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AUGUST 21, 2011: TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

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

When teaching today's gospel passage I often mention that a real devotee of classical music is someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture and not think of the Lone Ranger. In a parallel way, a real student of Scripture is someone who can listen to Matthew 16:18 - "You are Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church." - and not think of the papacy.

I'll leave it to church historians to explain how an original equalitarian community based on loving service to one another developed into the hierarchical structure of clergy and laity with which we're familiar today. Just as Rossini knew nothing of a masked man and his faithful Indian companion, so Matthew knew nothing of an all-controlling Vatican bureaucracy.

Since Matthew seems to believe Jesus' Second Coming will take place in his lifetime, why would he be providing us with proof-texts for a form of church government that will last through the centuries? Like all evangelists, he's concerned with the problems and difficulties his community is facing at the time he's writing. None of our sacred authors write for us. If they did, they'd be writing in English!

We know from Chapter 23 that leadership in Matthew's community was starting to take on some of the worst aspects of Jewish leadership with which its Jewish/Christian members were familiar. As director of our diocese's permanent diaconate program back in the 70s and 80s, I experienced something similar. Those were the beginning days of diaconal ministry. When most of our candidates envisioned their future service, they envisioned priesthood, the only Catholic ministry with which they were familiar. I often had to remind them that they were preparing for a unique ministry, something our church had not seen for almost 1,500 years. They had to create a new image of ministry and not just prepare to be "mini-priests."

In a similar way, Matthew's community knew only Jewish models of religious leadership. That meant, among other things, that he had to impress upon them that they were not just replacing Jewish leaders with Christian leaders, but that the model of leadership itself had changed. It wasn't a matter, for instance, of exchanging Eliakim for Shebna, as we hear in today's Isaiah reading. In that case, the former simply took over the office of the latter. In Matthew's situation, the whole concept of the office had changed.

Though the Christian community's leaders could still bind and loose like the old Jewish experts in Mosaic law bond and loosed in interpreting the 613 Torah regulations, now they were working from Jesus' insights and attitudes about law. (In two weeks, for instance, we'll see that the whole Christian community was expected to take part in this process of binding and loosing.)

The foundation (the "rock") of this unique community revolved around the belief that Jesus is "the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." Without that conviction permeating everything we do, there's no Christian community, no matter how perfect its structure. The beauty of today's passage is that Matthew sees this faith in Simon, one of the most fallible of Jesus' disciples; someone who next week Jesus will call "Satan," and, when push comes to shove, a person who will deny he even knows him. Except for his eventual, dogged belief in the risen Jesus, no one would ever surface recognizable leadership qualities in Simon.

As usual, Paul hits the biblical nail on the head when he reminds the church in Rome that the first task of our Christian leaders is to constantly help us attain "the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge (experience) of God." To God and Jesus" be the glory," not to the leader.

Our 2,000 years of being church have demonstrated how hard it is for Christian leaders to pull that off.