'Jesus began to teach his disciples 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 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.”'
--Mark 8: 31-33
In one of my favorite movies, O Brother Where Art Thou?, the philosopher and loudmouth Ulysses Everett McGill attempts to enlighten his friends on exactly what the devil looks like. “There are all manner of lesser imps and demons,” Everett says, “but the great Satan hisself is red and scaly with a bifurkated tail, and he carries a hay fork.” Of course the response from Tommy Johnson is, “Oh no! He’s white! As white as you folks!” Here's the scene:
Who and what Satan is might be the most intriguing question for people of faith because it gets to the heart of a bigger question: what is the nature of evil? The scene in O Brother reminds us that there is no single, clear image for evil. In the Hebrew and Christian Testaments a variety of words are used to describe one who is an incarnation of evil. According to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible—the one we read in the Episcopal Church—the word Satan appears 47 times, devil appears 34 times, Beelzebul appears 7 times, and Lucifer does not appear at all. These numbers vary depending on what translation you’re using, but the point is clear: there is no one word or proper name for evil.
So when Jesus uses the word Satan in addressing Peter, what does he mean? Does he literally mean that Peter is Satan? Well, yes (in a manner of speaking). In Hebrew the word Satan means “adversary” or “accuser,” it is more title than name. It was used regularly by folks in biblical times to describe anything that stands in the way of God, that diverts humanity’ attention from heavenly things to earthly things, as Jesus puts it.. The serpent from the Garden of Eden was called Satan because he stood as an adversary to God’s wishes. Nebuchenezar, the King of Babylon, was called Satan because he had taken God’s people from their homes and into exile. The dragon from the Revelation to John, itself an allegory for the Roman Empire, is called Satan because it fights against the forces of God and God's people. Anyone clearly not in-line with God was given that title In Peter’s case, he had just confessed Jesus as the Messiah four verses earlier. This is such a significant moment that it gets its own feast day in the Church, which we call the Confession of Peter. In one breath he appears to get it, but when Jesus lays out the plan—that he must suffer and die—Peter shows that no, he doesn’t get it, and tries to rebuke Jesus and convince him that this is not God’s will. To see that happen must have broken Jesus’ heart, and so yes, in that moment Peter was Satan, he was the adversary, the one standing between Jesus’ mission and God’s divine will.
An icon depicting Jesus' rebuke of Peter (a.k.a. Get behind me, Satan!)
If we understand that word—Satan—as more of an adjective than a proper noun, then it can help us somewhat better understand what folks back then understood of evil, as well as the nature of evil in our own time. While the people of Jesus’ day did not believe that there was one single entity who embodied evil and made the whole world bad ("The Devil made me do it!" wasn't a thing back then!), they did believe that evil was real, that it lurked all around them, taking many forms. Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, evil is still very much real! There are some dark, scary forces in the world, all different manners of Satans, the last two weeks alone have proven that. We sometimes think they have to look like the cartoon character Everett describes in O Brother, or a person like the Florida gunman who was so obviously sick and twisted, but more often than not they look like Peter. They look like someone who thinks he’s right, that he’s got it all figured out, who thinks he understands better than even God does. These Satans look tame, even well-meaning, but they can cause the greatest destruction.
This season of Lent is the perfect time for us to examine our physical and spiritual lives, so that we may renounce all sorts and conditions of evil and be prepared to be reborn ourselves through those baptismal waters on Easter. Today we are given the opportunity to look deep within ourselves and ask the question: what is my Satan? What or who is keeping me from truly embracing God’s love? What or who is keeping me from respecting the dignity of all God’s people and living into those other baptismal vows? What adversaries are standing between me and God, cutting me off from God's goodness and keeping me from seeing that goodness in myself and others? I will confess to you that my Satan is pride. So very often I think that everything is about me, that I have to have all the answers, that if something goes wrong it will be all my fault, that people will call me a failure, and that the whole wide world will collapse. It would be a lot easier if my Satan was a cartoon character. Still, this Lent I am trying to fast from the temptation of giving in to my Satan, so that my pride won’t cause me to be a Satan to someone else, particularly you folks.