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AUGUST 24, 2014: TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Isaiah 22: 19-23
Romans 11:33-36
Matthew 16:13-20

The implications of today’s Romans passage are staggering. Listen carefully to Paul’s praise of God’s “wisdom and knowledge.” “How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” If that’s true, then we who claim to be God’s disciples have a huge task: to constantly apply God’s inscrutable wisdom and unsearchable knowledge to whatever happens in our everyday life. How do we pull that off?

It’s evident from our Isaiah passage that Yahweh’s intimately interested in whatever transpires in our daily life, even to the point of arranging for a change in political power. (Our sacred authors would have found our distinction between church and state to be either puzzling or humorous.) If God’s concerned about everything, then God’s concerned about everything – no exceptions. But how do we make God’s concerns our concerns?

Two months ago, on the feast of Peter and Paul - when we heard the same gospel pericope - I mentioned that no Scripture scholar today would employ these verses as a biblical proof text for the papacy. Matthew’s purpose in composing this narrative is to stress Peter’s faith in the risen Jesus, not his prerogative as the first infallible pope. It’s that faith on which the Christian community is built. The evangelist zeroes in on the faith, not the person. As we see in Galatians 2, if one’s faith in the risen Jesus begins to break down, then even Peter can make an egregious mistake, in this case, siding with the community’s Judaizers instead of giving his wholehearted support to Paul’s Gentile ministry. Perhaps that’s why, as we’ll hear in two weeks, Matthew’s Jesus, in chapter 18, also gives the power to bind and loose to the whole Christian community – the same power which he gives only to Peter in chapter 16.

The quest to know God’s will is a constant task for anyone who dares to follow God.  There’s no one person, no one institution, no one situation who’s cornered the market on God’s will. Our sacred authors presume our minds and hearts must always be open to surfacing that will even in situations, institutions, and persons in which we’ve never noticed it before.

I frequently quote the late Avery Dulles’ aside in his 1969 St. Louis University Bellarmine lecture: “Had there been a Holy Office in the early church, we Catholics would have just one gospel in our bibles: Mark. But in our history books we’d have reference to three notorious early Christian heretics named Matthew, Luke and John.”  As significant as that remark is, it’s just as important to remember that the famous Jesuit theologian’s topic that night revolved around the Second Vatican Council’s expansion of the church’s magisterium. He stressed that the council’s documents show that we can no longer rely just on papal decrees or conciliar statements to pinpoint God’s will in our lives. Somehow the whole church – even the whole non-Catholic Christian community – must now be brought into the picture.

Both the earliest church and the biblical Jews presumed the usual way to surface God’s will was to surface the community’s prophets: those special individuals whom God inspires to be our conscience, to provide us with the future implications of our present actions. These are the people who consistently challenge us to return to the beginnings of our faith, who are able to cut through centuries of institutional addenda and recreate God’s original plan for God’s people.

Pope Francis’ quest to get everyone’s input into the Vatican’s upcoming Synod on the Family is certainly a step toward that broader magisterium. Perhaps one of the papacy’s most important tasks isn’t always to tell us God’s will, but to surface the prophets in the church whom God has inspired to do just that.