Sunday Scripture Readings

By Fr. Francis X. Cleary, SJ

twenty-first sunday

in ordinary time,

august 25

Isaiah 22:19-23; Psalm 138;

Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20

OUR GOOD NEWS: Praise God for his gift of the Church, our firm ground and sure guide. Prophetic sayings directed against individuals (other than kings) are unusual. In the first reading Isaiah described the installation of a royal official. Significant for today's Gospel is the "key," an iron bar of considerable size proudly carried on his shoulder during state occasions. The bearer had power to grant or deny admittance to the royal presence, a decision beyond appeal. Eliakim would prove himself an able administrator, strong and stable like a peg anchoring a tent to solid ground. The Gospel describes Matthew's account of a major, crucial stage in Jesus' public life. The location - Caesarea Philippi, a pagan city on the northern border of Israel - has symbolic meaning for the (later) Church, authorized to bring Jesus' offer of salvation into the Gentile world. Jesus' asked, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" His question was natural enough, since his disciples regularly moved among crowds whom Jesus taught. Various answers expressed a portion of the truth. (1) "John the Baptist" had been Jesus' teacher (Jn 3:26). Forcibly removed from the scene, his proclamation reappeared with Jesus, albeit modified (Kingdom as present, rather than just future reality). (2) "Elijah" was popularly expected to return, proclaiming a new and final period of salvation history when God finally triumphed over evil. (3) "Jeremiah" might have come to mind because Jesus, like this great prophet, encountered increasing hatred and rejection. "You are the Messiah," Simon Peter answered, "the Son of the living God!" By ordinary standards Jesus was totally un-Messianic, since nationalist Jews expected an anti-Roman freedom fighter. "Son of God," one of the most exalted titles for Jesus, deepened the meaning of "Messiah" and introduced a divine element. Jesus responded with a "confession" of his own. He first pronounced a beatitude upon Peter, the only disciple in the Gospels to receive a personal blessing. "Blessed are you, Simon son of John!" Next, Peter's insight was formally confirmed as a special revelation from God. "No mere man has revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father." Third, Jesus proceeded to structure his Church. Peter (including his successors) was to be the shelf - or "rock" - upon which the foundation stone (Christ) rests. Finally, Jesus proclaimed Peter's investiture with power as vice regent - administrative deputy rather than ruler in his own right, since Christ remains head of his Church. The "keys" symbolism recalled Eliakim's installation as majordomo in King Hezekiah's palace with authority over the whole kingdom (first reading). Jesus didn't intend for Peter's authority to be burdensome and arbitrary but reassuring and comforting. We can know what God does and doesn't expect from us in the ever-changing circumstances of daily life. Instead of a hard-and-fast list of do's and don't's, Jesus opted for a personal style of governance entailing flexibility and adaptability, solidly grounded in the tradition while open to newness and change. The Church belongs to Jesus ("my Church"), not to the pope or people. He gives solemn assurance that it will survive external persecution and internal infidelity.

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