Luke 22: 54-65
Having apprehended him, they took him away and brought him into the house of the High Priest, with Peter following at a distance. They sat around a fire they had lit in the courtyard and that was where Peter joined them. Seeing him there, a maid-servant sat close by where she could see him [getting a closer look] and then said: “This man was with him!”
But he denied it saying, “Woman, I do not know this man!”
After a little while another saw him there and said, “You also are one of them!” to which Peter replied,
“Man, I am not!”
And after about an hour, another there said, “Truly, this is one who was with him; he is, after all, a Galilean.”
And Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!”
And immediately as he said this, the cock crowed! And the Lord turned around, and having eyeballed Peter, Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him, “Before the cock crows three times you shall three times deny me.” And Peter went outside that place, weeping bitterly.
And the men holding him mocked him and beat him. And when they had blindfolded him they subjected him to mock interrogation: “Prophesy then; who was it that struck you.” And with many such insults they abused him.
Luke has done his research. And we who read this need to give careful attention to the details of what he has written. His report of Jesus’ initial comments when confronted by the crowd indicates that he was aware that Jesus knew that his arrest was part of a plot hatched by a group of Chief Priests and Scribes in order that he be brought to trial. They had paid Judas for his services. But was it an official and authorised action of the Sanhedrin? That is the question raised by Jesus’ observation. They had come for him carrying swords and clubs. They had come in the dead of night. Their intentions were clear. It was the action of cowards; those afraid of the crowds because they knew Jesus had a way of holding their attention with his teaching. Besides, they really were afraid of the crowds.
Have you come out with your swords and clubs to arrest a thief? I was with you day after day in the temple but you took no action to take me then. But the hour of darkness is obviously the hour for you to act.
And so as we read on, not immediately of his trial but of his rendition. He was held in custody as they waited for morning, waiting for a Council meeting to be called.
In that context he was subjected to torture, and mock interrogation. Here was abuse of the innocent under the authority of the Chief Priests, the Scribes and the city’s elders. The temple police have been co-opted to do the dirty work for those plotting his murder. Could he have been murdered then and there? Obviously they would have some explaining to do. But the Prisoner lived through his rendition. The Sanhedrin will be presented with a fait accompli. Jesus will be presented to the full council just as if he had willingly given himself into their hands.
It is in this context that Luke depicts Peter’s denial. He notes how Peter kept his distance, presumably from the armed guard holding Jesus. He kept his distance, sitting with others who were there watching how the event would turn out, warming themselves by a fire. They were watching; Peter was watching. The young woman was also watching. The picture Luke draws is one of waiting and watching.
Then Peter denies, and denies and with his third denial, the cock crows, morning has come and
… the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.
Peter was neither by Jesus’ side – as one might have hoped he would be, given his previous pledge of allegiance until death – nor was he, by his own word, to be known to them as one of Jesus’ disciples. His allegiance had collapsed – utterly.
And it certainly sounds like he then experienced a significant emotional breakdown.
But look again at what Luke is telling us and the order in which his narrative unfolds. This is the report of an important chapter in the life of the man who was to become leader of “the way”. This particular event, where Peter goes away sobbing deeply and uncontrollably, takes place in a context marked by gross violence.
Peter knew that already – as did the young man, reported by Mark, who hot-footed it through the olive groves, naked. And then we read of the abuse of the man held prisoner. We read of the mocking and the play acting at his expense. The thugs “having a bit of fun” at the prisoner’s expense. This was the all too violent reality that Peter was unable to challenge.
By comparing Luke’s account with what can be read in the other Gospels, we gain insight into the author’s own concern. With the precision of a physician, Luke’s account reads as the report of one alert to the pastoral dimension of what he, the author of this book, is writing about.
He has become alert to how Jesus subsequently restored Peter. He knows how he mercifully cared for a disciple who so wanted to follow him “all the way”. Did not he, as a writer of the Gospel, not have to reflect that same mercy in the way he portrayed Peter’s trial? Luke has already given Theophilus the central point – Jesus had effectively prepared the way for Peter’s own recovery beforehand:
But I have interceded on your behalf that your faith would not collapse, and so when you are turned around you may be a firm support to your brothers.
Luke doesn’t have to write in a way that is critical of Peter. Theophilus is given no ground for moralising about Peter’s failures. Clearly, the manner in which his narrative is constructed indicates a deep desire for Jesus’ disciples to deepen their sympathy for this man who subsequently became the leader of those following “the way” (This is how Luke would subsequently describes the community of believers – Acts 9:2, 19:9; 19:23; 24:14; 24:22). He constructs his account to counter Theophilus’ disbelief:
Really? Could this be the man, the same Peter who has been the leader among those confessing Jesus as their Lord?
And Luke is suggesting:
Yes, this is the same person. It was before Jesus was raised. But keep in mind that those questions were being asked of him in a context of violent intimidation. It was not just some TV Q&A session. He was in the vicinity of foul brutality. I’m certainly not telling you this so you can take a poke at Peter! This story is also the report of how Jesus made Peter the Galilean fisherman, with all his faults, all his hairy chested bravado, all his impulsive confusion, into his disciple.
This author already knows, if not from his own personal experience, then from the witness of the two on the road to Emmaus of the effectiveness of the pastoral upbraiding of the Risen Lord himself. And that knowledge
… that the Christ was indeed to suffer before entering his glory …
is the Good News, that must be deeply and thoroughly absorbed by any effort to draw attention to the redemptive hope that is now found by those who believe that Jesus’ suffering has inestimable benefit for them.
Luke is indeed an evangelist and the Good News he brings gives sure hope to those disciples of Jesus who are weak, who fail, who crave to be faithful and who plead in the hearts for restoration and health.