During the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the West became aware of Muslims' profound mistrust of the United States. The Ayatollah Khomeini repeatedly referred to "America" as "the Great Satan." Today's liturgy of the word calls us to be counter-cultural by suggesting that the Ayatollah's reference was spot on. The United States is indeed the Great Satan leading the world astray with its beliefs for instance that limitless wealth brings happiness, that bombing can be a humanitarian act, and that "fearing for our lives" justifies killing others.
As we'll see in today's readings, such beliefs are 'satanic" both in the eyes of Jesus and of the Great Prophet Mohammed. In the United States, their infernal results are on display in each morning's headlines where:
* The rich and famous end their lives in despair
* The U.S. bombs and drones to save the Yazidis in Iraq (or Libyans in Libya, Afghans in Afghanistan, Ethiopians in Ethiopia . . .)
* Police killings are uniformly justified by the claim "I feared for my life."
I raise the issue because the term "Satan" is prominent in today's gospel reading. There Jesus uses it in contrast to his own beliefs about life's divine purpose which turns out to be incompatible with dominant western beliefs. According to both Jesus and Mohammed, life's purpose is not to accumulate riches. Nor is life rendered meaningful by killing others even to save one's friends. Neither do Jesus' followers have the mandate to protect their own lives at any cost. Quite the opposite!
What is life about then? Consider Jesus' answer in this morning's gospel reading.
There Jesus uses the epithet "Satan" to refer to the leader of his inner circle of twelve. In Jesus' eyes, Peter merits the name because he misunderstands what life is for. That's shown by the fisherman's efforts to dissuade the Master from following his divine "prophetic script." For Jesus, that pattern would require him to lose his life for speaking truth to power. As we'll see, using such speech in an effort to change the world -- to bring on God's Kingdom -- turns out to be central to Jesus' understanding of life's purpose.
In any case, like the prophet Jeremiah in today's first reading, God's spirit has put Jesus out of control. So, like Jeremiah, he feels compelled by an inner fire to speak the truth, whatever its cost. As the earlier prophet had put it, God's truth "becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary of holding it in; I cannot endure it."
So in today's reading Jesus "began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised."
Peter objects. "God forbid! This will never happen to you," he says.
It's then that Jesus replies: "Get behind me, Satan. You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."
Hearing those words, most of us inevitably connect with images right out of Dante's Divina Comedia -- enhanced by subsequent satanic glosses to include a fire-red body, horns, cloven hooves, tail and pitchfork. But that wasn't the image in Jesus' mind.
Instead, Jesus was thinking in terms of the Hebrew tradition. There Satan was a member of God's heavenly court. He was God's prosecuting attorney who typically raised questions that Yahweh's overwhelming goodness and generosity might otherwise obscure.
In Jewish tradition, Satan was a realist who believed that faith and prosperity go together. Take away prosperity and goodness and faith will disappear too.