Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading: Isaiah 22:19-23; Response: Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8; Second Reading: Romans 11:33-36; Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20

The setting for the first reading is early in the reign of King Hezekiah, 715-687 B.C. Shebna is master of the royal palace, a position perhaps akin to chief of staff, prime minister or secretary of state. We learn from the context of our reading that the Lord was angry with Shebna for building for himself a grand burial monument. Just why the Lord does not like monuments is not clear. A more likely scenario is that Shebna guided a foreign policy of revolting in 705 B.C. against the dominance of Assyria, the superpower of the time. The prophet Isaiah was very active in the politics of Hezekiah’s kingdom. He had opposed the foreign policy of Shebna, which ended in disaster. King Hezekiah had to pay Assyria a huge indemnity and lost much of his territory. Shebna had to take the blame. He will lose his important position and will be exiled. He will be replaced by Eliakim. Thus, the background to Isaiah’s oracle against Shebna as the Lord directed.

Our reading begins with the standard introduction to the oracles (professional statements) of Old Testament prophets, “Thus says the Lord … I will thrust you from your office and pull your down from your station.” In words not included in our reading, the Lord said even worse through Isaiah. Shebna will not need his fancy tomb-monument. Why not? Because the Lord will hurl him down with a single blow. Then, with a strong grip, he will wind Shebna into a ball and throw him into exile in a foreign country. “There you will die, and the armaments you prepared will go to a foreign land. You are the disgrace of your master’s palace.” Rough politics. The loser gets canned. Isaiah, still speaking to Shebna, takes up the directions for Eliakim, his replacement. First, the insignia of his office. “I will clothe him with your robe, gird him with your sash.” Even to this day in some countries, a sash is an official emblem of high office. What is Eliakim’s job? He will be a father to all living in Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah. He will have full authority in the royal palace. “I will place the key of the House of David (the founder of the dynasty and ancestor of Hezekiah) on Eliakim’s shoulder. When he opens, no one will close. When he closes, no one will open.” Thus, we have the foundational vocabulary Matthew employed to reconstruct, decades after the event, the commissioning of Simon Peter in today’s gospel reading.

It would be difficult to construe Psalm 138 as a response to the first reading or to what we will hear in the gospel. Let’s just call it what it is — a psalm that stands as a substitute for a response. It is a hymn of thanksgiving for the Lord’s eternal love, and it petitions the Lord to not forget the work of his hands. The psalmist thanks God for answering his prayers and building up his strength.

The second reading is the grand finale of three chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In those chapters, he examined and attempted to answer, in various ways, the question, “Why did Jesus’ own nation not accept him as their long-awaited Messiah?” He seems to understand that his attempts at an answer do not quite satisfy a questioner. What to do? He does what all can do when puzzled by God’s strange ways. Reaching back to Isaiah 40:13-14, he reconstructs that oracle into perhaps the most profound act of faith found in the New Testament.

In the first reading, Shebna receives his commission to govern the kingdom of King Hezekiah. In the gospel, Simon Peter receives his commission to govern the kingdom of the King of Kings. The setting of Peter’s commissioning is outside the Holy Land, north of the Sea of Galilee, in the area of the Gentile city Caesarea Philippi. The city was named after the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar and its present ruler, Herod Philip. The setting is important as theological geography. The Church was not to be limited to the territory of Jesus’ ethnic people — the Jews. The Church would move into Gentile territory to convert all nations. Jesus first takes an opinion poll. He asks his disciples, “What are people saying about me?” He uses the title “Son of Man” of himself — a reference to a vision in Daniel 7. In that vision a “son of man,” that is, “a human being,” is given power, dominion and a kingdom that will last forever. Early Christians understood that human-like figure to be Jesus. The disciples give various answers derived from contemporary gossip about Jesus. Then, Jesus directs the crucial question to all the disciples. “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter is already the recognized leader of the apostolic group. He answers for all, “You are the Messiah (the Christ), Son of the living God.”

Jesus replies in a formal statement using Peter’s given name and the name of his father. “Blessed are you, Simon bar (son of) Yohanon (John).” Why the blessing? Because Simon has received a revelation from the Father of Jesus. “For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” It is important that we understand that Jesus’ divine sonship is not humanly provable, but rests on divine revelation, to which we give our assent. Jesus bestows an official title on Simon. “I say to you, you are the Rock, (Greek Petros), and upon this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” There is important Old Testament background to the title “Rock.” In Isaiah 51:1-2, the prophet says to God’s people, “Look to the Rock from which you were hewn ... Abraham your father.” The new Israel, also the people of God, is asked to look to the Rock from which they were hewn — Simon Peter. The commissioning continues in words reminiscent of the commissioning of Shebna in the first reading. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you unbind on earth shall be unbound in heaven.” Thus, the constitution of Simon Peter’s authority over Jesus’ kingdom. Luke 22:31-32 has a very different way of describing the same authority. It happens at the Last Supper. Different again is John’s version in John 21:15-17: “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.”