[Third in a six-part Lenten series on “Mystical Images”]
Anthropologists tell us that men and women have different congenital flaws. For men, it would seem that the flaw that’s more particularly encoded in our DNA is betrayal. We have a history of running away when things get tough, of not keeping promises, and of selling out in the face of temptation.
It’s not that women are immune from this, but as even the gospels highlight, men have a history here. In Mark’s gospel, for instance, all the men betray Jesus, without a single exception. Indeed, in his gospel, the final words that Peter, the head of the church, speaks are words of betrayal: “I do not know the man!”
Here’s how the gospels describe that betrayal: “Then Peter said, `I swear that I am telling the truth! May God punish me if I am not! I do not know the man.’ … At once, while he was still speaking, a rooster crowed. Jesus turned around and looked straight at Peter, and Peter remembered what the Lord had said to him, `Before the rooster crows tonight, you will deny me three times.’ And Peter went out and wept bitterly.”
What’s in this image?
A number things: First, Peter’s initial brash, over-confidence. Just prior to this betrayal, he had sworn that he would never betray Jesus, even if everyone else did. Second, he made this promise in utter sincerity, with deep love in his heart, fully intending on keeping his word. Third, he broke his promise quickly in the face of adversity. Fourth, perhaps most important, he wept at his sin when Jesus looked at him with love.
What’s to be learned from this? First, that sincerity and good will aren’t enough to keep us from sinning. Sin isn’t always the product of malice or hypocrisy. More often, we sin out of simple weakness.
Moreover, because we sin out of weakness, we have a tendency to rationalize: “It wasn’t so bad! There was nothing I could have done!” But sin is still sin, betrayal is still betrayal, and the damage we do is still real, even when we act out of weakness. Peter didn’t want to betray Jesus, he just wasn’t strong enough not to. And that’s generally too our problem when we don’t hold out against temptation, whether it be to bitterness, sex, gossip, slander, jealousy, hatred, or anything else we sell out to or run away from in order to get through an ordeal, a loneliness, an insecurity, a fear, a season, or a night. Even when we give in out of weakness we’re still betraying, still (in essence) saying: “I do not know the man!”
But while sincerity doesn’t necessarily save us from sin, it does help us hear the rooster crow. As long as we remain sincere, we will soon enough admit our sin and we will know too that God still looks on us with love, even in betrayal.
A very important part of this picture of Peter betraying Jesus is the look that Peter sees on Jesus’ face when he catches his eye in the crowd. The text tells us that “Jesus turned around and looked straight at Peter.” Whenever the gospels tell us that Jesus “looked at” someone, generally that means that he looked at the person with love and understanding, with a look that blesses. What Peter saw on Jesus’ face (in Jesus’ ultimate moment of humiliation and Peter’s ultimate moment of betrayal) was not, as we would expect, a look of disappointment and reproach (“How could you!”) but something Peter had likely never seen or experienced before in his whole life, namely, a look the holds you in warmth and understanding even when you sin and betray. No doubt this was a defining moment in Peter’s understanding of Jesus because, at that moment, he experienced something that releases a different kind of tears, unconditional love.
The tears we weep when we are loved despite weakness are very different from the ones we weep when we feel judged and humiliated by our weakness. To experience love when we don’t deserve it is the one grace that cleanses us of sin and gives us strength against sin.
The image of Peter betraying Jesus teaches us that we are loved sinners, all of us. Our sincerity and good-hearts don’t keep us from sinning. We still betray, break our word, and too easily give in to temptation. But, that’s not the whole story: What’s shown here too is that God doesn’t give us that look of disappointment and disapproval that we’re all too familiar with when we do this. God still looks at us with understanding and continues to hold us solidly in love and blessing.
However we struggle with both sides of this, namely, to admit we’re sinners and to recognize that we’re still loved. But appropriating both of these truths is the key to knowing Jesus and knowing ourselves.
As John Shea says: The false self will crack when the rooster crows. There many ways to wake up!