21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle A

1st Reading: Isaiah 22: 19-23

This is from 1st Isaiah. The prophet seemed to hold this Shebna in “undisguised contempt.” Shebna at the time was sort of like a secretary of state and chief of staff to King Hezekiah. He wore the great key of the palace looped over his shoulder as a sign of his power and importance.  It seemed that he did all he could to further his own interests and power, even ordering a lavish tomb for himself on the top of a hillside.  He also seemed to like to show off and ‘hot-rod’ around in his chariots. See Isaiah 22: 15-19. He becomes here a symbol of misused power and authority. He is replaced by Eliakim whom Isaiah had hoped would be true to calling. Later, Eliakim also abused his power.  (Mary Birmingham, W&W, 487)

History is messy like that; it is full of dreams that turn to nightmares and hopes that end with dashed expectations. Too often leaders care more about self-preservation and power than about the welfare of those they serve. Jesus stands in contrast here, too. That’s why as Christians we are people of hope and faith despite the sufferings and setbacks of our very real lives.  (“Exploring the Sunday Readings,” August, 2008)

2nd Reading: Romans 11: 33-36

It was frustrating to Paul that the people he loved, including Gentile converts, could not see what was so clear to him:  that Jesus is Messiah and Savior of the world.  He tried to understand, but there was no explanation.  He finally decided to accept and trust God’s will (Birmingham, W&W, p. 488).  Consider how this might ring true in your life – a loved one doesn’t understand a deep truth that you believe in.  What do you do?  Do you trust and hand it over to God?

The Gospel: Matthew 16: 13-20

It is only Matthew’s gospel that has the section on Simon as Peter, the ‘rock,’ and the giving of the keys of the kingdom along with the ‘binding and loosening.’ He also is the only one to use the word church here. He uses it again in 18: 17-18 when the binding and loosening is given to the whole community. Later theology with its profound experience of the Risen Christ is certainly reflected in this passage. Yet, it also reflects the ‘Mediterranean mind’ of Jesus’ culture which was much more oriented toward the ‘community’ than we are. It would be, for instance, very common for someone to care about what others think about them.  Jesus, like all the other humans of his time and culture, would value such feedback. And, in Jesus’ case, it might have been even more important because he did not fit any of the usual stereotypes. Jesus was not just the usual ‘person from Nazareth’ or the common artisan or stone worker’s son. (The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle A, John Pilch, 127+)  We are seeing the humanity of Jesus.

Keys were a very important sign of power and authority in the ancient world.  It was a sign of sharing in the power of the king; it enabled one to open, to provide access to the source of power, the ruler. These keys were large and cumbersome – often two feet in length. They were worn on a loop slung over the shoulder by the person who had the authority ‘to open.’ Furthermore, this passage is emphasizing certain important faith components. One, the church, the community of believers, must be rooted in the confession of Jesus as Messiah (Christ) and Son of God (Lord). What makes Peter a ‘foundation rock’ for this church is his faith relationship with Jesus.  Two, the church that we belong to is by nature a church in conflict; it is the designated opponent of evil in the world. It must be the champion of truth, goodness, justice, and right. And, despite the suffering and challenge that evil may bring, the jaws of death (the gates of Hades) will not prevail against it.  (Celebration, August, 2005)

This passage concerning Peter must have been very important to Matthew’s community. What – in the end – made Peter such a good choice? He certainly had his faults. In fact, in just a few more lines in the gospel Peter is told by Jesus that he is an obstacle and a satan (See the gospel for the following week) because he does not want him to confront evil and the suffering that will come from that. He is told by Jesus to get behind him – of course that is where all of Jesus’ followers belong. Peter is a leader who knew failure and misunderstanding. But Peter never gave up on the mercy of God that he found in Christ Jesus (John Kavanaugh, “The Word Embodied,” http://liturgy.slu.edu. & “Exploring the Sunday Readings,” August, 2008)

The question is also very personal – asked directly of his followers, and each of us – for Jesus must be a personal discovery. Our knowledge of Jesus cannot be second hand. It is not knowing about Jesus. It is about knowing Jesus. Jesus demands a personal response . . . Peter is the first to make this personal response. On such a response of faith in Christ God will gather his people (the word, church, means a gathering of the people of the Lord). Jesus is the cornerstone; those who come to know and trust in Jesus as the Christ will become the stones or rocks that will build a new gathering, a new temple for all times and all people. And the gates of Hades (the place of the dead) will not prevail against such a gathering of faith. (Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, 133-146)

Authority – the focus of this week’s readings – is today about the power to enforce laws or to judge or determine what is right or true. An accepted source of expert information is also called an authority. Our English word is rooted in the Latin word auctorem or autor, which means enlarger, founder, or, more literally, one who causes to grow. Thus, it could be inferred that those on whom authority has been conferred are vested with the power and responsibility to help others to grow. This authority can either be used rightly or it can be abused.

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