21st Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Readings: Isaiah 22:15, 19‑23 Romans 11:33‑36
This Sunday's liturgy celebrates Peter's confession of faith in Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of the living God" and Jesus' promise to Simon Bar Jonah that he will become the "Rock" (petros) upon whom Jesus will build his Church. Let us pray for the Lord's continued guidance of his Church in the words of the responsorial psalm: "Lord, your love is eternal/ do not forsake the work of your hands" (Ps 138).
The Isaiah oracle provides the background for some of the symbolic language used in Jesus' promise to Peter in the gospel. In the Lord's name, Isaiah announces that Shebna will be "thrust" from his station as "master of the palace" in the Davidic court because he has abused the office by hewing for himself a pretentious tomb and glorying in his chariots (Isa 22:15‑18). In his place the Lord will "summon" the faithful Eliakim, son of Hilkiah, whom he will invest with the symbols of office as "master of the palace" for "the House of David." “I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder;/ when he opens, no one shall shut,/ when he shuts, no one shall open. I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot,/ to be a place of honor for his family.” The handing over of "the key of the House of David" is the symbol used in Jesus' conferral of authority upon Peter. It may have been part of the investiture ceremony for "the master of the palace;" it symbolizes full control over the royal family and palace.
The second reading is the conclusion of Paul's long reflection on the place of Israel and the Gentiles in God's plan of salvation (Romans 9‑11). Paul has agonized over the fact that the majority of his fellow Israelites have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah, but he has concluded that the gifts and call of God to Israel are irrevocable and that their temporary rejection of the gospel has been an opportunity for the Gentiles to "be grafted onto" the "rich root of the olive tree" (Israel). Paul ends with a song of praise, quoting from Isaiah and Job in humble acknowledgment of the mystery of God's plan for salvation. “How deep are the riches and the wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable his judgments, how unsearchable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given him anything that he may be repaid?’”
Matthew’s account of Simon Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” is the climax of this portion of his Gospel. In response to Peter’s confession, Jesus in turn establishes Simon as Peter (the Rock) of his church: a vocation continued by Pope Francis in our own time. In the previous chapters the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem have repeatedly rejected Jesus’ claims to be the very incarnation of God’s wisdom through his teachings and actions proclaiming the kingdom of God (chapters 11-15), and he in turn has condemned them as hypocritical “blind” guides who close the kingdom to those who would enter (see also chapter 23). Jesus has also warned Peter and the other disciples to “beware of the leaven (i.e. the teaching) of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (16:5-12)
Now, after journeying far north to the region of Caesarea Phillipi, Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They reply with the various opinions of the populace: John the Baptist (come back to life), Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. When Jesus asks them their belief, Peter, in contrast to the disbelieving leaders and with a fuller understanding than the crowd, confesses: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” As a disciple of faith, Peter is not one of the wise and learned from whom the kingdom is hidden (see Matt 11:25), but one of the blessed childlike to whom the Father can reveal the Son (Matt 11:25-29). Therefore, Jesus responds by blessing him: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”
Jesus then gives Simon the title “rock” upon which he will build his church, and he promises it protection from the power of evil. Jesus also gives Peter responsibility for teaching and leadership in his church which will replace the failed teaching office of the Pharisees and scribes. “And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Peter is established as the vice-regent in the royal household of Jesus’ kingdom. He is given “the keys to the kingdom” so as to open it to all by teaching faithfully what Jesus has taught in the gospel. At the end of the Gospel the risen Jesus will send his disciples to the nations with this mission. “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”