21st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Aug. 24, 2014
Matt 16: 13-20
Woodbadge Scouters, Putnam Valley, N.Y.
“Jesus … asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matt 16: 13).
Jesus has been traveling around Galilee, preaching, healing, and debating (or arguing) with people opposed to his message and his manner. Last Sunday he’d gone out of Jewish territory into what is Lebanon today, and in today’s gospel we find him and the apostles still beyond Jewish boundaries—today it’s in the disputed territory of the Golan Heights.
Jesus is alone with the 12 for a while that he might instruct them privately. Next week, in a passage that immediately follows this week’s, he’s going to warn them for the 1st time of his coming passion and death.
In the light of that future, today he asks them what people think about him—the profession of pollster not having been invented yet, or Facebook. So the apostles tell him what they’ve been hearing from people in the crowds around Jesus and perhaps around their dinner tables at home (if they weren’t hanging with Jesus 24/7—some of them may have been young and unattached enuf to do that, but others were married and presumably had families; for sure, they all had Jewish mothers!).
But after they report the various opinions comes the critical question: “Who do you say that I am?” (16:15). Regardless of what the crowds think of Jesus, or what the scribes and Pharisees think, the 12 must think, and speak, for themselves. Each individual must make his own decision about Jesus. Who is he?
The answer that a person gives to that question determines his response to Jesus himself—to his message, to his person, to his invitations: “Come, follow me”; “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15); “As I have loved you, you must love one another” (John 13:34).
Simon answers Jesus’ question: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16). Christos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means “anointed.” Peter has identified Jesus as God’s anointed one, his agent for saving Israel and someone enjoying a very special relationship with God. In the common understanding or expectation of the time, the Messiah would restore the kingdom of Israel with power and glory, and perhaps usher in the final age of the world, remade into a new Eden. Because of this expectation, Jesus tells his disciples at the end of today’s gospel “to tell no one that he was the Christ” (16:20).
Undoubtedly Peter doesn’t understand, either, what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. More about that in next week’s gospel, when Jesus predicts his passion, death, and resurrection and Peter refuses to believe it.
Jesus addresses his question not only to the 12 but to everyone: “Who do you say that I am?” How we answer that is the crucial answer of our lives; our lives, here and hereafter, depend upon our answer. Sometimes one’s answer can cost him his flesh-and-blood life, as numerous Christians find out regularly in Iraq, Nigeria, and other places. If James Foley, a devout Catholic, had been willing to convert to Islam, he’d still be alive.
If Jesus is only a wise man like Buddha or Ben Franklin, then we may read and study his words, and take or leave them as seems best to us, based on what other wise persons have taught on our own experience, or on the fear of persecution.
Likewise, if Jesus is a respected prophet like Francis of Assisi or MLK, but nothing more.
But if we answer with Simon Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” the implications are vastly different. No longer may we study Jesus’ words and weigh them against what other wise persons or prophets have said, or our own experience. Rather, we are compelled to weigh our experience and the wisdom of others against Jesus’ words, to measure everything in the light of his teaching, his way of life, his call to follow him. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” Paul writes to the Corinthians. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (I, 1:18,25)
In the gospel today we hear, further, of the wonderful provision that Jesus made so that we might know securely—with our eternal destiny in the balance—what Jesus teaches, what Jesus requires of us, what is truly divine wisdom and not merely human “wisdom.”
Jesus declares that he will found a community—the Greek word is ekklesia, “an assembly of the citizens who’ve been called together,” which we commonly translate as “church.” He’ll build this community upon Peter, a name that means “rock.” Furthermore, “the gates of the netherworld”—the Greek word is hades—shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). The world of death—the netherworld—and death’s cause (sin), and sin’s special agent (Satan), shall not overcome Christ’s Church, which he has built upon Peter. If we are part of this community, if we are linked with Peter, salvation from the power of Satan, from sin, and from eternal death is available to us. Jesus guarantees it.
|Jesus handing the keys to Peter by Perugino, in the Sistine Chapel|
Jesus goes further, giving to Peter “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (16:19); hence our image of Peter as the keeper of the pearly gates in both art and jokes. Jesus gives Peter the authority to bind and to loose: to loose people from their sins by admitting them to the sacraments and membership in the community, to bind them in their sins by judging their lack of repentance; to pass authoritative judgment on matters of faith and morals that bind our consciences as disciples of Jesus.
An example from contemporary Church life and discipleship: A couple of weeks ago I was having dinner with some old friends. The topic of marriage and annulments came up. One of the party said, “I don’t think you need an annulment”; in effect, just divorce, remarry, and carry on your normal religious life. That kind of remark seems to indicate that someone hasn’t been listening to Jesus, who says that whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery; that teaching’s preserved in 3 of the gospels (Matt 5:32; Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18), so it isn’t just a “rumor” or a whim of the Pope. If Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, do we have to take that teaching to heart, or can we just blow it off? Hence the role of his community, the Church, in passing judgment—binding or loosing—on the nature of marriage, the requirements of marriage, and finally the validity or nullity of a particular marriage.
The good news is that by listening to the Church, and to Peter in particular, we can’t go astray: the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail over the truth, over our faith, over God’s grace touching us thru the Church. Peter’s role is carried on by his successors as bishop of Rome. When Peter speaks authoritatively on a matter of faith or of right and wrong—not on some ordinary topic like whether San Lorenzo is the best soccer team in the world (that’s Pope Francis’s team)—we know that Peter speaks for Christ, Son of the living God, and he points to us the path toward the kingdom of heaven.