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AUGUST 24, 2008: TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

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

My recent encounter with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma has given me a deep appreciation of the medical discoveries and advancements we've achieved throughout our history. Those, for instance, involved in my chemotherapy have assured me, "This isn't your parents' chemo. Treatment has changed drastically in just the last 10 years." It doesn't take long for medical discoveries to be integrated into medical practice.

Yet, when I look at my own field of expertise - Scripture - I'm embarrassed to admit that we, as a church, more frequently employ my great-grandparents' explanation of today's well-known gospel pericope than even that of my parents'. We completely ignore the discoveries of the gospel redaction critics which took place during the mid-50's, the same time Dr. Salk's polio vaccination started to eliminate that dreaded disease. We also seem to forget the Pontifical Biblical Commission's 1964 Council-requested statement on the Historicity of Gospels, issued about the same time cholesterol was discovered. Both Scripture advances showed us that gospels aren't "Jesus biographies," written by eye-witnesses of the events they narrate. Rather, they're theological documents, composed by our evangelists to help their communities understand the implications of imitating the dying/rising Jesus alive in their midst.

To say, for instance, that Jesus is setting up the papacy and the hierarchical structure of the church as we know it in today's gospel passage is to ignore some of the most basic discoveries and insights of biblical scholarship achieved over the last century and a half! Those who today choose to teach the "old" interpretation choose to ignore some significant "facts."

First, Matthew writes not for us Gentile/Christians, but for a Jewish/Christian community; a group of people who faithfully attend synagogue every Sabbath, follow all 613 Laws of Moses, and would have understood both Jesus' command "to bind and loose" and his comment about the "keys of the kingdom" in the context of Jewish rabbinical practice, not against our background of confession or church excommunication. (That's why today's first reading referring to "the key of the House of David" is taken from Isaiah's Hebrew Scriptures.)

Second, the passage as we have it is found only in Matthew. In Gospels 101, all students learn Matthew copied from Mark, Luke also copied from Mark, but Luke never read Matthew, nor obviously did Mark. If this pericope contains an essential element of church structure, why isn't it in every gospel - like the Eucharist?

Third, the vast majority of Matthean scholars contend the evangelist still believes Jesus is returning in the Parousia during his lifetime. He isn't looking centuries down the road. Why would he set up an authority structure for a church which isn't going to last more than a short period of time?

Fourth, following good Semitic both/and thought patterns, the "powers" which Jesus specifically bestows on Peter in chapter 16 are bestowed on the entire community in chapter 18! Not as simple as we were once taught. Perhaps a better approach to today's gospel would be to emphasize what Matthew's Jesus emphasizes: Peter's faith. It's that faith that "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God" which forms the foundation and rock of the Christian community. It's that faith in a person, not a structure, that we should deepen every day.

Paul says it beautifully: "For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be glory forever!" Had my oncologist started my treatment by applying leaches to my infected lymph nodes, I would have asked for a second opinion.