Words from Fr. Frank Cordaro

August 25, 2002

Twenty-first Sunday Ordinary Time 2002

Isaiah 22:15, 19-23, Romans 11:33-36, Matthew 16:13-20


Isaiah 22:15, 19-23: I will place the key of the house of David on his shoulder: This week’s first reading from the book of Isaiah helps highlight a major theme from this week’s Gospel from Matthew, the head stewardship of the Church bestowed on Peter by Jesus.

Recent news stories about crooked CEO’s serve as a perfect lead in to this week’s first reading from the book of Isaiah. In chapter 22, the prophet addresses the cabinet members of King Hezekiah’s court: Shebna and Elikim. At the time, Shebna was the King’s head steward.
         The head steward was the king’s overseer and manager, second in power only to the king. Joseph served in this capacity for the Pharaoh in Egypt (Genesis 41). The symbol of the office was the huge key, carried over the shoulder, representing the power to permit access to the king’s presence. It was a real key that opened the locked door leading to the king’s treasure rooms.
         We don’t know what Shebna did to earn Isaiah’s and God’s disfavor. Speculations include arrogant foreign policy and oppressive treatment of the poor. If so, it sounds familiar. Too bad God’s prophets don’t have veto power over modern-day government cabinet members and CEOs. Can you imagine what kind of appointments that Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King might have made? At any rate, Elikim in King Hezekiah’s court replaces Shebna. Shebna lost his robe, his sash, and the key of the House of David was taken away from him and given to Elikim.
MATTHEW 16:13-20: Peter’s Confession, "You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God": Designated Peter’s Confession of Jesus, this week’s Gospel records a critical junction in the Gospel narrative for all three synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And in this week’s Matthew account, we have another special segment on Peter, an exclusive Matthewian thing (See Nineteenth Sunday Ordinary Time Gospel Matthew 14:22-33)
CAESAREA PHILIPPI: Located 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea Philippi is the furthest recorded place from the city of Jerusalem that Jesus visited in his adult life. Both Matthew and Mark mention it as the place where Peter’s confession takes place. A pagan city named after a Roman Emperor, the contrasting and conflicting claims of power and order were not lost on the original readers.
"WHO DO PEOPLE SAY THAT THE SON OF MAN IS?": In this week’s Gospel, a dramatic shift takes place in the Gospel narrative. It marks the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry and the beginning of his intentional march to Jerusalem, to his final confrontation with the leaders of the nation and the Roman authorities, which leads to his passion and death. Up to this point of the story, it’s been a real joy ride for Jesus’ disciples. All they saw was the flashy powerful things that Jesus did, his great miracles, the healings and exorcisms, as well as Jesus’ feeding of thousands at one sitting and his authority over the natural elements in the skies and on the seas. As far as they were concerned, times were good and they were only going to get better both for Jesus and anyone associated with Jesus.
         In today’s Gospel, Jesus stops the road show and asks his disciples the identity question: Who am I? It’s important to note the different titles used in describing Jesus in this exchange. The first title is one that Jesus gives himself. He begins by asking the disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" Of all the titles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, the "Son of Man" is the one Jesus is most comfortable to use to describe himself. It comes from the Old Testament books of Ezekiel 2:1 and Daniel 7:13. It denotes a figure that represents all of humanity. A better and less sexist English translation would be "The Human One".
         The disciples respond by listing four possibilities: 1) John the Baptist come back to life. A possibility that King Herod favored (Matthew 14:2), 2) Elijah whom Jesus copied and then some (Matthew 14:16-19), 3) Jeremiah, a prophet of judgement (Matthew 2:17, 27:9) or 4) "one of the prophets". All four responses locate Jesus in the prophetic tradition. This makes sense as far as the crowds, the rulers, the scribes and priests were concerned. For to them, Jesus looked and acted very much in the style and manner of the prophets of old. But God’s perspective of Jesus is a whole lot more.
         Jesus redirects his question and asks his disciples for a more personal response, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter, spokesperson and representative of the other disciples, says, "You are the Christ (Messiah), the son of the living God." (The use of the word Christ and Messiah is interchangeable.) To proclaim Jesus both the Christ and the Son of God, Peter underlines Jesus' dual functions as God's agent and Jesus’ intimate relationship with the Divine.
         Peter’s confession has ramifications in both the Jewish and Roman worlds, and in each there are religious and political consequences. In the Jewish world, the title of Christ carries with it messianic expectations of a political leader, a king like David, who would kick out the Romans and re-establish Israel as a great nation among the nations of the world. As for being God's son with the intimate and unique relationship implied, this was problematic in the Jewish tradition. It was one of the reasons Jesus is branded a heretic. It probably helped put Jesus on the cross.  
         In the Roman world, the title of Christ was well known and singularly claimed by Caesar. Anyone else claiming the same title puts himself in opposition to Caesar and the whole Roman Empire. A son of a god was also part of the pagan Roman religious tradition. That Jesus would claim such divine lineage would not be so disturbing for the Romans, and given the miracles Jesus performed, the title might have been appropriate. However, the way the story ends, with Jesus’ passion and death on a cross, with only a claim of a resurrection to show for the effort, leaves a lot to be desired for both a "so-called" Christ and Son of God, from a Roman and worldly perspective.
MATTHEW 16:17-19: PETER’S BLESSING, NAMING AND COMMISSIONING: What follows in verses 17-19 is unique to Matthew’s Gospel. It’s part of the special role that Matthew gives to Peter.

BLESSING:   "Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah": After Peter’s confession, Jesus blesses him. Jesus tells Peter that his confession was not something he figured out himself by "flesh and bone" but something only God could provide, "my Heavenly Father." In Matthew’s scheme of things, this blessing is connected to the blessing in the Beatitudes found in the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-12). From Matthew’s telling, Peter’s divine insight has a bias, a Beatitudes’ "Kingdom of God" bias, which will align Peter with a power structure that belongs to the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, those who employ the strategies of forgiveness and loving one’s enemies.
         Peter did not fully realize the full import of his profession of faith, as next week’s Gospel will clearly attest. Nor was he all that much further ahead of his fellow disciples in coming to realize who Jesus really was (Matthew 14:32). Much like his out-of-boat, walk-on-water attempt, Peter made his profession of faith in Jesus without fully understanding what he was committing himself to. I guess it’s not unlike people who get married or embrace a vocation to the religious and priestly life. We make our verbal pledge and promise to a committed life, and it takes us the rest of our lives to figure out what it means.
         NAMING:   "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.": Even though Matthew calls Simon "Peter" throughout his Gospel, Jesus officially renames Simon "Peter" in this week’s Gospel text. In scriptures, the renaming of someone often signifies a new role or change of status. Jesus renames Simon "Peter" and does a word play with the name of Peter, which means rock. Jesus says, "On this rock, I will build my church." Within Matthew’s Gospel, this verse connects to another segment of the Sermon on the Mount at its conclusion. It’s the parable of the two houses build on sand and rock. (Matthew 7:24-27) Peter is like the rock upon which the secure house is built. In the parable, Jesus compares the wise person, who built his house on the rock to be the disciple who hears Jesus’ words and does them. Then he calls them foolish who hear his words yet do not do them. Clearly the measure is in the "doing," not in the talking. But what "words" are Jesus talking about? They are the words of the Sermon on the Mount in which the parable concludes.
"And the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.": Any community built on the wisdom of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount is bound to know conflicts and threats from the worldly "Powers and Principalities" (Ephesians 6:10-17) in every age and in every time. This is why Jesus gives his church a blanket cosmic insurance policy against whatever hell might unleash from its gates.
COMMISSIONING: "I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.": The conferring of the keys to Peter is a clear statement of a position of leadership and authority. The use of the word "keys" connects with this week’s first reading from Isaiah 22:22. The keys were the symbol of the office of Head Steward, the second highest person in a Kingdom next to the King himself. Jesus declares Peter the Head Steward of the Kingdom of Heaven, his second in command.
"Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven": The first thing that needs to be said about this authority to "bind and loose" is that it is not a responsibility that Peter is given exclusively. The very same authority is given to the entire community in Matthew 18:18 word for word. Through Peter’s leadership and the shared authority given to Peter and the community of disciples the church is given the right to exclude and include people into the community. They are also given the authority to interpret and teach what God’s will and laws are, to meet the needs of the church at any given time in an always-changing human situation. This means the church has the flexibility to make up its mind and to change its mind when it deems it necessary. The leadership of Peter and the shared authority between Peter and the community of disciples was meant to be handed on to each generation of disciples, to be exercised as they see fit.
         Even though Peter is commissioned by Jesus to a position of leadership and shared authority with the community of disciples, the nature and use of this leadership and authority is not spelled out. One thing we know for certain, whatever it is, it does not look like or act like the leadership and authority that is exercised by worldly powers and worldly leaders. (Matthew 20:25-28).
         We might begin by asking what might a beatitude-based leadership look like? What would leadership and the exercised authority in a church that endorses, builds up, supports and defends the values of the Sermon on the Mount act like? Especially when these values seem so foolish to the wisdom of the world?
THE HISTORICAL PETER AS AN EXAMPLE: This week’s blessing, renaming and commissioning of Peter is something Matthew wrote into his Gospel based on his knowledge of how Peter lived his discipleship life after the resurrection. We know from Luke’s account of the early Church in Acts that Peter took a leadership role from day one Pentecost Sunday. We know from Acts that his word carried a great deal of weight with the rest of the disciples, especially with the issue of allowing the Gentiles to join the Church. We also know Peter continued to make mistakes, one example Paul records in Galatians 2:11-14. We know, like Paul, he spent his last years evangelizing the Faith to many communities, ending up in the imperial city of Rome. It was in Rome under Emperor Nero that Peter suffered a martyr’s death on the cross between 64 and 67 AD.
     Though the first Pope, Peter did not govern the universal Church as our modern Popes do. The leadership and authority he exercised were not done through directives, through the proclamation of dogma, or through the writing of encyclicals. There are two letters attributed to him in the New Testament, the first letter most likely by his own hand. Yet neither is absolutely essential nor written as "Gospel Truth". (Actually, none of the New Testament books were written as "Gospel Truths".   They became such, only after the canon of the New Testament was formed.) As Pope, Peter never enforced a canon law or appointed any bishop that we know of. If this is the case, then how did he lead and from whence did his authority come.
LEADERSHIP BY DOING and AUTHORITY THAT’S EARNED: What leadership Peter demonstrated was done by doing. What authority Peter exercised was earned, not given.
         Clearly the Church today is very different than it was in Peter’s day. The Catholic Church today is the largest corporation in the world with over a billion people. It owns more property and wealth than any other religion or corporation in the world. It has a 2,000-year tradition and history, an extensive set of teachings and rituals. It is both a centralized and decentralized global organization. This does not count the many other Christian denominations that profess Faith in Jesus but are not part of the Catholic Church
         And the Catholic Church has in place an institutional leadership and governing structure, which is both necessary and important to its continual survival.
         Still, not all its leadership is appointed and official, nor is all its authority delegated. Beyond the institutional human (flesh and bones) structures is a much bigger living spiritual reality in which the institutional structural Church is part of but not all of. This is the Church at its best, a living spiritual reality pointing to and being part of the Beatitudes- Sermon on the Mount, Kingdom of God Church. This Church has the person of Jesus at its heart and the Holy Spirit directing its way.
The leadership and authority in this much bigger spiritual Church is the same that was functioning in Peter’s day. It is a leadership of doing the Kingdom work and authority that is earned in Kingdom witness. One way this Kingdom-based leadership and authority is recognized by the Catholic Church officially is with its tradition of the Saints. Each Saint canonized by the Church embodies for their time and place in human history the best representation of what Jesus meant when he renamed Peter and declared him "the rock upon which he will build his church." And this official list of canonized saints is only a small fraction of the true saints who leaven the body of Christ. Each one of us know the people in our local faith communities who best represent this "doing" leadership and this "earned" authority that this week’s Gospel is pointing to.