Twenty first Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A

by Fr Odise SDB

Click here for Sunday’s readings

This Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 16:13-20) generally highlight who Jesus is according to the people and according to his disciples. Here we are going to focus on who Jesus is and his authority. Peter inspired by the holy spirit replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered him, Blessed are you Peter … for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church…” (16-19). This episode defines also Peter’s primacy among the disciples and his role. Jesus’ blessing on Peter draws from Old Testament traditions about the Davidic covenant. The key concepts and images (Christ / Son of the living God / rock / build / gates of Hades / keys / kingdom) are all connected with Israel’s kingdom established under David and confirmed by Solomon and his construction of the Temple (see 2 Sam 7:4-17; Ps 2:7). Although David’s empire crumbled in 586 B.C., but our Heavenly Father will restore it through Jesus Christ as the Angel Gabriel announced that “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Lk 1:32);

Christ is the long-awaited “son of David”, who rebuilds and transforms the ancient kingdom in the Church. This episode is cited by a very important Church document (Vatican I in 1870) as biblical support for the primacy of Peter and successive popes. The Council’s interpretation touches five points of doctrine:
1) The Magisterium built upon Peter is instituted by Jesus Christ;
2) Peter is given a unique role as chief teacher and ruler (primacy of jurisdiction) over the Church;
3) Peter is the visible head of the Church;
4) Peter’s authority is passed on through successors;
5) Through Peter, Christ himself assures the infallible preservation of the gospel in the Church.

16:16 Son of the living God: The confession is double-sided: First, Peter proclaims the mystery of Christ’s divinity as the head and spokesman of the Church. Second, Peter sees Jesus as the awaited Messiah-king of Israel (see Jn 1:49). The close relationship between the titles Christ and Son reflects Old Testament traditions, where Israel’s kings enjoyed unique relationships with God as his sons as it is written “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me” (2 Sam 7:14; see also Ps 2:7).

Then Jesus calls Peter blessed (in 16:17) and elevates him to be the chief patriarch of the New Covenant. Parallels between Genesis and Jesus’ words (16:17-19) suggest that Peter assumes a role in salvation history similar to Abraham’s.
1) Both are blessed by God (Gen 14:19);
2) Both respond with heroic faith (Heb 11:8);
3) Both receive a divine mission (Gen 12:1-3);
4) Both have their names changed (Gen 17:5);
5) Both are called a “rock” (Is 51:1-2);
6) Both are assured a victory over the “gate” of their enemies (Gen 22:17).

Simon Bar-Jona: Literally means “Simon son of Jonah”. Since Peter’s father is actually named “John” (Jn 1:42), the title may be symbolic:
1) Jesus’ role as a new Jonah (see 12:39-41) may suggest he views Peter as his spiritual son.
2) Since the Hebrew name “Jonah” means “dove”, Jesus may point to the relationship between Peter and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the same Spirit who confirmed Jesus’ Sonship in the form of a dove (3:16) now inspires Peter’s confession. flesh and blood: A Semitic idiom for human beings, emphasising their natural limitations and weaknesses (see Sir 14:18; Gal 1:16).

According to Jewish tradition, the foundation stone of the Jerusalem Temple capped off and sealed a long shaft leading down to the netherworld (Rev 9:1-2; 20:1-3). The Temple, resting securely on a rock, was thus the centre of the cosmos (universe), the junction between heaven and Hades. Drawing from this background, Jesus guarantees that the powers of death and deception will not overcome the Church. He enables Peter (and his successors) to hold error at bay and faithfully proclaim the Gospel (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 552).

16:19 the keys: A symbol of teaching authority (see Lk 11:52). Jesus consecrates Peter as the Church’s chief teacher, whose office will continue on through successors. The plural use of keys may imply a connection with the “gates” in 16:18 and mean that Peter’s position includes, among other things, the authority to release the righteous souls who are detained in Hades but destined for heaven.

In Matthew, Jesus is the new Davidic king, who appoints Peter the prime minister over the kingdom of heaven in the Church. As in Is 22, Peter’s position is designed for him and his successors; the office is meant to endure as long as the kingdom itself. Entrusted with the keys, Peter wields Christ’s own royal authority (cf. Rev 1:18; 3:7). Whatever you bind . . . loose: Familiar language in early Jewish literature. The metaphor carries several connotations:
1) It signifies teaching authority and the ability to render binding decisions. Jewish Rabbis were said to make “binding” interpretations of the Law.
2) It denotes authority to include or exclude members of a religious community.
3) It signals the forgiveness of sins.
The verb loose is used this way in Rev 1:5 (translated “freed”) and by the early Church Fathers (see Jn 20:23). Peter is thus invested with Christ’s authority as the kingdom’s chief teacher and administrator; through him heaven governs the Church on earth (see Jn 21:15-17).

After having tried to get deeper in understanding today’s Gospel let us come back to our own reality. Imagine for a while as if Jesus is going to ask you the same questions, who do people say that I am? Most probably this question might not be so difficult for you, as it was not so difficult for Jesus’ disciples. Nonetheless, if Jesus asks you “But who do you say that I am?”(16:15). Are you ready to reply to him immediately? What should your answer be? Are you able to answer with all your heart as Peter did, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16) or will you be silent like the other disciples? Is He, the Living God in your life? Are you able to recognise Him present in your daily life? As we all were created in His image and likeness, are you able to recognise and honour His image on the people with whom you live and work (that might be husband, wife, parents, sons or daughters, relatives, friends and so on)?

In case you do not find yourself fitting completely in the above points, you are still in time. Try this coming week to discover and honour God’s presence first of all in yourself and then in the other people with whom you live, work, study or have fun every day.

Be blessed and don’t forget, be a blessing too.