the spiritual background as well as the human, and those may as well be two very different cultures. The spiritual culture, we assume from our human perspective, looks at more than the big picture – it looks at the whole picture, at how events have occurred in the past, how they happen now, and how they will happen in the future, all with a sense of timelessness. It looks at human life here as the blink of an eye, but at the everlasting life of souls.
Peter's rebuke of Jesus teaching about the things he must suffer and experience, dying and rising again show the stark difference in the two cultures. Christ's use of the word "Satan" here doesn't mean the devil, but one who is adversarial to God's plan. His continuation, "For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men" states plainly that we've got a significant cultural communication problem happening.
Those who have had the opportunity, or misfortune, to discuss something with me about which I am passionate know that I can, at times, get loud in defense of my position. The way I grew up, arguments and debates were absolutely the stuff of life, and passion was a necessary component to defending your position. Fights, on the other hand, were to be avoided, as they were unpleasant, personal and led to everyone feeling bad. I love debating, but have learned that people who have more experience with fighting only hear the loud, and skip, what to me, is the fun part.
Since at least half of communicating what you intend to say is ensuring that the other person's perception is at least close to what you intend, you have to be aware of how your words are going to be perceived. If you know someone you're speaking with is not going to react well to a loud voice, even if you know you're not yelling but simply speaking passionately, then you need to alter your tone. The only person you can change is yourself, and if you want clearer communication, you have to be willing to make that change.
Now let's take things a bit further – our communication with God. Like most people, we pray to God, we talk to God – and how much listening do we do? How much are we willing to put aside our perceptions of what we need or want, in order to hear and understand what God believes we need?
Long ago, a friend of mine was having all sorts of problems with her 4-year-old. So, she prayed to God for patience. She expected that God would provide her with more patience. What God gave her was more and varied opportunities to practice patience. Two rather different realities there. She finally learned to stop praying for patience, and discovered that she had more than she started with – or, her reality had changed.
Are we, like Peter, only listening with ears that are tuned into our own reality? Or do we attempt to cross that cultural barrier into the spiritual realm?
In the Lord's prayer, which Christ taught to us, we literally state, Thy Will be done. Are you ready to put aside what you want for the Will of God? For His timing and His concept of what is best for you?
It's not just Peter who has to reevaluate his perception of reality.