One of the most vivid scenes in Luke is Peter’s 3x denial, particularly “the look.”
”The Lord turned around and looked straight at Peter” (Luke 22:61, GNB).
The verbs are intensive, descriptive, and full of significance. “Turned around,” which is actually a participle in the Greek text, involves twisting or reversing; it is turning the back 180% degrees. Jesus turned around–he “converted” as the term is sometimes translated–to look at Peter. But it was no mere glance; it was an intense gaze. Jesus looked at Peter with piercing, discerning eyes.
Turning his body toward Peter, the Lord’s eyes rested on Peter (JMH amplified).
The next verbs in Luke 22:61-62 describe Peter’s actions. He “remembered” what Jesus had predicted about the denial….he went and wept bitterly.” Confronted with his betrayal, Peter “remembered.” He then escaped; he ran away. And then he wailed violently–a visible, audible, wrenching sob. Peter, faced with his denial and memory, was a totally broken man. Remembering Jesus’ prediction–and, no doubt, his own insistence that it would never happen–he burst into tears.
What did Peter see in the eyes of Jesus that pierced his heart? What did those eyes tell him?
I think how we answer that question will probably say more about our own vision of God than it would Peter’s. We can’t get inside of Peter’s head, but we can examine our own. Our root image of God–perhaps one we learned in childhood, one that is at the core of our inner being–will probably shape how we “feel” this text.
We can easily imagine what Peter felt. No doubt he felt shame and guilt. We have all felt the same when confronted with our sins. That shame and guilt taps into something deep within us, and our core understanding of God will shape how we deal with it.
For some the eyes of Jesus may be primarily condemning. Peter sinned; he did not measure up. He did not keep the law; he betrayed a friend. The law condemns him, and Jesus condemns him. At the root of this perception is an angry God, a judge who strictly administers the law without mercy. Jesus, with these eyes, is insulted and offended. “How dare Peter deny me! I thought he was my friend! Didn’t he say he would go to the death with me! He deserves whatever he gets!” This God is the Zeus who sits on the throne ready to cast his lightning bolts to earth on those who deserve his vengeance. These eyes convey no hope, no redemption. Unfortunately, they are the eyes that many have lived with for years, even when intellectually they know the story of grace much better than their guts will let them feel. It is what some got from their parents–a series of spankings, condemnations. They heard the message that they were bad kids and deserved punishment. Are these the eyes that met Peter’s eyes?
For others the eyes of Jesus may be primarily filled with disappointment. Peter disappointed Jesus; he had hoped for better. Peter knew better; he knew he should not deny his Lord, but he did nevertheless. Peter had expectations of himself. Even if everyone else ran away, he would not. He would die with Jesus if necessary. The disappointed eyes are the opposite of what Peter wanted. He wanted approval, praise, and honor. To feel Jesus’ disappointment means he was seeking Jesus’ commendation. It is what we often seek from parents as children; we don’t want to disappoint our parents. Some parents, when disappointed, shame their children. “I knew you couldn’t do it. Why can’t you be like Johnny? When will you ever learn? Do I have to do everything myself? I can’t trust you with anything. I’ll have to finish what you could not complete.” We tend to project this onto God so that he becomes like the shaming parent who voices disapproval, disappointment, and dissatisfaction. Are these the eyes that met Peter’s eyes?
At my core, my childhood images–images that I learned but surely few, if any, ever intentionally taught me–tend to see the eyes of an angry, disappointed God. My sin gave me a toxic shame that meant that I was worthless, a mistake, a screwup. I needed to get God’s approval, to get on his good side. I wanted God to like me and certainly not punish me. So, I needed to work harder, better, even faster…to do more, to do enough.
Intellectually, I know that last paragraph is bogus. Emotionally, however, it has been a different story. And so when I worked my way to a hellacious screwup (read: sin)–working for what I thought God wanted but actually working myself to death, even a spiritual death–I immediately felt God’s disappointment. “John Mark, you should’ve known better.” Or, “John Mark, how could you?!” Or, “John Mark, what were you thinking?”
This week I have been meditating on these eyes–the eyes that pierced Peter’s heart. I am Peter. What did Peter see?
I don’t think he saw condemning, judgmental eyes. Neither do I think he saw disappointed eyes. I think he saw sadness, a compassionate and hopeful sadness. Jesus grieved for Peter. His eyes expressed sympathy and caring. They were redemptive eyes. Jesus is more interested in relationship with Peter than excluding, punishing or shaming Peter. Jesus reveals the divine loving parent who grieves over the failures of his children but does not give up on them. Peter saw in Jesus’ eyes his ongoing compassionate, forgiving, loving prayer that Peter would be strengthened by this experience and the hope in his eyes was the assurance that indeed Peter would.
In our betrayals, our sins, our denials, what do we see in the eyes of Jesus? With Peter we will remember and weep bitterly. That is understandable and healthy. But also with Peter we may gain strength through the compassionate hope in those eyes.
In The Shack, Mack asked Papa: “honestly, don’t you enjoy punishing those who disappoint you?” Papa “turned toward Mack” and with “deep sadness in her eyes,” said: “I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it” (pp. 119-120).
I think Paul Young got that just about right. Intellectually, I understand it. Emotionally, well, I’m learning.
Jesus’ eyes, though sad, anticipated the joy of redemption for Peter….and for me…for all of us.