Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time – A

Readings: Is 22:19-23; Ps 138:1-3, 6, 8; Rom 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20

“YOU ARE PETER, AND UPON THIS ROCK I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH.”

  • When Christian Herter was Governor of Massachusetts, he was running hard for a second term in office. One day, after a busy morning chasing votes (and no lunch) he arrived at a church barbecue. It was late afternoon and Herter was famished. As Herter moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken. She put a piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line.

    “Excuse me,” Governor Herter said, “do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?”

    “Sorry,” the woman told him. “I’m supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person.”

    “But I’m starved,” the Governor said.

    “Sorry,” the woman said again. “Only one to a customer.”

    Governor Herter was a modest and unassuming man, but he decided that this time he would throw a little weight around.

    “Do you know who I am?” he said. “I am the Governor of this State.”

    “And do you know who I am?” the woman said. “I’m the lady in charge of the chicken. Move along, Mister.”

    This is a short, and simple, and humorous story about two people viz. Governor Herter and the Lady in-charge of the chicken, both trying to exert their authority on to the other by tellling – ‘who each one is.’

Today is the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time. There is a striking parallel between this Sunday’s First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and the Gospel Reading from St. Matthew. The symbol of the keys is the clear link between them, which stands for power and authority. In the First Reading, the Prophet denounces the master of the palace, Shebna and says that the Lord will place another, the more worthy servant Eliakim in his place. Eliakim will have binding authority over the House of David and the Lord will make him secure. He will be a father to all. He would have the keys of office – what he opens, no one would shut, and what he shuts no one would open. The Gospel Reading portrays a similar investiture of power. Jesus gives the earthly power and authority of his Kingdom to Peter, in the future to be known as the foundation stone of the new Temple – the Church. Like Eliakim’s mandate, the authority received by Peter is meant to promote the Kingdom of Heaven and God’s redemptive plan. Through the authority given to him, represented by the keys, and through his responsibility to bind and loose, the Church will proclaim salvation, grow, and be structured during the interim period before the fullness of the Kingdom comes. Another exemplary servant of the Divine saving plan is St. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. In today’s Second Reading, he acknowledges the boundless works of Divine providence. The depth of God’s wisdom and purpose are a marvel to St. Paul. He is aware of God’s action which, for the most part, goes beyond human understanding.

ELIAKIM IS GIVEN THE KEY OF THE HOUSE OF DAVID:

The Prophet Isaiah lived at a time when competition among the powers of his day involved Israel in a considerable amount of political and military intrigue. The Prophet strongly urged King Hezekiah to rely on God alone and not to make alliances with any of the pagan nations vying for military dominance. Apparently, Shebna, one of the king’s top advisors, counseled the opposite, and when Israel joined Egypt in revolt against Assyria they lost disastrously.

In the First Reading of today, Isaiah pronounces God’s judgment of condemnation on Shebna and foretells his disgrace and replacement by Eliakim. The oracle speaks powerfully that God will place on Eliakim’s shoulders ‘the key of the House of David.’ Eliakim as the servant of God receives his authority directly from God who clothes him in robe and sash, symbols of his office. God further describes Eliakim as a father to the people of Jerusalem and to the House of Judah since he will give priority to their welfare. He will carry the key of the House of David around his neck. What Eliakim shall open, no one shall shut; what he shall shut, no one shall open. Eliakim will not fail those who rely on him for support and influence.

In addition to being an interesting historical narrative, the passage is also about the larger issue of stewardship and the responsibility of those in authority for wielding power in accord with God’s will.

MYSTERIOUS ARE GOD’S WAYS:

We may have doubts about the utility of reading St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans to the average congregation. It is a notoriously difficult work. A short extract is always hard to relate to the main thrust of St. Paul’s argument. It would be all too easy to see the Letter as a collection of problems – and difficult ones to boot.

In today’s Second Reading, St. Paul acknowledges the boundless works of the Divine providence. Greatly awed by God’s mysterious goodness, wisdom and knowledge, he exclaims, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” He invites all to give glory to God forever. He tells the Roman community that everything that exists comes from God and it is for the glory of God.

PETER IS GIVEN THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.

In the Gospel Reading from St. Matthew, we recall a high point in Jesus’ relationship with his disciples. It represents a quantum leap in their understanding of who he really is. It took them quite a while to come to this point. And even here, they still did not fully understand the implications of what they had just begun to realize. We will see a clear indication of this in next Sunday’s Gospel Reading.

a) “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?”

The Gospel passage begins with Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?” The incident takes place at Caesarea Philippi. Now, Caesarea Philppi was the place known for its temples and particularly outstanding was the great marble temple dedicated to the godhead of Caesar. This was understood as a place where many religions met. Again, here Jesus calls himself ‘Son of Man,’ thus identifying himself with the Messianic figure mentioned in the Book of Daniel.

In response to Jesus’ inquiry, the disciples tell him that some people think he is John the Baptist, executed recently by Herod and raised to life. Others think him to be the Prophet Elijah who went to heaven in a fiery chariot without tasting death and was expected to return as a sign of the imminent coming of the Messiah. Still others think him to be the Prophet Jeremiah, who had hidden the Ark of the Covenant and was expected to show it before the coming of the Messiah. What is clear is that Jesus is seen by the people as a prophet, a spokesperson for God, and no more than that.

What did Jesus feel as he asked? What answer did he expect, or hope for? And what did he think when the disciples repeated various speculations of the crowd, ‘John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets?’ Each of these was an honorable status, so perhaps Jesus didn’t mind if the people thought of these identifications about him.

b) “But who do you say that I am?”

But Jesus was more interested in what the disciples themselves had to say. So, he posed them a more searching question, “But who do you say that I am?” It could have been an invitation to disclose their intimate thoughts, though perhaps it was a question about the way they spoke of Jesus to others, how they described him when they were away from the presence of Jesus, as the question had not arisen with such specificity among themselves. He was allowing them to be close to him, and to be inspired by the Holy Spirit about his identity. On the first glance this question of Jesus appears quite simple, but it is a tricky one, as it knocks at the ground of one’s very faith. Of course it is a personal question and it demands a personal answer too.

Again, did Jesus hope – after all the miracles and teachings – his disciples would finally understand? Did they see him as the crowds did – or was their vision any clearer? Then Peter, assuming his recognized leadership role in the group, replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” That was an immediate identification with the Messiah, who would lead the people and overcome all nations. Jesus was very clear about his own identity and the fact that he was the Messiah. But he was not ready yet to let others know about it; so, he ordered his disciples to keep the secret, because their idea of a Messiah was different than the actual one and he might not be able to do what he needed to do with the wrong expectations about him.

c) “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”

Nevertheless, aware of their limited grasp of what they were saying, Jesus praised Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Hearing these words of Jesus, Peter must have glowed with pride. Only faith could have led Peter to say what he did. It needed faith to recognize the Messiah in the dusty human figure standing before him, so different surely from the images that most Jews would have had of their long-expected, all-conquering and nation-liberating leader. Only with God’s enlightenment could they see God’s presence in this carpenter from Galilee, their friend and teacher.

There now follows a passage which will be the foundation for the authority given to the disciples and to Peter in particular in the post-Resurrection community. In response to Peter’s declaration of faith, Jesus now says, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” Peter is the rock, the foundation of the community which will carry the name and the authority of Jesus to the whole world. On him, together with his Apostolic companions as the faithful communicators of Jesus’ life and message, will be built the Church, the assembly of God’s people.

Peter is then given a special stewardship and responsibility for the community: “I will give you the keys of 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.” The keys are a sign that Jesus entrusts Peter the care of his Church. Here we see the parallelism with today’s First Reading, where Eliakim is given the authority and power in a similar manner.

CONCLUSION:

The declaration of faith by Peter occupies an important place in all three Synoptic Gospels. In Matthew, the scene is the culmination of a section in which Jesus has been instructing his disciples on various aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven and their role in it. In what Jesus says, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church!” is very crucial for a proper understanding of what the Church is, and also our role in the Church.

First and foremost, Jesus calls the Church ‘my Church.’ This tells us that Jesus Christ is the owner of the Church. He is the Supreme Authority. Neither Peter nor the disciples own it. Neither Pope, nor Bishops, nor Pastors own it. We all belong to the Church of Christ.

John XXIII was Pope during the turbulent 1960s when it seemed that everything was falling apart. The priesthood was in crisis, religious life was in crisis, marriage was in crisis, faith was in crisis, the Church was in crisis. The Pope worked hard and long hours trying to address these problems. One evening, after an exhausting day in the office, he went to his private Chapel to do his daily Holy Hour before retiring but he was too exhausted and too stressed out to focus or pray. After a few minutes of futile effort, he got up and said, “Lord, the Church belongs to you. I am going to bed.”

Secondly, the passage tells us that Jesus is the one who builds his Church. He is the master builder who has the building plan in his hands. Human co-operators are like masons and carpenters employed by the master builder to help him with the building. Our role is to listen and follow his instructions, doing our own small part in the grand design of the master.

So, if Jesus is the owner and builder of the Church, where then do we come in? We come in precisely where Peter comes in. Together with Peter we are the building blocks of the Church. Peter is the foundation rock and we are the pieces of stone with which the Church is built. Actually,the power and responsibility are shared in a real sense with all the baptized. To us also have been given the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. With those keys we may unlock the doors of forgiveness through choosing to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation; with those keys we can unlock the gifts of the Holy Spirit, given us at Confirmation; and to us have been given the keys to the source and summit of grace, strength, and happiness, the Holy Eucharist. With those keys we can unlock the doors of hearts, that others may be nourished with God’s love and truth. What power lies behind those keys! How much we are privileged! What if we abuse the privilege? What then? Isn’t it possible that God could take those Keys away from us, like He did to Shebna, and give them to others who would use them responsibly?

Let us then pray that we shall be firm in our faith in Jesus so that we may be able to give a personal response to his question “Who do you say that I am?” and also that we are always faithful to him by not failing in the responsibility he has entrusted to each one us in building up his Church. And this the Good News of today.



Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.

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