Aug 23, 2020: 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Isaiah 22:19-23

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.”

In ancient Israel, leaders who held office had both religious and political responsibilities. In today’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah lashes out against a person who has failed to use his authrority as a means of revealing God’s love.

Thus says the LORD to Shebna, master of the palace,

Shebna is identified here as master of the palace, probably a kind of majordomo, the highest-ranking household staff member.

I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station.

As master of the palace, Shebna had charge of all the goods of the royal household. He has abused his authority by preparing an elaborate tomb for himself and by trusting to chariots rather than to God for protection from the Assyrians (see Isaiah 22:15-18).

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.

Authority is stripped from Shebna and given to Eliakim. The description of the transfer itself resembles a ritual of investiture. The robe and sash are probably official garb that mark the office. The act of clothing Eliakim in this ceremonial attire symbolizes his being clothed with the authority of his new position.

Later in Scripture, Shebna is said to be a scribe, perhaps secretary of state, and Eliakim is master of the palace (Isaiah 36:3, 22; 2 Kings 18:18, 37), indicating that the men probably had, in fact, exchanged places.

He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah.

Three metaphors characterize the remarkable extent of the authority being bestowed on Eliakim. The first is a father metaphor, with which he is given jurisdiction over all the people of the southern kingdom. He will not abuse his authority; rather, he will care for them like they are his own children.

I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open.

The second metaphor is the key to the household, a symbol of full authority. Not only does this person control the goods of the household, he also decides who comes in and who goes out. The reference to placing the key on his shoulder may represent the actual investiture ceremony.

The mention of the royal house of David gives messianic connotations to the passage, which is furthered by the earlier use of the phrase “on that day,” which usually points to the eschatological time of fulfillment in the future.

I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, 

The final metaphor. Just as a tent peg holds a structure in place, so the one in this position guarantees the stability of the household.

to be a place of honor for his family.

The prestige of this position will bring honor to his family.

Even if this passage does not reflect an actual historical occasion (an interpretation held by many commentators), the picture it sketches is significant. The oracle itself promises a person who will provide the order and stability the kingdom of Judah must have needed. If he was not himself a messianic figure, he was needed to ensure that the kingdom that would produce such a figure would survive.

Scripture scholars suggest that the imagery used in today’s gospel reading to describe the authority that Jesus delegated to Peter and the disciples (the “keys to the kingdom”, the authority to “bind” and to “loose”) was affected by the imagery used in this passage from Isaiah.

2nd Reading – Romans 11:33-36

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.

Today’s second reading continues from last week, when Saint Paul explained to the Romans that although neither deserved it, both Jews and Gentiles have been saved through Jesus Christ. In this passage, Paul breaks out into rapturous praise.

It’s interesting to note that, in a manner uncharacteristic of Paul, there is no trace of christology in this prayer. He seems to be speaking directly out of Jewish thought.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!

Saint Paul is exclaiming — not in awe and fear, but in wonder and gratitude — at the mysterious ways of God in arranging the mutual assistance of Jews and Gentiles in attaining salvation. This may have been Israel’s role in the divine plan of salvation all along.

“For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?”

Saint Paul is quoting Isaiah 40:13.

“Or who has given him anything that he may be repaid?”

Paul quotes from an old Greek version of Job 41:3a, which differs from the Hebrew text.

“It is clear that only God knows everything and it is only He who lacks nothing, because everything comes from Him. No one can understand or measure this knowledge, because the inferior cannot comprehend what is superior to it. Jewish believers could not understand that the salvation of the Gentiles could be God’s plan and will. Likewise, it seemed unlikely and incredible to the Gentiles that the Jews, who had not believed, could be converted or accepted as believers.” [The Ambrosiaster (ca. A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles Romans 11,34]

For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Paul’s praise of God concludes with a finely honed doxology. It extols God the creator, who is the source of all that is; it acclaims God the sustainer, through whom all creation continues to be; it celebrates God the goal, for whom all things were made and to whom all things proceed. It is to this sovereign God that all glory belongs.

Paul should not be regarded here as returning to Jewish theology. On the contrary, Paul is referring to the mysterious ways of God in the plan of salvation, and therefore it is fitting that he direct his praise to God. After all, it is God who saves. This salvation is accomplished through Jesus Christ, but the action originates with God the Father. Paul is overcome with the graciousness and power of God’s saving acts.

Gospel – Matthew 16:13-20

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.

Today’s gospel does not follow immediately after last week’s story about the curing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter. After that healing, Jesus goes to a mountain near the Sea of Galilee and heals many people. Again a huge hungry crowd gathers, and again Jesus tells his disciples to feed the crowd, making it possible for them to do so. After these many acts of power, the Pharisees and Sadducees ask Jesus for a sign. Jesus, of course, will not abuse his power in this way. He warns the disciples to beware of the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

It is then that we come to today’s reading, wherein Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi 

This area is about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee and outside the domain of Herod Antipas. The name “Caesarea” was given the city in order to curry the favor of the Roman emperor, or Caesar. The name “Philippi” means “of Philip,” denoting that it was built by Philip the Tetrarch, a son of Herod whose territory this was; this suffix was necessary in order to distinguish it from other cities named Caesarea, principally the big one on the Meditteranean coast where the Roman procurator lived.

This was a place where many religions met. There was, for example, a great temple of white marble built to the godhead of Caesar that reminded you, even from a distance, of the power and splendor of Rome. And in a large cave beneath a great hill a deep lake, allegedly one of the sources of the Jordan River, was said to be the birthplace of Pan, the great Greek god of nature. There were, besides, no fewer than fourteen temples dedicated to the worship of the ancient Syrian god Baal.

It seems that, for whatever it was that he was about to do, Jesus deliberately chose the backdrop of the splendors of the world’s religions of the time and would invite comparisons.

he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

This, of course, is the central question of the gospel. Who is Jesus?

The question is not self-serving — Jesus seeks to discover how his words and action are being understood by the people, and he is preparing the disciples for their own assessment of him.

The title “Son of Man” refers to Daniel 7:13.  It is a messianic apocalyptic title which Jesus applies to himself; it is never applied by his disciples.

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist,

The answers given to Jesus’ question are telling.

It isn’t clear why Jesus should be associated with John the Baptist, since in both their lifestyles and their central messages they were so different. The connection may have been made simply because John the Baptist had recently been beheaded and the memory of this exceptional man was fresh in the minds of the people.

Perhaps they were mindful that the superstitiously fearful Herod Antipas at times thought Jesus was John come back to life to haunt him. Or perhaps they believed that if John the Baptist has somehow has returned from the dead, he would have special powers and be able to perform the miracles which Jesus does. Many had set their hopes on John, and with his death, they transferred them to Jesus.

others Elijah,

Popular Jewish thought held that the prophet Elijah would return to announce the coming of the messiah [Malachi 4:5 (Malachi 3:23 in the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible)]. Even today when the Passover Seder is celebrated in the Jewish household, a place is set for Elijah.

Those who thought of Jesus as Elijah come back to life were saying that Jesus was as great as the one whom they considered to be the greatest of the prophets. Since Jesus had launched his ministry with the announcement that the long-awaited reign was now at hand, the association is understandable.

still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

Jeremiah was the prophet who in his own experience of rejection and suffering announces the rejection and suffering of the messiah.

In some way, all the prophets had looked forward to the coming of this reign, so the people’s general reference was not inappropriate. Those who linked Jesus’ identity to them were asserting him to be God’s helper and near to the kingdom of God.

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

After hearing the various opinions regarding his identity, Jesus makes the question more personal, directly challenging his closest friends.

Simon Peter said in reply,

Although all the disciples had been addressed, Simon takes it upon himself to act as the spokesman and answer for them all.

“You are the Messiah,

The name means “anointed.” Although various figures in ancient Israel were anointed, the term came to be applied most distinctively to kings. Some writings in Jesus’ time used the term to describe Israel’s future leader in the period before and during the end times; he would fulfill Israel’s hopes based on God’s promises.

the Son of the living God.”

To his proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah, Peter adds the divine title “Son of the Living God,” a detail found only in the Gospel of Matthew. It directs attention to the Father-Son relationship and away from the military-nationalistic connotations of the title “Messiah.”

Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.

After Peter makes his great profession of faith, Jesus uses a macarism (“blessed are you”) to open a discussion of the role Peter will play in the assembly of believers.

For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.

God is using Simon as an instrument of divine revelation; it is not Simon’s belief (or faith) that is being proclaimed, but God’s revelation.

Of course we know from the way the plot of the gospel unfolds that Peter does not yet understand the full meaning of his own words.

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,

With a play on Greek words, the author has Jesus describe that Peter (Petros) is the rock (petra) upon which Jesus will establish his church. (Kepha is the Aramaic form; it is transliterated as Cephas (Kephas) in John’s gospel, 1st Corinthians, and Galatians.) Hence Jesus gives Simon a name which had never appeared before as a proper name in the history of the world.

The rock metaphor wasn’t strange to Jesus’ hearers. The rabbis had applied the word “rock” to Abraham, and the Scriptures had applied the word “rock” to God. Jesus applied it to Peter because Peter was the first person on earth to make the leap of faith, a leap which saw Jesus as “the Son of the living God.”

Note: Only here and in Matthew 18:17 is the term ekklesia used (“church”), which refers to an assembly of people, not a building in which they might gather. This is a wonderful new prospect, never present before: the human race organized for the pursuit of an altogether new ideal.

and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.

Jesus promises that the forces of the netherworld will not be able to encircle this church — a promise that is clearly not based on any strength of Peter’s; it is solely a gift from Jesus.

The netherworld is sheol in Hebrew, hades in Greek. It is the abode of the dead; where all departed souls go at the end of their earthly life since heaven has been closed from the time of Adam and Eve and will not be opened until the perfect sacrifice of the messiah.

I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

For his part, Peter will exercise the power of the keys. As we saw in the reading from Isaiah, controlling the keys is a sign of authority, one that is more judicial or disciplinary than managerial.

While Shebna may have proven not to be a worthy steward of the Davidic kingdom, Simon the fisherman has shown himself worthy of a new mission of stewardship in the Davidic kingdom, a kingdom that now has Jesus as its sovereign. As signs of this new mission of stewardship, Simon is given a new name and the symbol of his office as “master of the palace.”

Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

The authority to bind and loose is later given to the disciples as a group in Matthew 18:18, but to Peter alone are accorded the revelation, the role of the rock of foundation (see Ephesians 2:20), and especially the keys.

Just as in our first reading, the office of Peter (as holder of the keys) is a perpetual office: the position continues even though the occupant changes. Each occupant of the office of Peter is invested with the keys and the responsibility to bind and loose for the entire Church. This is why the popes are called the “Successors of Peter.”

This is consistent with Matthew’s theme of presenting Jesus to his Jewish audience as a new Moses, one who has authority from God to promulgate a new law.

The fact that Jesus was giving Peter a very special office in the Church is reflected in many other places in the New Testament:

  • Peter is always first in any list of apostles.
  • Peter gives the first sermon in the church.
  • Peter receives into the church the first Gentile, Cornelius.
  • In John’s gospel, Jesus tells Peter to feed the lambs and sheep of his flock.
  • In his letter to the Galatians, Paul pays tribute to the position of Peter when he says that in an argument he withstood Peter to his face, implying that to withstand the visible head of the church was a great thing.

Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah.

The answers to Jesus’ query at the beginning of the reading indicate that there were many different messianic expectations at this time in history. In fact, later in this chapter of Matthew (which we will read next Sunday), we will see that not even the disciples understood the meaning of the Messiah. Jesus, of course, knew this all along.

By counseling his disciples to be silent, Jesus avoids any false interpretation of his messiahship as he continues to teach them and prepare them for what will follow. The disciples should not try to explain to others what they do not yet understand themselves.

Connections and Themes

Who do you say I am?  Our christological reflections reach a climax in the question posed to the disciples: Who do you say that I am? In this liturgical context, the same question is posed to us. Who is this who multiplies loaves of bread, who walks on turbulent waters, who breaks the boundaries that separate insider from outsider? It is none other than the Messiah. When Peter testified to Jesus’ identity, it was a relevant religious and political statement, for messianic expectation was a burning question at the time. But what does it mean for the average Christian today? Many believers consider messianic expectation a theological theme that belongs to the past. They feel that it is difficult to get excited about the coming of someone we believe has already come and gone.

If Jesus were to pose this question today, how would we answer? And what would be the implication of our answer? You are the Messiah, the one who will establish justice on the earth, and I offer my services to you in this venture. You are the Messiah, the one who will endure that the vulnerable of society will not be exploited, and I will stand in their defense. You are the Messiah, the one who will usher in the kingdom of peace, and I commit myself to the practice of peace. You are the Messiah, the one who will refashion us into a holy nation, and I open myself to this transformation.

The character of the disciple.  Two weeks ago, we saw Peter step out of the boat and attempt to walk on the tempestuous waters toward Jesus. It didn’t take long before we became aware of the inadequacy of his faith. In today’s reading, Peter testifies to the identity of Jesus. It is natural to wonder whether the faith he proclaims has deepened or if this is just another demonstration of bravado. Like Peter, we too may have good intentions, but when they are put to the test we realist that was all they were — good intentions. Still, we should not be discouraged by our weaknesses, for just as Peter’s failure did not deter God from entrusting him with power and authority, so ours need not be obstacles to God’s grace in our lives. We watch God entrust the Church to individuals who are weak and undependable, and we realize that judgments are inscrutable and God’s ways unsearchable.

The first reading assures us that God chooses Peter, and others like him, not simply because there is no one else to whom responsibility can be given. On the contrary, God works through those who are weak so there will be no question about the source of any success they may experience. This penchant on God’s part also prevents us from using our own weakness as an excuse for not committing ourselves to the service of God and others. We are asked to open ourselves to God regardless of our limitations and weaknesses. The rest is in God’s hands.

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