By Father Donald Dilger
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Isaiah 22:19-23; Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20
The setting for the first reading is sometime during the reign of King Hezekiah, 715-687 B.C. Shebna is the master of the royal palace. He has offended the Lord by building himself a grand tomb. One hears echoes of the story of the Tower of Babel — a symbol of arrogance and pride. See Genesis 11:1-9. The Lord sends Isaiah to let him know of the divine displeasure. Very likely there is more to the story than this religious angle, since the punishment hardly fits a crime, which does not seem criminal at all. Very possibly Shebna was the architect of some foreign policy put into motion by King Hezekiah. This would have involved Hezekiah’s relations to the superpower of the day, Assyria. When this foreign policy failed, the architect of the policy gets the blame just as happens in our time and in our country. This is not the only time in history that political failure is clothed with a religious covering. Shebna is about to lose his important position. Let’s call it secretary of state. At the Lord’s direction, Shebna will be replaced by Eliakim.
The above part has little connection with today’s gospel. The rest of the story does. First comes the promised investiture of Eliakim in Shebna’s authority. The oracle of Isaiah is directed to Shebna. “I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority.” Eliakim’s job description follows. “He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah.” (Judah was the tribe of origin of King David and his successors.) “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder. When he opens, no one will close. When he closes, no one will open. I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family.” Sound familiar? Recalling that the Gospel of Matthew was written in the eighties of the first Christian century, and even though the name Matthew was accorded to it in the second century, it was not the composition of an eyewitness. Whoever the author may be, he used not only Mark’s gospel as a source, (and Mark was no eye- or earwitness of Jesus), but combined Mark’s gospel with oral traditions and with Old Testament sources to form what we know as Matthew’s gospel. The same holds true for the gospel reading of this Sunday. The promise to Simon Peter in today’s gospel was constructed of the above three sources. Our first reading of this Sunday is foundational to Matthew’s formation of the promise to Simon Peter.
The Responsorial Psalm 138 responds neither to the first reading nor to the gospel reading. One might stretch the thoughts of the Psalm as a response to the second reading. The Psalmist gives us some prayerful thoughts. He opens with words of thanksgiving to God who listened to the Psalmist’s petitions. Therefore, he promises to worship at God’s temple. He praises the Lord’s kindness and truthfulness, and for giving him strength. Even though the Lord is so exalted, yet he does not ignore the lowly. A warning: “He sees the proud from far away.” The people respond, “Lord, your love is eternal, do not forsake the work of your hands,” meaning ourselves.
The second reading is the grand finale of Paul’s long discussion of the problem that Jesus’ own people as a nation and a religious entity did not accept him as their Messiah (their Christ) sent to them by God. He knows that he has failed to find a totally acceptable solution to this mystery of rejection. (It must not be forgotten however that all the first Christians and Jesus were and remained faithful Jews.) Faced by the fact of not having accomplished his search for an answer, Paul breaks out in the superb act of faith that constitutes our second reading. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God, etc.”
As the gospel opens, Jesus leaves the Holy Land. He travels north to Caesarea Philippi. This change of scene from Galilee to heathen land is theological geography. Christianity was not to be confined to one nation centered in the old Land of Promise and the Jewish nation. It was destined for the world beyond. Therefore, when Jesus commissions the future establishment of his saving community, the Church, it is appropriate that this be done in Gentile territory. He begins with a public opinion poll, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Significantly he uses the title “Son of Man,” which refers to a symbolic human being in Daniel 7. To that Son of Man the Ancient of Days, God, gives universal dominion and an eternal kingdom. The disciples answer with the gossip about Jesus’ identity. But this is not the complete answer. Therefore, “Who do you (plural) say that I am?” Simon Peter, already the recognized spokesperson for the disciples, answers for all, “You are the Messiah (Christ), the Son of the living God.” Jesus blesses Simon and points out that Simon could not know this on his own. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
Simon’s act of faith is rewarded, as Jesus solemnly commissions him as God commissioned Eliakim to be master of the palace in today’s first reading. “I say to you, you are the Rock (Peter, Petros in Greek), and upon this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” It should be taken into account that other than our first reading, there is additional Old Testament background to the naming of Simon, son of John, as the Rock. Abraham, father of the Israelite/Jewish people, is also called the Rock. Isaiah 51:1-2, speaking to God’s people, “Look to the Rock from which you were hewn. . . Abraham your father.” The new Israel, the new people of God, will look to the Rock from which they were hewn, Simon Petros. The commissioning continues, now using the vocabulary of the commissioning of Eliakim in our 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.” This form of the authority of Peter is found only in Matthew, but the other gospels have their own way of revealing the authority of Peter over the Church. See especially Luke 22:31-32; John 21:15-19.