21st SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
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.
It is a little hard to settle down to work after witnessing the total eclipse of the sun from an elevated portion of Clemson University’s golf-course. About sixteen things had to happen to us so we could see the full experience, and we were lucky on all sixteen. Clemson was a great place to go, (what it was like at Clemson, via CBS) though at lunch time we broke off from the main body on campus as two sole viewers in the wide-open spaces to enjoy this stunning event together.
But we have a Gospel ahead of us this weekend, and a very important one at that. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all follow a general outline: after an initial success of Jesus’ preaching and miracles, there is a growing opposition to Jesus on all quarters—from official religious authorities, to be sure, but even from others who began to grasp the challenge of the call of the Kingdom. All three Gospels have a moment where Jesus turns to his twelve, his intimates, and asks, in so many words, what about you? The question takes the form of identity: who do you say that I am?
Jesus, to this point in Matthew’s Gospel, has never really identified himself. The closest thing we get to an official title, and this is mostly through his actions, is that of ambassador and proclaimer of God’s coming Kingdom. His works have raised the hopes among his followers that he is prophet-like. If the crowds thought of him in the fashion of Elijah or Jeremiah or another classical prophet of Israel, this in itself is significant, for the last prophet Malachi had died three or four centuries before Jesus, and the consensus among the Jews was that the Spirit of God and animator of the prophets was “quenched from the face of the earth.”
But the prophets of the Bible had a rough time of it, and Jesus was faring little better. In the cauldron of emotion and confusion, it is now time to pull back the veil and clarify not just the identity and destiny of Jesus, but also Peter and the Twelve, as well as the followers who would survive him. Although the question by Jesus is addressed to the Twelve, it is Simon Peter who provides the answer in language perhaps greater than he knew. He identifies Jesus as “the Christ” in the Catholic NABRE translation; R.C. France translates the term as “Messiah.” Both translations convey the identity of one anointed by God to save Israel. The term “Son of the living God” here does not yet convey the doctrinal force of equality with the Father, as the Council of Nicaea would affirm in 325 A.D. Rather, the usage here comes from the Hebrew Scripture, specifically Psalm 2, “You are my son; today I have begotten you,” a unique relationship.
Unlike Mark, where Jesus commands secrecy, Jesus rejoices in Peter’s answer, indicating that Peter has received a form of divine insight to render such an identity. And because of this, Jesus identifies Peter as the rock upon whom he would build his church. France, writing from the Evangelical tradition, makes two points here that Catholics sometimes overlook. There is little doubt about a primacy of Peter in future events, but textually speaking, Jesus’ words apply only to Peter, and not to a line of successors. France recognizes how the Catholic tradition has made use of this text in developing the petrine office, or papacy. Second, the Greek word ecclesia (church) always applies to an assembly of people, not to a building or structure. In fact, in 1 Peter 2:5 the new temple of glory is described as made up of “living stones.”
That Jesus intended to leave behind the keys of binding and loosing (forgiving sin) is hard to dispute. Where there is some confusion in this text is whether the power of the keys is intended only for Peter. In John’s Gospel, for example, Jesus confers the Holy Spirit by breathing over all the disciples and conferring upon all of them the power to forgive sins, in his Easter Sunday night appearance. And even in Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew 18: 15-20 describes the use of power of forgiveness and damnation in a much more communal fashion. Again, as the Christian Church developed over time, its structures for reconciliation with the full Body of Christ, his “living stones,” would take shape as the times and the needs warranted.
There are still hard days ahead for Jesus, and eventually his followers. Having a better handle upon the true identity and mission of Jesus as the Christ in some ways makes them more culpable for their future misunderstandings and misconduct, notably their abandonment (even denial!) of the Savior. That Jesus accepted them back into his circle after the Resurrection is a manifestation of the mercy of the keys of forgiveness.
That Jesus would counsel secrecy—to tell no one he was the Messiah—was a precautionary strategy. As France notes, Jesus’ concept of messiahship was so strikingly different from “street expectations” that gross misunderstandings were inevitable. (p. 626) Much would be required yet of Jesus to bridge this gap, and much more by his disciples in gathering the “living stones” of God’s new ecclesia.