Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16 & Mark 8:31-38
This week’s verses offer two visions of people questioning of God’s plan. God spoke to Abram, commanding name changes for himself and his wife, and promising an heir for both of them. Jesus gave a rather darker prediction of his suffering, rejection by the religious elite, death and resurrection. In both cases, humans argued with the divine future.
God told Abram that he would be a father of nations, that his name would no longer be “great father” [probably a name glorifying a member of the pantheon of gods that Abram’s father Terah worshiped]. Instead, he would be Abraham, a father of nations. Likewise, Sarai’s idolatrous name was changed. “Sarai” means something like “My prince is…” and her name ended with the name of a Babylonian deity. The Bible purposefully excised this part of Sarah’s name, most likely Sin the moon god, whose centers of worship were Ur and Haran. Instead, she was to be renamed “Princess” because she would be the mother of kings (Gen 17:15-16).
This was all well and good, but when God told Abraham that he and Sarah would have a son, Abraham was incredulous. The old man laughed [Isaac means “He laughed”] at the thought of having a child at his advanced age with his elderly wife. Abraham suggested that Ishmael should be the center of God’s vision for the future. Because Abraham was God’s friend, God blessed Ishmael and made him the father of twelve nations, but the promise would go to Sarah’s son, who was to be named after Abraham’s incredulous laughter. This was a magnificent blessing for the old couple, but Isaac’s name would be a stinging rebuke for the rest of their lives of Abraham’s laughter at God’s promise.
Around 1800 years later, as Jesus described his suffering, death and resurrection, Peter’s response was anything but laughter. As the senior disciple, he discreetly took Jesus aside and argued that this must not be so. Who of us, when a beloved teacher or mentor seems to falter and say things that are embarrassing or defeatist would not seek to have a private word to encourage her or him and argue our mentor into a more positive line of thinking? Peter’s understandably concerned words are rebuked by Jesus in the sharpest terms: “Get behind me, accuser: you are thinking humanly, instead of according to the divine will.” Jesus then proceeded to lecture the crowd gathered in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi about how human thinking would lead to death, but calculating according to the Kingdom of Heaven would lead to life.
Jesus’ critique was a single occasion. Peter’s name was not changed to “accuser” and he retained his role as the most senior disciple. Peter seemed to work at cross-purposes with Jesus at least a few more times: fighting Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane and resisting the call to incorporate Cornelius into the Kingdom. But Jesus understood, forgave and maintained the relationship with Peter, just as God had done earlier with Abraham.
The moral of these two stories is to endeavor to embrace God’s vision for good in the world, or at the very least, to not seek to undermine what God is about to do. True, God’s friends in the Hebrew Bible regularly sought to change God’s mind and were frequently successful (Abraham concerning Sodom and Gomorrah and Moses in relation to the Israelites after the golden calf incident, among them). But in those occasions, they intervened to prevent suffering of other people. When God promises good – whether a child born late in life, or a messiah willing to suffer on our behalf – we should simply be grateful for God’s graciousness.