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A Practical Commentary On Holy Scripture by Frederick Justus Knecht D.D.

[Mat. 26:69. Mark 14:66. Luke 22:55. John 18:15]

PETER and John had followed Jesus at a distance, even to the house of the High Priest, in order to see the end. In the court-yard there was a fire, which Peter approached to warm himself. While there, Peter was noticed by one of the maidservants of the High Priest. She looked at him, and said: “This man also was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Peter denied Him, saying: “Woman, I know Him not.” Immediately the cock crew.

After a little while a man, coming to Peter, exclaimed: “Thou also art one of them.” But Peter said: “O man, I am not.” Now, after the space of an hour, a certain servant saw Peter, and pointing him out to the others, affirmed: “Surely, thou art also one of them, for even thy speech doth discover thee!” But Peter swore that he knew not the man! Then the cock crew a second time.

And the Lord, turning, looked at Peter. That look pierced his heart. Remembering the words of his Divine Master: “Before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny Me thrice”, he went out, and wept bitterly.

During that fearful night, Jesus was guarded in the court by the soldiery, who amused themselves by inflicting upon Him all manner of insults; they spat upon Him, blindfolded Him, and struck Him1 in the Face. Early in the morning1, the council assembled to pronounce sentence of death on Jesus.

Then Judas began to be sorry for having betrayed his Divine Master, and going to the chief priests, he would have given back the thirty pieces of silver he had received as the price of his treason, saying: “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” But they replied: “What is that to us? Look thou to it.” Then, being filled with remorse, and losing all hope, he cast down the pieces of silver in the Temple, and went and hanged himself with a halter.

Our Blessed Lord’s Omniscience. When, the evening before, our Lord said to His disciples: “All of you shall be scandalized in Me this night”, Peter would not admit the possibility of such a thing in his case: “Although all shall be scandalized”, he protested, “I will never be scandalized!” In spite of his protest, our Lord then distinctly told him: “To-day, even in this night, before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny Me thrice”; and so it came to pass. He knew beforehand precisely how many times, and exactly at what hours Peter would deny Him; and, though He could not possibly have seen with His eyes at the time, what was happening in the outer court of the High Priest’s house, He knew exactly what was occurring. Our Blessed Lord proved Himself to be Omniscient, i. e. God.

Peter’s sin was a very grievous one. Out of fear of man, Peter lied three times, and denied his faith; and the third time he even swore falsely. The sin of Peter grew, and became more grievous each time he committed it. At his first denial, he simply said of our Lord: “I know Him not.” The second time, he asserted: “I know not the Man”, thus repudiating as a disgrace any connexion with Jesus; and the third time he confirmed this assertion by an oath. He contemptuously called his Lord and Master “the Man”, acting as if he did not even know His Name! And this was the same Peter who, but a few hours before, had declared that he was ready to lay down his life for his Lord!

The following circumstances may serve as a partial excuse for Peter. He was thoroughly exhausted, excited, confused, and half out of his mind with sorrow at the events of that terrible night. Moreover, from the moment he joined the company of his Master’s fierce enemies, he was in a very real danger of death. Finally, he did not sin from malice, but from weakness and panic; and he did not lose his faith, although he outwardly denied it.

The causes of Peter’s fall were these: 1. He did not avoid the proximate occasions of sin; for at the time of his fall he was associating with the enemies of Christ. If he had left their company even after his first denial, he would not have fallen so low. “He that loveth danger shall perish in it” (Ecclus. 3:27). 2. He had paid too little attention to our Lord’s warning words: “Satan hath desired to sift you as wheat … This night thou shalt deny Me thrice”; and he trusted too much in himself: “Though all shall be scandalized, yet not I. I will lay down my life for Thee!” When he said those words he meant them, for Peter had a very firm faith in our Lord, and an ardent love for Him; but he ought not to have forgotten that he was a weak man, and that without God’s grace he could not remain faithful. Our Lord had said to him but a very short time before, as they were walking up the Mount of Olives: “Without Me you can do nothing!” 3. He fell, therefore, through over self-confidence, and by neglecting our Lord’s exhortation: “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation!”

Peter’s fall should be a warning to us, to carefully avoid bad companions, and the occasions of sin; to remember our weakness and instability; and not to trust too much in ourselves, but to ask humbly for the assistance of grace. It was not without reason that our Lord taught us to pray: “Lead us not into temptation!” St. Paul says (1 Cor. 10:12): “He that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall!”

The conversion of Peter was the work of the preventing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. The cock crew immediately after his first denial; and this was intended to remind him of his Lord’s warning words, and of his own promise to lay down his life for Him. However, he paid no heed to this first cock-crow, and fell deeper into sin; for an outward warning is of no avail without the inward voice of grace. Even the second cock-crow would not have moved him in his distraction, had not our Lord at the same moment cast his gracious glance on the fallen apostle. With that one look which met his eye, grace penetrated the soul of the unfaithful apostle, and gave him light to see how low he had fallen, and how grievously he had sinned. His heart and will were moved, he detested his sin, and bitterly repented of it. Peter corresponded with the helping grace which was given to him; he opened his heart to it, obeyed its promptings, and was therefore converted. To Judas also great grace was given, in the Garden of Gethsemani, but he resisted it, and therefore perished in his sins.

The repentance of Peter was both real and supernatural. So great was his grief of soul for the sin which he had committed, that bitter tears of contrition flowed from his eyes. His contrition was also supernatural, and was indeed a perfect contrition, for he was sorry purely because he had offended his beloved Lord, and because he had increased His sufferings; for of all our Lord’s sufferings the one that pained Him most was that Peter, His highly-favoured and chosen apostle, should be ashamed of Him and deny Him in such a cowardly manner. Peter repented of his fall from perfect love for his Divine Master, whose countless benefits and graces he had repaid with such base ingratitude. Let us, too, if we fall into mortal sin, do penance at once, as Peter did, and awaken a perfect contrition in our hearts. His repentance, furthermore, was no passing one: his sorrow for his sin oppressed him all his life, and it is said that each time he heard a cock crow he was moved to a sense of contrition for his sin, and that his eyes were always red with weeping. All his life long he worked mightily for the glory of his Master and the salvation of souls, and unceasingly preached the Gospel, till at last he gave up his life for Jesus. Great was his fall, but still greater was his penance: and he has by his contrition and life-long satisfaction become the model of a true penitent.

The compassion of Jesus. In the midst of His sufferings Jesus, while tormented by His enemies and unjustly condemned to death, forgot Himself and thought of His fallen apostle, and sought to recall and convert him by His glance. He did not upbraid him, nor punish him, but cast on him one look of love and compassion to bring him to a knowledge of his sin, and to kindle in him the hope of forgiveness. O, how unfathomable is the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus!

Divine wisdom permitted Peter’s fall 1. so that Peter might become very humble, and, as the vicar of the Good Shepherd, might be gentle and considerate to those under his charge; 2. that all men might learn to know the mercy of God and the power of grace, and that no sinner might give himself up to despair.

What the Sufferings of Jesus were. It is with deep emotion and compassion that we approach the thought of what our Lord Jesus suffered that night. For hours together a low, ruffianly rabble amused itself by mocking the Son of God! These men abused Him and insulted Him in every way that they could think of: they struck Him with their brutal fists, they tore out His hair, they spat on His Sacred Face; and Jesus bore all silently and without complaint. His Sacred Face, full of gentleness and grace, was marred with bruises, and dishonoured by the spittle of the very scum of humanity! Truly and terribly were David’s words of prophecy fulfilled (Ps. 21:7): “I am a worm and no man, the reproach of men, and the outcast of the people!” If we contemplate our Saviour in this state of deep abjection, we too could almost put the question to Him: “Art Thou the Christ? Art Thou the Son of God? Why dost Thou suffer this terrible treatment?” This is His answer: “I suffer this for love of thee; to make satisfaction for thy sins, and to give to thee an example of humility and patience.”

The repentance, confession, and despair of Judas. When Judas perceived the consequence of his treachery, his conscience reproached him with the awful thought: “I am guilty of the murder of my God!” And then Satan, who had taken possession of his heart by reason of his obduracy, drove him to despair. Before the deed was done, he induced Judas to sin, blinding him so that he did not perceive the heinousness of his crime, nor consider its consequences; but once the sin had been committed, he showed its full horror to the wretched sinner, and whispered to him as he had once whispered to Cain, that his sin was too great to be forgiven. Judas might have obtained pardon even then, had he possessed the proper dispositions. It is true that “he repented himself”, and that he made a really good resolution of amendment, for at no price would he have committed the sin again. He confessed his guilt by the words: “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood”; and he made what satisfaction he could, for he gave back the blood-money, and tried to get the sentence of death reversed—but, for all this, he was wanting in true penance. Now, what did he lack? The sorrow of Judas was wanting in hope, and such a sorrow does not lead back to God, but rather leads to despair and to an eternal separation from God. Judas’ sin in betraying our Lord was a terribly grievous one; and yet the worst sin he committed was that of despairing of the grace and mercy of God. His first sin might have found forgiveness, but there exists no forgiveness for the sin of despair; for he who despairs of God’s pardon denies the infinite mercy of God, and cannot therefore benefit by it. To despair of God’s mercy is one of the sins against the Holy Ghost, and it is said of these sins that they will not be forgiven either in this world or in the world to come (see chapter XXVII). Furthermore, Judas’ confession of his sin availed him nothing. If, full of confidence in his Saviour, the God of love and mercy, he had thrown himself at His Feet, confessed his guilt to Him, and implored His forgiveness, he would most surely have obtained it; but, as it was, in his despair of God’s mercy, he sought for consolation from men, and confessed his guilt merely to the members of the Sanhedrim. When they rejected him contemptuously, and laid all the responsibility on him, his last comfort was torn from him, and the burden of his guilty life was so heavy, that he had not the courage to bear it any longer. He felt that he had nothing more to hope for from heaven, and could find no peace on earth, so he hanged himself between heaven and earth, and to the crime of deicide added that of suicide.

Suicide is a terrible sin, for he who commits it does not only kill his body, but also his soul, since at the very moment of his death he is committing a mortal sin, and flinging his soul into hell.

Continued resistance of grace leads to eternal ruin. When our Lord chose Judas to be an apostle, no doubt he was full of good intentions and worthy of the choice. But by degrees he became the cause of great sorrow to his Divine Master, for his passions gained more and more dominion over him. Jesus bore with him, and repeatedly and solemnly warned him. When, a year before His death, and just after He had promised the Blessed Sacrament, our Lord gave to His apostles the choice whether to leave Him or not, Peter, in the name of the others, confessed his faith in Him as the Son of God, and pledged his allegiance to Him. But Jesus answered: “Have I not chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil.” In these words He alluded to Judas, and distinctly gave it to be understood that he would be unfaithful to Him, and a tool of the devil. Judas, however, dissembled and remained with Jesus, hoping to turn his service of Him to his own advantage; and when he quite lost all hopes of an earthly Messias, and consequent prosperity for himself, he compensated himself for his disappointment by frauds and thefts. Thus he persisted in sin, and abused the patience, gentleness and love of Jesus, by continuing in his evil mode of life, instead of being moved and converted. The unworthy apostle believed that, because his Master was so kind, he could go on sinning with impunity, and he sinned therefore against the goodness and mercy of his Lord. Thus he sank deeper and deeper, until at last he sold his Master, and bartered away his own soul; and when he realized the consequences of his vile treachery, his presumption changed suddenly to despair. God’s mercy is, indeed, infinitely great, but meanness and baseness had grown to such dimensions in the heart of the traitor by reason of his long course of deceit and hypocrisy, that he had lost all sense of what is great and noble, and could not form the idea of God’s infinite mercy, than which nothing greater or more noble can be imagined. And thus it was that the once loved and chosen apostle of Jesus became a “son of perdition” (John 17:12), and went “to his own place” (Acts 1:25).

Sin bears two aspects. Before sin is committed it bears a pleasant, attractive aspect, so that the foolish sinner scarcely fears it at all, and even expects to be made happy by it. But hardly is the sin committed than it shows its true colours, which are hideous and horrible. Once a man has gratified his evil passions, he finds out with dismay that far from being the happier for it, he is robbed of all joy of heart and peace of conscience; and he bitterly reproaches himself, for he now perceives that sin is indeed the greatest of all evils. Thus it was with our first parents, and thus it was with Judas.

APPLICATION. You too have denied Jesus in deed if not in word. Whenever you sin wilfully you act as if you were not a disciple of Jesus Christ, and knew nothing of His love and holiness, and as if you had never promised fidelity to Him. If, however, you have become like Peter by your sin, be like him also in your penance. Have you ever bewailed your sins as sincerely and bitterly as did Peter?

Contemplate with deep emotion of heart how, during that long night, your Saviour was the butt of rude and wanton men, and how he was ill-treated, scoffed at, and loaded with ignominy. Do not forget that He who bore all this for love of you was the Incarnate Son of God! Excite in your heart a deep feeling of compassion for your despised Lord, and promise Him that you will always love Him and will never despise His holy commandments.

If it is ever your misfortune to commit a mortal sin, do not follow the example of Judas, who lived in a state of sin till he became hardened in it; but follow the example of Peter, who immediately repented and was converted for good and all.

Never sin by a presumptuous confidence in God’s mercy, for the fact of His being so infinitely good and merciful ought to make you love Him with your whole heart, and keep you from ever offending Him.

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