Scripture and imagination show a whimsical God
And you, he said to them, who do you say that I am?
You are the Messiah, Simon Peter answered, the Son of the living God!
Jesus replied, Blest are you, Simon son of Jonah! No mere man has revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. I for my part declare to you, you are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church (Matthew 16:15-18).
By DARYL P. DOMNING
Maybe its just me, but I keep finding sparks of deadpan humor in the Bible. God, I think, has a sense of humor, but to find it in the laconic pages of scripture takes some reading between the lines. This is nowhere more true than in the passage above, which the Catholic church has always taken with such deadly seriousness, basing the entire system of papal government on it.
To tease out the latent humor, try approaching the passage using the method suggested by St. Ignatius of Loyola. He encourages us to pray by placing ourselves in a Biblical scene and using our imaginations to supply the details that scripture does not record.
When I do that with this passage, two stories from my own life always spring to mind. The first carries me back about a quarter-century to my days as a graduate student in paleontology at Berkeley. Every spring, the paleontology department would conduct a field trip, usually to the wilds of eastern Oregon or Nevada. On one such occasion, we stopped at a fossil locality, and students and faculty fanned out through the sagebrush to see what they could find. When we reassembled at the vehicles, our leader, Dr. Savage, held up with a theatrical flourish an odd toe bone he had picked up and quizzed us. Who can tell me what this is?
Although I wasnt entirely sure, I had earlier heard someone mention that this site had been known to produce remains of chalicotheres -- strange extinct beasts related to horses -- and this thing fit my mental image of their anatomy. So I invoked the name of the only kind of chalicothere I knew of from that part of the world. Moropus? I ventured, from the fringe of the group.
Dr. Savage did a double-take. What! Who said Moropus? Did Daryl Domning say that? You see, at that point in my career I had already established myself as a specialist in marine mammals and I was not generally noted for expertise in land-dwelling creatures like this. So his surprise was only partly feigned, because even though the bone in question really came from a different kind of chalicothere, my answer was close enough for the immediate purpose.
Jesus often rebuked his disciples for being slow on the uptake, and Simon was dense as any. Scripture attests to this consistently bad judgment in shoot-from-the-hip decisions. Rock, in reference to the hardness of his head, may well have been Simons regular nickname among the Apostles -- one that he has never lived down. No wonder Jesus was startled when Simon, of all people, blurted out the right answer: A miracle indeed! And ever after, the Apostles may have shared a chuckle at Simons expense whenever they recalled how Jesus had punned, Upon this Rock I will build ...
Maybe Jesus had something else in mind, too. I think of my Aunt Carrie, now retired, who spent her long life as a nun: a dear, sweet lady, always cheerful, who won local renown in Laurel, Md., for her works of charity, but who (to tell the truth) was always a bit flighty and scatterbrained. Back in the old days when she joined the Pallottine order, nuns not only had to change their names but couldnt even choose names for themselves. Carrie was given the name Constance in the hope that it might settle her down, and Sr. Constance she has remained to this day. But it never worked.
The ever-impulsive and erratic Simon could surely have used some steadying, too. But if Jesus hoped that calling him Rock would give him gravitas, he hoped as vainly as that Pallottine novice mistress.
What we know for certain is the Lords own response to the first papal pronouncement in all of history -- recorded by Matthew just five verses after the passage above. Get out of my sight, you satan! You are not judging by Gods standards but by mans.
Poor Peter -- always found with foot in mouth. He must have taken his share of razzing from that rough bunch of fishermen. And Jesus knew his character all too well. The striking thing is that Jesus also saw other qualities in Peter, enough to warrant naming him leader of the Christian community. Theres that divine sense of humor again. Maybe the Lord is just telling us all to lighten up. With a leader like Peter, how could the disciples -- or Peter himself -- take themselves too seriously?
Yet weve managed to do it, expecting more of Peter than a mere human could deliver -- certainly more than was expected by God, who knew what he was dealing with. God knew, too, that Peter and all of us disciples would need the occasional kick to keep us humble and on the right path. In an egalitarian community like the early church, the leaders fellow disciples could be counted on to administer the needed kicks, along with the forgiveness and peace of Jesus that must always follow.
Buoyed by a little levity, we might find that its still a workable model for a Christian community.
Daryl P. Domning writes from Silver Spring, Md.
National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998