AUGUST 27TH, 2017: TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Thus says the LORD to Shebna, master of the palace:
"I will thrust you from your office
and pull you down from your station.
On that day I will summon my servant
Eliakim, son of Hilkiah;
I will clothe him with your robe,
and gird him with your sash,
and give over to him your authority.
He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem,
and to the house of Judah.
I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim's shoulder;
when he opens, no one shall shut
when he shuts, no one shall open.
I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot,
to be a place of honor for his family."
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord
or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given the Lord anything
that he may be repaid?
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be glory forever. Amen.
Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and
he asked his disciples,
"Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"
They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Simon Peter said in reply,
"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Jesus said to him in reply,
"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
Then he strictly ordered his disciples
to tell no one that he was the Christ.
I’ve often said that someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture and not think of the Lone Ranger is a true aficionado of classical music. Likewise, anyone who can listen to Matthew 16:18 – “You’re the rock and on this rock I’m going to build my church.” – and not think of the Roman Catholic papacy, is a true Scripture scholar. We’ve employed this text for so long as the main proof text for our hierarchical structure that for all practical purposes Matthew’s real message has been completely lost.
The main problem is that we take today’s gospel passage out of its original context of a first century CE Jewish/Christian community and put it into a twenty-first century church CE institution. When Matthew originally penned these lines, he still seems to have believed Jesus would return very shortly in the Parousia. He wasn’t concerned with setting up a “program for the ages,” but in addressing problems his readers were experiencing then and there. Among those difficulties was the role of Jesus of Nazareth in the lives of Jewish/Christian believers. For the evangelist, this former Galilean carpenter was more than just one more Jewish prophet in a long line of Jewish prophets like Elijah or Jeremiah.
“You’re the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Peter states. The risen Jesus whom Christians follow is not only the Messiah for which Jews longed for centuries, but he/she shares in Yahweh’s divinity.
As we know from Paul of Tarsus, our earliest Christian author, Jesus’ disciples could only stand in awe once they discovered the uniqueness of this itinerant preacher. God had done things through him that no person of faith could have anticipated. “How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” Paul reminds the Romans, in today’s second reading, that no one could have predicted what had happened between 6 BCE and 30 CE, and was still happening with the risen Jesus in their midst. We can only give God glory for his/her intervention through Jesus.
Of course, the Chosen People were certain Yahweh had already personally worked in their history. Isaiah gives us an example of such an occurrence in our first reading. The prophet presumes it was Yahweh – and not just politics - who had replaced Shebna with Eliakim as “master of the palace” in 8th century BCE Judah. God never hesitated to get involved in everyday Jewish life.
Matthew is convinced that same divine involvement carries over into his day and age, especially through Jesus and those who follow him. Simon’s rock solid faith in Jesus’ divinity has transformed him into a rock for the early Christian community. This poor fisherman’s belief in Jesus’ uniqueness is the rock on which that church has been built. And just as traditional Pharisaic teachers and lawyers could interpret the Mosaic Law in ways respected and binding “in heaven and on earth,” so Peter and those with faith in the risen Jesus now share in that same ministry for the new People of God. (Contrary to popular belief, this power has nothing to do with who gets into heaven and who doesn’t.)
Through the centuries many of us Catholics seem to have actually put more faith in some of the authority figures in our church than we’ve put in the risen Jesus. Especially during this year commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we have to thank Fr. Martin Luther for trying to at least partially return us to that biblical faith.
But the struggle continues. After 2,000 years we’re still fighting against “the gates of the netherworld,” trusting the gospel Jesus’ promise that if we constantly fall back on our faith in him, the forces of evil will never prevail - even forces within the church.