The Twenty-first Sunday of the Year (A)
Dear brothers and sisters,
To recognize Jesus as the Messiah is to acknowledge the truth of the words announced to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel:
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end (Luke 1:32-33).
His kingdom, then, is the Kingdom of David, the Kingdom of Israel. Jesus gives “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” to Peter because Jesus acknowledges his divine Kingship and re-establishes the office, as it were, of the Master of the Palace (Matthew 16:18).
Centuries ago, the Lord said to Shebna, then Master of the Palace under King Hezekiah, “I will throw you down from your office” because he has become a “disgrace to [his] master’s house” (Isaiah 22:19, 18). He was not a worthy Master of the Palace, the highest official in the Kingdom of Israel after the King and served poorly in the capacity of what might be called a Regent, a Prime Minister, or a Vizier, as Joseph was in the land of Egypt; there was no one above the Master of the Palace, save the King himself (cf. Genesis 41:40).
The King entrusted his own authority to his Master of the Palace, which is why “when he opens, no one shall shut” and “when he shuts, no one shall open;” what he did, the king did (Isaiah 22:22). The Master of the Palace acted in the name of the King and possessed his authority; to disobey him was to disobey the King.
The Lord God pulled Shebna down from his office as Master of the Palace because he looked to the Pharaoh of Egypt for deliverance from Sennacherib, King of Assyria (cf. Isaiah 22:19). Shebna trusted in mere men and did not rely on the help of the Lord God; this was his disgrace.
Taking from Shebna his robe, his sash, and his authority, the Lord God entrusted them to Eliakim, making him the new Master of the Palace so the office would not be vacant. The Lord further placed upon Eliakim “the key of the House of David” (Isaiah 22:22).
But what has this to do with Peter? Jesus himself told Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom does not belong to this world” (John 18:36). Yet, he sent the Apostles in his own name, telling them to announce, “The kingdom of God is at hand for you” (Luke 10:9). From his many disciples, Jesus “appointed twelve [whom he also named apostles],” a word taken from civil structures and meaning “one who is sent,” an ambassador. Even the very title he gave to those he chose to “be with him” indicates the establishment of a kingdom; one who is not a king has no need of ambassadors (Mark 3:14). It should be remembered that Jesus himself began his public ministry announcing, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). To be sure, the kingdom of Jesus is not an earthly, temporal kingdom, but an eternal kingdom, one without end, one not bound by time and place; his kingdom, his reign, extends beyond that of geographical Israel to encompass the entire cosmos and all time through the ministry of the apostles and their successors who have received a share in the Lord’s own mission and authority.
The Lord first made his covenant with Israel to foreshadow the covenant he would make with all of humanity. In the fullness of time, the Son of God sealed “the new and eternal covenant” with the new Israel in his own blood. Through his appointment of the Twelve Apostles, Jesus makes clear that “the definitive time has arrived in which to constitute the new People of God, the people of the twelve tribes, which now becomes a universal people, his Church.” It is the Church, founded upon the rock of Peter, which is the new Israel.
We see, then, in this passage from Saint Matthew’s Gospel, that Jesus uses three symbols regarding his Church:
Peter will be the rocky foundation on which he will build the edifice of the Church; he will have the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to open or close it to people as he sees fit; lastly, he will be able to bind or to loose, in the sense of establishing or prohibiting whatever he deems necessary for the life of the Church. It is always Christ’s Church, not Peter’s.
Peter did not make the Church; he received it from Christ Jesus. Peter did not create his faith; he received it from the Father. Peter is not free to do with the Church whatever he wishes, but only what is consistent with the will of the Lord. Peter is, as it were, not the King but the Master of the Palace; he speaks not in his own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ. He, and those who share the power of the keys, bind and loose in the sacrament of penance and in their governance of the Church for the sake of justice and right order.
What is more, the office of the Master of the Palace continued beyond the life of the first Master of the Palace; the doors to the King had to be continually opened and shut and so the office of Master of Palace could not remain vacant. It is the same with the office of Peter: the keys must continually be held and so Peter must also have successors, whom we call the Popes.
Throughout the history of the Papacy, beginning with Peter, the first Pope, many have given their lives for Him whom they know to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” the keys to whose kingdom they have held (Matthew 16:16). Like their shepherds and fathers in faith, many of the Lord’s flock have also given their lives for him and for his Church founded upon the rock of Saint Peter.
Even today, on the other side of the world, many Christians have given their lives for Jesus, for the Messiah whose kindness endures forever (cf. Psalm 138:8). Tens of thousands of Christians in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, the Sudan, Kenya, and elsewhere have been killed because of their faith in Jesus. Others have lost their homes and business; their friends and neighbors have been beheaded, crucified, and hung in the streets; their sisters and daughters have been kidnapped, raped and forced into false marriages; their cemeteries, churches, and monasteries have been desecrated; they live in fear and many are now starving and without shelter as the world looks on, watching and doing little to help. And the threats against them are not diminishing, but increasing. They have heard Jesus ask them, “But who do you say that I am?” and have answered with Saint Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15, 16).
Despite this tremendous persecution, they remain faithful to the Lord Jesus and refuse to renounce their faith; the Lord has been faithful to them and they will be faithful to him. Their clear witness of fidelity to Jesus poses two serious questions to each of us: Do I truly believe Jesus to be the Messiah, the only one who can save us from sin and death? If so, What am I willing to give up in order to hold on to him?
Reflecting on the experience of his life, J.R.R. Tolkien, the celebrated author of the Lord of the Rings, once wrote:
I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests; but I now know enough about myself to be aware that I should not leave the Church (which for me would mean leaving the allegiance of Our Lord) for any such reasons: I should leave because I did not believe, and should not believe any more, even if I had never met any one in [holy] orders who was not both wise and saintly. I should deny the Blessed Sacrament, that is: call Our Lord a fraud to His face.
This the persecuted Christians refuse to do; they refuse to call Jesus a liar and trust entirely in him, loving him with all their “heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Mark 12:3). If faced with a similar or even a lesser situation, what will our response be? Will we abandon Jesus and His Church, or will we abandon everything else to stay faithful to Him? The Lord remains faithful to us; let us remain faithful to him.
Jesus entrusted the keys to the kingdom of heaven to Peter and said to him, “…but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). Through the intercession of Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles and the first Pope, may the Lord grant us all the strength to persevere in faith, hope, and love, that at the end of our lives, we may all sing his praise together in the company of the angels (cf. Psalm 138:2). Amen.