Jesus Takes a Poll

Sunday, August 27, Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Isaiah 22:19-23; Romans 11:33-36; and Matthew 16:13-20.

By Father Donald Dilger

Two Sundays ago we encountered the first of three special traditions about Simon Peter, traditions found only in the Gospel of Matthew. That first tradition was Peter’s attempt to walk on water at the invitation of Jesus. On this Sunday we have the second of these traditions — Jesus bestows the keys of the kingdom of heaven on Simon Peter. Last Sunday we encountered Jesus in heathen territory — the city states of Tyre and Sidon on the Mediterranean seacoast in northern Palestine. Matthew included that episode to justify the Christian mission beyond Judaism and the borders of the Holy Land. In the context of this Sunday’s Gospel, the Matthean Jesus, (or Jesus from Matthew’s points of view), has made it clear that new leadership will be required rather than looking for religious leadership from “the scribes and the Pharisees,” the leadership of first century Judaism.

On whom and where shall that leadership be bestowed? Matthew places Jesus outside the borders of the Holy Land. The Christian movement is not to be restricted to the Holy Land and its people. The Christian movement must move out into the whole world, as Matthew writes at the end of his Gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Matthew begins the catechetical story of the divinely bestowed gift of leadership, “Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi….”  This was a city about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee and twenty miles east of the city of Tyre, which we encountered in last Sunday’s Gospel. Today this area is part of SW Syria. It may be noted that Luke does not place a commissioning of Simon Peter in Caesarea Philippi, but locates it on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and at the Last Supper. Matthew follows Mark’s lead in placing this episode outside holy ground. Both are engaging in theological geography — the place is important as a symbol of the universality of the Christian proclamation. The same was true in last Sunday’s Gospel, which was located in Tyre and Sidon.

Jesus takes an opinion poll, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Meaning: “Who do people say that I am”? The title “Son of Man” is a favorite self-designation of himself in our four Gospels. The title emphasizes his humanity. The disciples report what they heard about Jesus. Matthew builds up to the climactic moment of catechesis on the identity of Jesus, as Jesus says to the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” The leader among them and the usual spokesperson answers, “You are the Messiah (the Christ), the Son of the Living God.”  How did Simon Peter know this? To conclude that Jesus was the Messiah presents no particular difficulty. Many thought this. Peter had seen Jesus’ miracles, heard him speak to the crowds, saw the crowds attracted to him, experienced his magnetic personality.

But “the Son of the living God”? Who could reach such a conclusion? No human being, and no pious Jew who professed their creed, “The Lord our God is ONE Lord!” Jesus answers the question, “Blessed are you, Simon son of John, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” What is meant by the adjective living God? In the context of the time, some Roman emperors claimed this title for themselves or were flattered by being called son of some heathen god.  The Old Testament opinion of heathen gods is found in Psalm 135:15-17, “They have mouths but cannot speak, eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear, nor is their breath in their mouths.” Dead gods!

Simon’s acceptance and profession of this revelation is rewarded, “And I say to you, ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. Whatever you unbind on earth will be unbound in heaven.” The obvious meaning of these words is in the name (title) itself which Jesus bestowed on Simon son of John. The Greek word petros is the masculinized form of the Greek word  petra  meaning  rock. To understand the authority of Peter and his successors over the Church, let’s look at the Old Testament passage which serves as foundation for the “keys” symbol. Isaiah 22:15-25, words spoken of the “prime minister” of the palace in the  reign of kings descended from David, “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open and none will close. He will close and none will open…, and they will hang on him the whole weight of his father’s house….”