Get behind me, Satan!


Retire-toi Satan by James Tissot

Fr Gerry Gallen SJ, Chaplain to St Joseph’s Hospice in Hackney, gave the following homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A). The reading was Matthew 16: 21-27.

Poor Peter! Last week he was the rock on which the Church was to be built; this week he’s compared to the devil himself! But misunderstanding and being misunderstood is all part and parcel of the cost of discipleship.

The word discipleship comes from discipline and discipline is never warmly welcomed! Peter is protesting against the struggle, the pain, the failure and the rejection that Jesus foretells. It is this pain, failure and rejection which many are not willing to accept as a price for following Christ today. Following Christ costs the follower. What must be paid is a willingness to let go of our hunger for security, approval and comfort; to take up our own cross of love and give ourselves away; to abandon our images of success and schemes of self-indulgence.

We live in an age when, by all cultural accounts, our faith is foolish. Our ritual is weirdly transcendent. Our vows appear to be unkeepable promises, our sacraments quaint. The ideals and goals we aspire to are held in high suspicion. In our age, if there is one thing that people are encouraged to prize more than anything it is to take control of their own lives. Many say there can be nothing worse, not even death itself, than losing control of how you live.

Hence, for example, it seems perfectly reasonable to allow those tragic individuals who live with the horrifying reality of being trapped in their own, so-called, lifeless bodies, to be able to kill themselves. And they ought to be helped to do so. Thus they would, at least, have control over their death if not their life.


Here at St Joseph’s Hospice, where we do all we can to ease the burden of pain and suffering, we know only too well that we cannot bring total relief to all; but we don’t allow our limitations to stop us from caring as best we can. Jesus Christ chose to follow the Father’s will, even in the knowledge that this would mean him losing complete control over his life and death, a truly frightening decision. Gethsemane is where he felt the pain of this choice so severely. Here he was tested to his human limit; here he was confronted with the cost of genuine love, a love that entails total sacrifice for the other. This is what modern society struggles to grasp. Why would you hand control of your life over to someone else? It’s my life and I’ll do with it as I please!

Here’s what one writer recently wrote in the London Evening Standard regarding the assisted suicide bill:

We hold life to be valuable not because it is on loan from God, or because it is an abstract societal good, but by virtue of each individual life being the absolute possession of the person living it.

The beginning of all tyranny is the idea that someone else - be it God, King or country - has rights over your life that trump your own. So mistake them not, these well-meaning, herbivorous sanctity-of-life people. They may come in carpet slippers rather than jackboots but they are supporters of a tyranny… they are prepared to sacrifice real life after real life after real life.To hell with them. (Sam Leith)

Clearly the writer does not believe in God and therefore heaven, but he does believe in hell - how horrifying is that!

In Christianity we discover the depth of God’s love for us. The Kingdom that Christ preached is far from tyrannical: how could one describe the Beatitudes as a despotic blueprint?  Unlike Peter in our Gospel story, we know the full story of what the pain, failure and rejection which Christ endured lead to - that is, life, joy and eternal happiness. And to the extent that we may have to share in his suffering, may we share in the joy of life eternal, with the Father and the Son, through the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Image: Rétire-toi Satan by James Tissot (1836 – 1902), Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain