It is a timely reading for Holy Week, and we hear Peter’s denial every year at this time. Sometimes twice. Would we add a third time at a Communal Penance liturgy, or in form I with an individual penitent?
As I’ve gotten older, I haven’t grown accustomed to watching Peter in these Scriptures. In a way, it feels a bit like moral voyeurism. I feel guilty for the man. It’s like when my siblings got into trouble when I was a kid. Occasionally, I felt they got theirs … finally. But usually, I wanted to keep my head down. And I didn’t feel it was my business.
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard.
One of the maids came over to him and said,
“You too were with Jesus the Galilean.”
But he denied it in front of everyone, saying,
“I do not know what you are talking about!”
As he went out to the gate, another girl saw him
and said to those who were there,
“This man was with Jesus the Nazorean.”
Again he denied it with an oath,
“I do not know the man!”
A little later the bystanders came over and said to Peter,
“Surely you too are one of them;
even your speech gives you away.”
At that he began to curse and to swear,
“I do not know the man.”
And immediately a cock crowed.
Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had spoken:
“Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.”
He went out and began to weep bitterly.
Do Peter’s denials inspire penitence in my own life? I suppose it’s easy to say, as Peter himself did, “I will never deny you, Lord.” But we do reject Christ and his way. Quite often it is in subtle ways. A little bit here and a little there.
We deny sin. We deny it a little more vehemently, pressed. Peter even curses, lashing out, when someone insists. Of course, his sin is not in his association with Jesus or not. His anger is clearly self-directed. He knows he is in denial. He cannot hold it in.
Can we place ourselves in Peter’s place, denying the Lord? Maybe this reading works better for an individual penitent. If a parish does a Communal Penance liturgy during Holy Week (not that we don’t have enough on our plates) this Gospel seems appropriate. What do you think?
It may pay to think of Peter and Judas in light of each other, through the public ministry of Jesus and even on the very night of this denial. At “table” (think something closer to a reclining triclinium of antiquity rather than Da Vinci’s anachronsistic western European table), Judas may have been at the immediate left of Jesus (with John at Jesus’s right), and Peter may have been at the other end, at the servant’s position, and brooding about it. Peter is impulsive and emotional – constantly prone to putting his foot in his mouth and saying things he’ll regret later; he’s not changed in that way since before he became part of the story. Judas appears to have high principles and goals, and he’s been entrusted with the communal purse; there may be something to the now more common interpretation that he thought he could help midwife, as it were, the birth of a new Davidic kingdom (the compromised Hasmoneans were of the tribe of Levi). Peter is wheat and tares, together (like most of us). But there’s ONE thing that Peter has, even with all this: he has personal love. It’s a love compromised by the weaknesses of his character, but he’s got that. Judas may have admired, respected and even believed in Jesus, but may have lacked personal love: he may have put his Idea of Jesus before Jesus (Peter never seems to fall into that particular trap, interestingly – he’s so caught up in the immediate present (and fluctuates with it) that he doesn’t seem to have too long of a future narrative of expectation built around Jesus – which means he’s freer to accept Jesus as he is, rather than as Peter needs him to be in his imagination.) Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ resurrection is also rich fodder for contemplation. One thing the gospels together make clear: there is no one, uniform, route to belief in the resurrected Jesus – rather, the path of each is individual. Peter’s story particularly rich when you consider the Johannine account; without his denials, that subsequent episode might never have happened, right?
And, finally, there’s this: Judas despairs, definitively. Peter, however grieved, does not – or at least not definitively.
Interestingly, the homily in the Vatican touches on this very point:
Here is what the story of our brother Judas should move us to do: to surrender ourselves to the one who freely forgives, to throw ourselves likewise into the outstretched arms of the Crucified One. The most important thing in the story of Judas is not his betrayal but Jesus’ response to it. He knew well what was growing in his disciple’s heart, but he does not expose it; he wants to give Judas the opportunity right up until the last minute to turn back, and is almost shielding him. He knows why Judas came to the garden of olives, but he does not refuse his cold kiss and even calls him “friend” (see Mt 26:50). He sought out Peter after his denial to give him forgiveness, so who knows how he might have sought out Judas at some point in his way to Calvary! When Jesus prays from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34), he certainly does not exclude Judas from those for whom he prays.
So what will we do? Who will we follow, Judas or Peter? Peter had remorse for what he did, but Judas was also remorseful to the point of crying out, “I have betrayed innocent blood!” and he gave back the thirty pieces of silver. Where is the difference then? Only in one thing: Peter had confidence in the mercy of Christ, and Judas did not! Judas’ greatest sin was not in having betrayed Christ but in having doubted his mercy.