In a conversation with Peter and the apostles, Jesus declares His intention to build His Church on a human being. Whatever was He thinking?
By Gayle Somers
Gospel (Read Mt 16:13-20)
Today’s Gospel is so familiar to Catholics that the potential for missing the punch it packs is inordinately high. If ever we are challenged on our belief in the papacy, we always look to this passage to begin our defense. We see that when Jesus quizzes the apostles about His developing reputation, they are well aware of what people were saying. This helps us understand that there was a buzz in the air about Jesus. The apostles had families and friends; they heard the conjectures about the itinerant preacher/miracle worker. The Jews, from their own history, had lots of ideas of who Jesus might be—Elijah, Jeremiah, or “one of the prophets.” Some even thought the spirit of the now dead John the Baptist had somehow come back to live in Jesus. Then comes the pivotal question: “But who do you say that I am?” We should move through this familiar part of the passage slowly if we are to let its importance register.
Jesus asks about the opinion of “men.” Aren’t the apostles also men? Indeed, they are “flesh and blood,” like all of us. However, Simon responds to the question with a divine answer, as Jesus makes clear. Simon declares that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In other words, Simon knows that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah and that He is not simply the son of David, as the Jews expected, but God’s own Son, something very unexpected. This was not a truth that came simply through observation, study, personal reflection, or intense holiness. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My heavenly Father.” Simon, a man, had gotten a revelation from God. His ability to make this confession did not come from him alone. In an extraordinary moment, a man spoke God’s words. How extraordinary was this? The rest of the passage makes the answer abundantly clear.
First, Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter, or “rock.” Jews, from their history, understood that when God changed a man’s name, it represented a change in his God-given role in salvation history (i.e., Abram to Abraham in Gn 17:5; Jacob to Israel in Gn 32:28). Simon Peter’s confession made explicit an interior work of God in him. On that basis, Jesus makes him “the rock” upon which He will build His Church. Just as the Temples of the Old Testament were built on a great stone (see 1 Kings 5:17; Ezra 3:10), Jesus will build His Church upon the foundational rock of Peter.
Why would Jesus build His Church on flesh and blood and invest him with such daunting authority (keys to the kingdom, binding and loosing on earth and heaven)? We must ask this question if we are to get to the heart of what really troubles people about the papacy. Wasn’t this terribly risky? Peter, as we know, was capable of highs and lows. We see in him everything that confirms us in our suspicion that to make a man the foundation of the Church looks like a terrible mistake.
That is precisely why this choice is important for us to understand. The Catholic Church is full of flesh and blood—the papacy, the hierarchy, the saints, Mary. They are all people like us. Yet we are not afraid of this, because, as we see in the Gospel, flesh and blood can be graced with divinity. That is the whole point of the Incarnation! Jesus came to redeem fallen humanity; God has never given up on flesh and blood, which He created in His own image and likeness. Jesus proves that beyond doubt when He fearlessly proclaims Peter the rock of His Church. In addition, He promises to preserve the Church against “the netherworld,” or “Hades.” It is Jesus, not Peter, who guarantees that the dark forces of death and deception represented by “Hades” (see Rv 6:8) will never prevail against His flesh-and-blood Church. Yes, this is risky, but what clearer demonstration of the victory of Redemption could we possibly desire?
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me remember that to build a human Church was Your idea; help me believe that You will see it through.
First Reading (Read Isa 22:19-23)
In this prophecy from Isaiah, we have an opportunity to see the historical background of our Gospel passage. We learn that in the Davidic kingdom, there existed an office called “master of the palace.” The man who filled this office watched over the kingdom while the king was away for any reason. In this particular case, Shebna was the corrupt “master of the palace,” so God vows to replace him with a man who will serve righteously, Eliakim. Notice that in the description of this office of stewardship, Isaiah says that the newly appointed man “shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Then, using language Jesus used in the Gospel, God says the steward will receive the “key” to the kingdom, with authority very much like binding and loosing. Isaiah says God will fix this new steward “like a peg in a sure spot.” Now we get it!
In our Gospel passage, Jesus is creating this same “office” for His kingdom while He is away. Jews hearing the conversation would have understood that. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus promises to give His apostles unique authority to establish and spread His kingdom, the Church. In today’s Gospel, He sets Peter in the place of head steward. The charism for truth and authority, given through the Holy Spirit to the apostles on Pentecost, will continue to be present in the Church in their successors, too, as we begin to see in the Book of Acts. Just as the Davidic kingdom needed a “father” while the king was away, so the Church receives a “father” (“pope” is from the Greek word papas, or “father”) in Peter. This office will last until the return of the King, Who has the keys of His kingdom and will no longer need a “master of the palace.”
When this Jewish history sinks in, we can understand that our Gospel passage shows us the wisdom of Jesus, even though at first glance, His action looks risky. With His own promise of preservation, His kingdom will always have the “sure spot” of leadership in the successors of Peter and the apostles (the Pope and bishops in union with him). This supernatural charism will guarantee truth and unity in the Church. If the Church needed a “papa” when Jesus first established her, she will always need a “papa” to guide her to reunion with her beloved King.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, thank You for Your loving plan to keep us safely in Your care until You come again, following the staff of Peter.
Psalm (Read Ps 138:1-3, 6, 8)
The more we ponder the meaning of our Gospel passage and its history in Isaiah, the more we understand that when Jesus gave His Church a leader in Peter, “like a peg in a sure spot,” He was acting out of unspeakable kindness and grace. He knew His sheep would need a shepherd while He was gone; He knew the wolves would want to feast on them. In His departure from earth, He would fulfill the psalmist’s request not to “forsake the work” of His hands. Rather than be frightened or suspicious of flesh-and-blood leadership in the Church, we should “give thanks to [God’s] name for [His] kindness and truth.” Surely God knows the struggles in His human and divine Church: “The LORD is exalted, yet the lowly He sees, and the proud He knows from afar.” The Church has been both blessed and wounded by her human leaders. Still, our confidence is not in them alone. We have all our hopes pinned on the promise Jesus made to His Church. In times of difficulty and darkness, we can pray with the psalmist: “Lord, Your love is eternal; do not forsake the work of Your hands.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it prayerfully again as your own.
Second Reading (Read Rom 11:33-36)
Thank God for St. Paul, who helps us find words to describe the indescribable wisdom of God in building His Church according to His own plan! We ourselves would likely never have wanted it built on any human being, yet we find now, two thousand years into our history, that Jesus has kept His promise to protect us from death and deception in the Catholic Church, human as it is. His plan is working. We have to exclaim with St. Paul: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are His judgments and how unsearchable His ways! … To Him be glory forever. Amen.”
Possible response: Lord, we know of tragic failures in human leadership in Your Church; we also know that we’re still here! Thank You for the mystery of Your Church.