First reading: Isaiah 22:19-23.
Psalm: Psalm 137(138):1-3, 6, 8.
Second reading: Romans 11:33-36.
Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20.
Link to readings.
Today the focus of the readings is very much upon the Church. In fact, the text chosen for the Gospel, Matt 16:13-20, is one of only two places in all the four Gospels where the word “church” occurs (the other being Matt 18:15-17). The community of disciples is being equipped with authority and structures that will enable it to function during the time when Jesus will no longer be with them in the human form they have known.
The First Reading, from Isa 22:19-23, telling of the replacement of Shebna as master of the royal palace by a new official, Eliakim, appropriately foreshadows the appointment of Peter in the Gospel. It seems to have contributed to some of the language in which that appointment is made: notably, the hand-over of keys—and also perhaps the sense that what the new appointee determines (“opening” and “closing”) will have a definitive higher sanction, not lightly overthrown. Linking the two readings also is the sense of being responsible for a community seen as a “building”: while in charge of the palace, Eliakim is to be a “father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem” just as Peter will be the “rock” upon which Jesus will “build” the community of his church.
In regard to the Gospel itself, what is important to notice is how what is said about the Church (the ecclesiology) flows from what is said (by Peter) about Christ (the Christology). The Church is only what it is because of its perception of who Jesus is. Everything the Church has to say begins and ends with its God-given knowledge of Jesus, the inexhaustible treasure which it holds in trust for the world.
When Jesus questions his disciples about popular perceptions of his identity, their report shows that people can only place him in categories that are familiar and well-worn. The reality requires a much greater leap in imagination and faith.
In the person of Simon Peter, the disciples do rise to such heights. Simon’s response, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, conveys awareness that, beyond being Israel’s Messiah as conventionally understood (a virtuous and effective ruler of David’s line who would restore the fortunes of Israel), Jesus is related to God in a unique way. In his company, the disciples are being drawn into a fellowship with the divine never before imagined or foreseen.
Peter has conferred a title upon Jesus. Now Jesus confers, first a blessing, then three roles upon him. Simon is “blessed” not because he is virtuous or otherwise deserving but because God has graciously revealed to him a knowledge that no amount of human understanding (“flesh and blood”) could achieve. Upon this Christological insight, the entire faith of the Church will rest.
The first role Simon receives is indicated by a new name: “Rock”. The identity between “Peter” and “Rock”—masked in English, more evident in Greek (petros, petra)—is perfect in Aramaic, the language Jesus actually spoke: “You are Kepha (“Rock”) and on this kepha (rocky ground) I will build my church”.
Peter is not “rock” because of personal qualities of steadfastness or reliability. The Passion will further expose (26:69-75) his already demonstrated tendency to falter (14:31). He is “rock” because of the insight of faith which God has communicated to him. Built on this “rock”, the Church will be a community of life. “Gates of the underworld” is a biblical expression for the realm of the dead as the inevitable destination of all human beings. Its “gates” will not prevails against the Church either in the sense that, built upon a “rock,” it will survive all attempts to destroy it or, more likely, in the sense that its members, even though they die physically, will not be held confined within the realm of the dead but will burst through its “gates” in resurrection (see 27:52-53).
The gift of keys does not, as commonly thought, make Peter the gatekeeper of heaven, letting in whoever he deems worthy. It, along with the subsequent reference to “binding” and “loosing”, has to with authoritative teaching: the power to declare in particular circumstances whether a commandment of the Torah is or is not applicable. Jesus, the Interpreter of the Torah par excellence (Matthew 5-7) leaves his community with a structure of interpretation and assures it of “heavenly”, that is, divine ratification. In this way, the Church, as both expression and foretaste of God’s reign (the “Kingdom of Heaven”) on earth, is equipped to discern and live God’s will in the changing circumstances that will, in the course of history, confront it.
Happily, this text functions less in polemics between Christian denominations than in times past. While it does certainly underwrite much of the Catholic tradition, Catholics need not read it triumphalistically but, along with other Christians, find in it above all an assurance that for all its human weaknesses and failings, the Church guards a supreme treasure and enjoys a divine guarantee.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media