Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

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Sifting Simon — Part I

March 5th, 2019, Promulgated by Diane Harris

 “Sifting Simon”

                        Last Supper

This year’s Lenten Bible Study is a follow-up to a 9-part Holy Week Study last year, which can be reached through the Fast Access List on the home page. Rather than 9 separate items as was done in 2018, this year’s posts will be all on one subject, on one word actually, the ‘sifting’ of Simon Peter, as predicted in Luke 22, and then understanding what is meant by a spiritual sifting so that we might better recognize it when it occurs (when, not ‘if’). St. Peter, please pray for us. (Ever notice how few prayers ever say ‘please’? Except of course to St. Anthony, when we lose our car keys!) 

 

Introduction

In Chapter 22 of  Luke’s Gospel, just before Christ called for weapons (swords) to be brought to the Garden of Gethsemane, He warned Peter in verses 31-34 [1]:

“‘Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you [all], that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you [Simon] that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.’ And he said to Him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with You to prison and to death.’  He said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know Me.’”

There is much of interest in these three verses. We may miss some meaning because in English, the singular and plural second person are the same; i.e. ‘you.’ But the Greek original indicates that Satan had asked to sift all the Apostles [2]. Christ prayed ‘for’ Peter to the Father,  i.e. for Peter to substitute for all the Apostles whom Satan wanted to ‘sift’, thus demonstrating his role of apostolic primacy. And, it would seem, that Christ also prayed ‘for’ Peter to strengthen his faith

for the ordeal, and for his similarly strengthening the other Apostles, from whom we hear nothing further about vying for leadership!

  • First, in the responsibilities of his leadership, Peter is to take on suffering as a vicar for Christ’s own flock.
  • Second, while it is already acknowledged that Judas has gone his own way, the other ten disciples are not to be sifted as Peter is, so their faith is not to be quite so ‘tested’. But that also means they are not accessible to Peter as support during his being tested.
  • Third, there is somewhat of a symbolic allusion to the Levitical scapegoat in Peter’s role, to go into a wilderness of trial alone, carrying the burden of all his brothers, in a kind of Alter Christus role. What is that wilderness? Isn’t it the very sifting which Peter is about to undergo? Thus, understanding better that word translated as ‘sift’ is essential to vicariously experiencing Peter’s trial, and sometimes even our own trials, as spiritual warfare.
  • Fourth, we note that Christ does not first address the Apostle as ‘Peter’, the name of strength He conveyed on him in Matthew 16, but instead reverts to the ordinary man “Simon,” in all his weakness, and with that name of weakness still ringing in Peter’s ears throughout the ordeal. This is a test, and Simon must endure it almost alone, but not quite, for Christ has prayed for him, and Christ will even remind him, in the Garden, to pray for himself.

Meaning of ‘sift’

The word ‘sift’ is a mysterious word, in the context in which it is used in Luke 22. In the New Testament, the word for ‘sift’ occurs only once, and indicates pressure building on Peter, i.e. his being ‘sifted.’ The Greek word is siniazo, a verb from the root word sinion (a sieve), implying a meaning of ‘to riddle’ (as a soldier fallen in battle might be ‘riddled’ with bullet holes.)   The second meaning of ‘sift’ is identified as figurative: “by inward agitation to try one’s faith to the verge of overthrow” [3] and would seem to be entirely consistent with what would actually become Peter’s experience.

In the Old Testament there seem to be only two translations into the word ‘sift’ in English. The meaning in Isaiah 30:28 and in Amos 9:9 [4] seem not inconsistent with the idea of ‘sifting’ in Luke, but the Greek in the Septuagint is not siniazo; so is somewhat less relevant in this analysis. The challenge, therefore, is to impute the meaning of the word ‘siniazo,’ by inferring the meaning from the events which follow, much as a noose gets tighter, or a passage way narrower, until it is – almost – too late to turn back!

Peter’s motive not in question

One might briefly wonder how Satan’s “demanding” to have Peter came about. It reminds the reader of Christ’s own trial from Satan for 40 days in the desert, but is it not also reminiscent of Satan’s taunting God in Chapter 2, verses 4-6 of Job: “Then Satan answered the Lord: ‘Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But put forth Thy hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse Thee to Thy face’. And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Behold he is in your power; only spare his life.’”  Clearly, as the story of Peter’s denial unfolds, one must consider that his primary reason for denying Christ was fear for his own life. It seems unnecessary to deal any further with Peter’s motives, as his love for Christ was not in question; he followed Christ after His arrest, when only one other disciple did so, further exposing himself to ‘sifting’ rather than running away, and Peter punctuated his final leave-taking from the High Priest’s courtyard with tears of remorse.

Objectives

The principal objective of this one-word bible study is to recognize what “sifting” is, and how Peter is being “sifted” through the increasing stress on him. Sifting moves from exploiting the weaknesses of Peter to entrapping him, hobbling his judgment and his commitment, based on what Peter did, and on what he did not do. Hopefully, at least to some extent, such reflection might reveal the strategies of Satan, and how he sifts souls, targeting and expanding even minor character flaws into major failings, a simple frustration into a ‘checkmate.’

The methodology in this study is to cohere the elements of four different Gospel writers into the detail of Peter’s denials, including understanding the variations in the timelines among the Gospels. Admittedly, this analysis is somewhat sympathetic to Peter, especially in identifying the pressures rising around him, and his seeming incompetence to manage it, although not without his own personal guilt. Indeed, just such escalating pressure is the very ‘sifting’ to which he is being subjected.

Peter, in his unique position as Vicar of Christ, is the most important of all the disciples. Whereas Satan had wanted to sift all the disciples, most likely to totally destroy Christ’s Mission, he must settle for the Vicar of Christ being offered ‘vicariously’ in their place; just as Christ Himself was offered vicariously for His own flock. The Lucan words, that Christ has already prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail (like Judas’ loss of faith and his suicide), and the reminder by Christ to Peter of his Petrine responsibility to strengthen the brethren and keep the faith, are particularly uplifting and encouraging, especially the words in Luke 22:32: “When you have turned again….”  Christ knows, and Peter hears the promise, that he will ‘turn’ back, and what Peter learns in the process of being sifted will benefit the disciples and the Body of Christ, for whom he suffers, at least in part. From Peter’s being ‘sifted,’ he and the disciples will learn about mercy. Sifting is like a ‘test,’ possibly even an anointing in his new role.

Christ’s Prophecy

All four Gospels contain essentially the same warning of denial to come, given by Christ to Peter; i.e. before the next dawn Peter will have denied Christ three times. We compare those texts in the table below.  (Although the convention is for Matthew to be listed before Mark, there is also evidence that Mark was written first, and in this matter it helps to show him first, especially with the likeliness of his having had Peter for his main source.) Subsequent parts of Sifting Simon will also show Mark first.

Each part will have any relevant biblical text appended at the end, for convenience of use.

Footnotes and Biblical Text    (Click to retrieve)

Mar 14:30  “And Jesus said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, this very night,

before the cock crows twice, you will deny Me three times.'”

 

Mat 26:34  “Jesus said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, this very night,

 before the cock crows, you will deny Me three times.'”

 

Luk 22:34  “He said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day,

 until you three times deny that you know Me.'”

 

Jhn 13:38  “Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say

   to you, the cock will not crow, till you have denied Me three times.'”

In the following analyses, we suggest some of the weaknesses of Peter that may have left ajar vulnerabilities to the evil one, and how each such exploitation opens his vulnerability further. We also will point out some of the elements increasing the pressure on Simon Peter.

Footnotes:

[1] All English translations of the Bible used herein are from the first or second edition, Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition (RSV-CE), unless otherwise noted.

[2] Johnson, Luke Timothy. “Teachings at Table.” Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke, edited by Daniel Harrington, S.J. The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 346. Distinguishing singular and plural second person pronouns in Chapter 22, verses 31-32.

[3] Blue Letter Bible on-line Lexicon

[4]  The RSV-CE translation (First Edition) of Isaiah 30:28 is: “His breath is like an overflowing stream that reaches up to the neck; to sift the nations with the sieve of destruction, and to place on the jaws of the peoples a bridle that leads astray.” And the English translation from Amos 9:9 is similar: “For lo, I will command, and shake the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall upon the earth.” The Amos verse is particularly interesting perhaps as a foreshadowing of Peter the Rock being sifted to the size of a pebble, but, in his humanness, yet a pebble whose faith did not “fall upon the earth.”

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