Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 24)

During the past few weeks we have been hearing about the Kingdom of God in the Sunday Gospel readings. The passages come from a particular section in the Gospel According to Matthew where many of Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom are grouped.

Many of these teachings were delivered in parables. Images were used to describe the Kingdom of God: vines, fishing nets, banquets, wedding feasts, field, hidden treasure, pearl of great value and so forth. Each parable and each image gives us insight to a different aspect of the Kingdom of God and invites us to meditate on our lives in the Kingdom.

Today Jesus commissions Peter to a position and office of leadership in the Kingdom of God which on Earth is the Church. Jesus gives Peter the “keys to the kingdom.” The giving of the keys comes after Peter correctly identifies Jesus’ identity. The context helps us to understand how remarkable was Peter’s response to the question: “Who do you say that I am?” First Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?” The reply comes, “John the Baptist” or “one of the prophets.”

The answer is correct but only to a point. Jesus certainly is a prophet, but much more. So Jesus then asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” The other disciples remain silent, it is only Peter who answers. And his answer goes much further than that of the people: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus affirms the identity when he says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Jesus recognizes the Father at work then appoints Peter as the future leader of his Church.

First, he gives Simon a new name – “Peter” – which means rock. In the Scriptures, a name change often signifies a new role or office that is given to the person. Some examples of this in the Scriptures: Abram becomes Abraham (Genesis 17:5); Sarai becomes Sarah (Genesis 17.5) and Jacob becomes Israel (Genesis 32:29). In each case the name change is associated with a new role.

Second, Jesus then clarifies the name change. The “rock” signifies a solid foundation for a “building” — in this case Peter becomes the solid foundation for the Church. It is important to note the association between the “Church” and the “kingdom of God” — the two terms refer to the same reality. So Jesus is not speaking of a church building but the Church, the Kingdom of God. Yet a “building” provides an image.

Perhaps the building we might think of is a house or palace. The building is one that protects those who are inside. It is not to keep people out but to provide a place of protection against the elements and wild animals. It is a place of communion among members of the family. It is a place of security against an invading force and a gathering spot where the family can dwell in peace.

Third, Jesus gives Peter the keys. The keys symbolize authority. The keys to the door is the only way one can legitimately enter the house; otherwise they would be “breaking in.” Peter is the keeper of the keys. A similar image is used in today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah. Here the oracle tells of a change in the “master of the palace.” Shebna will be replaced with Eliakim in that role. It is God who decides and who commissions. In this role Eliakim will be “a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah.” God then gives authority to Eliakim saying “when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open.” Because he is appointed by God, he will be honored among the people.

Fourth, Jesus likewise gives Peter the authority to bind and loose. Now this refers to authority within the Kingdom or the Church. While the “keys” are associated with entrance or exclusion from entrance, “to bind and loose” refer to activities or actions that are permissible or not among those who are admitted. The association between the heavenly realm (kingdom of heaven) and the earthly realm (church) is clear. Peter’s authority comes from the Father and the Son. His authority will be respected by him who gives it.

Peter has a clear leadership role in the Church given to him by Christ himself. The leadership role continues today in the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. The Kingdom of God is established by Christ and is experienced now in his Church built upon Peter and the other apostles.

Peter is a human being. He has great gifts and at the same time weaknesses just like every human being. For example we will see next week Jesus say to Peter: “Get behind me Satan!” in response to Peter’s refusal to accept a suffering messiah. Peter still needs to grow in his understanding of Jesus’ mission and just how that will be accomplished. Even at the end Peter denies Jesus three times. Yet God chooses Peter and he becomes the firm foundation of the Kingdom.

We see this clearly as the public ministry continues and the life of the early Church begins. Peter becomes a great witness to the faith as he leads the Church and the Gospel message is spread among the nations. St. Paul similarly is a man of great strengths but also of weakness. He recognizes this and says, “for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Meaning that only when he allows God to work in him and through him that he truly becomes strong. On his own he can do nothing but if God is the one acting in him, then great things can be accomplished.

Peter’s role is unique in the Church, it is a specific role. As members of the Church we look to Peter for direction and guidance, for leadership and example. At the same time each one of us has an important role in the Kingdom as its members. In order to fulfill this responsibility we need to profess Jesus as Peter did – to proclaim Him as the “Son of the living God,” and to live our lives according to that profession.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.