31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
Divine and Human Things
Well, if the first pope (Peter) was confused, little wonder we are too. Just what is divine and what is human?
There are those, and I am not among them, who would draw a big line between the two. They are those who label the divine the supernatural. Events personal and public which defy scientific explanation. Sometimes such divinity is silly, as when the profile of Jesus (what did he look like anyway?) appears in a doughnut. Sometimes it’s a blessed mystery as when a terminal cancer suddenly retreats. Cynics, and I am not among them, at least on this issue, describe such healings as “spontaneous remissions” currently (but evidently not forever) beyond our scientific understanding. That is, they insist, the supernatural is superstition to be eradicated by the relentless march of human intelligence. Which opinion, of course, is nonsense: each solved mystery of the human condition exposes ten more imponderables. Still, I concur with the hard-minded, that some are too quick to label this or that (think Tim Lebow’s success on the gridiron) the consequence of divine intervention.
There are those, and I am not among them, though I am sympathetic, who find divinity everywhere. In another century I shepherded a small flock of teenagers to a youth rally in downtown Brooklyn. The feature of the gathering was a showing of the Jack Kerouac movie, “Pull My Daisy.” I can still hear in my mind’s ear the movie’s persistent question, “Are cockroaches holy?” For Kerouac the answer was an emphatic “Yes?” It could be an echo of a poet of an earlier generation, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who like the Beat poet perceived divinity in everything. I can still recite the opening lines of Hopkins’s poem, “Pied Beauty.“ Dare me the next time you see me. This rampant immanence of divinity surely owes something to our ancestral animism, in which everything around us was imbued with spirit, rocks and trees, no less than bears and mosquitoes. And I shall happily number myself among those who perceive the hand of God all around us.
The distinction Jesus makes in reprimanding Peter, between divine things and human things, approving the former and condemning the latter, needs to be read in context. Peter, listening to his friend point to a killing cross as his destination, insists, in so many words, “No way!” Which, if the fisherman were a more reflective soul, he would bite his lip understanding he is telling the young rabbi he’s wrong. That he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Peter dreams of palaces, thrones, and deference from the multitude. You know, exactly what 99% of pastors aim for, success, material and spiritual, churches full of people, TV opinionators hanging on their every sermon, adoring congregants telling them how wonderful they are. And I don’t exempt myself from having been desirous of these human things.
It’s self-aggrandizement. And it’s not Jesus’ chosen way. It’s the way the world tempts us. Human things. Fame, money, power. What my own grandsons, in the throes of adolescence, said they wanted for themselves when they grew up. In the wilderness of Judea at the outset of his ministry, Jesus is tempted by Satan: with bread to quench his hunger; next, to give a show of immortal strength to impress the world; and finally. to claim unlimited, if tainted, power to do the good a recalcitrant humanity does not choose. Peter repeats those temptations recoiling from the specter of the cross. And his friend and master calls him out on it, “Get behind me, Satan.”
Putting it plainly, setting one’s mind on divine things is doing the will of God, not caving to our own human needs.
That, of course, is easier said than done. Unless one is Pat Robertson (who seems to me to be genuinely self-deluded), knowing exactly what is the will of God in the preponderance of situations isn’t very clear. We proceed on a wing and a prayer. “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling” is the offered wisdom of the Apostle Paul. It’s not counsel to be cautious so much as advice to be humble and, towards those who see it another way, generous. By God, Jesus understands our inner conflict and confusion. He prayed mightily during his last temptation, the one in the Garden of Gethsemane, that he might be spared the cross, before acquiescing to the will of God.
So are human things always sinful? No, only when they get in the way of a Higher imperative. Go ahead, sing Sinatra’s themesong, “My Way.” A little self-affirmation never hurts. Provided it doesn’t become an abiding passion. Which, abiding passion, is reserved, according to the rule of the kingdom of God, for God first and foremost.
Check out Matthew 21:37 for corroboration.