I’m better than you

In the last post, we looked at Jesus’ prediction that before the night was out, Peter would deny him three times.  That’s how the heading reads in my NIV: “Jesus Predicts Peter’s Denial.”  And, of course, later in the narrative we get the heading “Peter Disowns Jesus” (Matt 26:69-75).

To be fair, in Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus doesn’t single out Peter (though see Luke 22:31-33): he predicts that all of the disciples will stumble, and Peter responds by vigorously asserting his loyalty.  The NIV translates his response as “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (Matt 26:33).  Eugene Peterson paraphrases: “Even if everyone else falls to pieces on account of you, I won’t” (The Message).  And the newer Common English Bible gives us: “If everyone else stumbles because of you, I’ll never stumble.”

In other words: Whatever these other guys do, you can count on me, Lord. 

This doesn’t seem to have been the most cohesive group of guys.  The disciples argued amongst themselves as to who was top dog: Luke even has them debating this during the Last Supper, after Jesus has announced his betrayal and declared the new covenant (Luke 22:24).  When the mother of James and John asked Jesus to grant her boys special places in the coming kingdom, it set the others’ teeth on edge (Matt 20:20-28).  In both of these cases, Jesus is compelled to teach them a lesson on humble service.

And here, whether he means it consciously or not, Peter can’t seem to affirm his own dedication to Jesus without taking a swipe at the other disciples.

Do we ever do this?  Do we ever raise ourselves up by devaluing others?

Psychologists call this downward social comparison: “I may have some doubts about myself, but at least I’m better than these losers.”   In its spiritual form, we become overconfident in our own religiousness while looking down on others–prompting Jesus to tell a cautionary story about a Pharisee who took just that attitude: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11b, NIV).

Even little episodes like this in Scripture should give us pause.  I doubt that Peter intended to insult his companions; the implied comparison was simply part of his way of thinking, as it is of ours.

And if that is so, then we should always remember: given such fractious human tendencies, if it were not for the gift of the Holy Spirit, there would be no church.