First Reading Isaiah 22:19–23
Psalm Psalm 138:1–3, 6, 8
Second Reading Romans 11:33–36
Gospel Matthew 16:13–20
Gospel – Matthew 16:13–20
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Hearing the Word
God has a unique way of dealing with people and directing history. Today’s liturgy of the word points to this fact, by referring to some of God’s distinctive and surprising choices.
The first reading is firmly rooted in the history of Judah and Jerusalem. The oracle is thought to refer to the events of 701 BC, when the city was preparing for an Assyrian attack in reprisal for an earlier Israelite rebellion against Assyrian occupation. King Hezekiah who ruled over Jerusalem at the time, succeeded in gaining independence for a brief period of time, but the Assyrians were coming back with a vengeance and the city was preparing for a siege. It appears that the inhabitants of the city, together with the chief official entrusted with preparing the defence, an individual called Shebna, were utterly confident that the city would be able to repel the Assyrians and remain secure.
Shebna’s confidence was such, that, instead of strengthening the city defences, he became concerned with private and self-serving projects, such as building an elaborate tomb for himself and his family (cf. Isa 22:16); he was convinced that he would die peacefully and be laid to rest in the city. His confidence was shared by the inhabitants of Jerusalem who celebrated and partied, forgetting repentance and religious observance (cf. Isa 22:12-13). This showed that they either trusted that God would protect them, or completely relied on Shebna’s defences and an alliance with Egypt (cf. Isa 22:5-10). In either case, neither Shebna nor the Jerusalemites imagined that God might have his own reasons for allowing the Assyrian aggression, namely, that it was a result of the Israelites’ infidelities and misconduct. Isaiah decries the misguided confidence of Shebna and all his preparation, because the official ignored God and did not take his plans into account (22:11). God, in turn, speaking through Isaiah, declared Shebna unsuitable for leadership. He would be removed and replaced by another leader capable of providing sound leadership according to the model of King David. This new leader, Eliakim, would exercise his task of governing well; he will have the ability to authoritatively “open and close”, which implies acting according to God’s decisions and purposes. Shebna’s inability or unwillingness to ponder and understand God’s will made him blind to God’s purposes; instead of considering God, he chose to make his own choices and cater to his own desires.
In the second reading Paul concludes the section of Romans where he dealt extensively with the issue of Israel’s rejection of Jesus and its effects, as evidenced in the readings of the last two Sundays. In his final words on the subject, Paul utters words praising God for wisdom and knowledge, shown in directing the history of Israel in such a way as to make it possible for the Gentiles to become God’s people. The apostle recognised God’s complete autonomy in designing and directing history, in ways which only God himself understood.
God’s ways and choices are ultimately mysterious and arbitrary, and Paul acknowledges that no one had initially understood God’s intentions. Only after reflecting deeply on what God had done in Christ, Paul realized that God’s purpose from the very beginning of time was the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles. This led Paul utter the words of praise which humbly acknowledge that God’s purposes are unfathomable and mysterious, but ultimately salvific.
Today’s Gospel passage consists of two distinctive parts. The first is the so-called “confession of Peter” where the apostle, in response to Jesus’ inquiry, correctly identifies him as the Messiah (the Christ) and the Son of God. His words reflect an accurate understanding of Jesus’ identity and of the purpose of his Messianic mission on earth.
The second part of the passage might be called “the confession about Peter”. Here, it is Jesus who makes a declaration about Peter and his mission. Peter would be entrusted with leadership of the new Christian community which, for the first time in the New Testament, is called “the Church”.
As a part of his leadership, Peter is entrusted with the authority of “binding and loosening” on earth and in heaven. “Binding and loosening” is a Jewish expression which stands for laying down rules and obligations which the community members ought to follow. The same authority will be extended to the entire community in a later passage in this Gospel (cf. Matt 18:18). This means that Peter, and the Christian community he would lead, are entrusted with grasping and clarifying God’s will, and implementing it in their midst.
Their discernment and decisions would be so significant that they will have a binding character extending to both heaven and earth. This means that God stands behind what the community does in his name. Such authority is an awesome gift but comes with a great responsibility. reflect an accurate understanding of Jesus’ identity and of the purpose of his Messianic mission on earth.
Interestingly, this great authority is given to a flawed individual and an imperfect community. Peter would soon show himself a man of questionable commitment and disloyal to Jesus whom he would betray to save his own skin. Likewise, the Christian community described in Matthew ch. 18 faced problems of internal scandals and divisions which led Matthew to issue stern warnings against scandalising others, and detailed instruction on reconciliation and forgiveness. Today’s Gospel shows that God still entrusts imperfect individuals and communities with his own authority. Still, God’s autonomy and free will in choosing the individuals and groups he wishes to carry out his purposes remains unquestionable.
Today’s liturgy, by demonstrating how God’s ways and choices are beyond human understanding and often contrary to common sense, contains a call to humility. Having secured Jerusalem, Shebna became so confident in his own undertakings and proud in his accomplishments that he failed to include God in his own plans and designs, leading to his rejection as a leader. Paul shows the opposite attitude. Having reflected on the fate of Israel he came to a humbling realization that God’s ways and plans surpass human plans and understanding. This led him to acknowledge and praise God for working out his plans in mysterious and incomprehensible and yet salvific ways. Peter and the first Christian community were nowhere near perfection. And yet, because of their adherence to Jesus, God made them the instruments of his will on earth. He chose them freely, and gratuitously entrusted them with authority, to discern his will and act to implement it through “binding and loosening”. The lesson for today is to humbly seek the understanding of God’s will and choices, even if they appear unusual or even odd. This message inspires a humble confidence in God’s inscrutable and yet salvific ways, reflected in the words of the Psalmist, “the Lord will fulfill his purpose for me.”
Listening to the Word of God
The theme of this Sunday’s liturgy calls for reflection on God’s choices, on the mind of God, and on how God directs the universe and human beings. The readings make us aware that our perceptions are limited, our minds are incapable of fully comprehending God’s will and choices. As we cannot reach the root of his decisions and ways, we often wonder and question God, asking why this, rather than that, has happened. The decisions and choices of God are beyond our human comprehension, because, as human beings, we tend to explain the ways of God using our limited understanding and senses. Let us look at some examples of God’s choices in the history of humankind and see what we can learn from them.
Firstly, God choose the people of Israel as his favourite nation (cf. Deut 7:6). We may wonder why God, the creator of all living beings, chose the Israelites and not any other nation as his special people; what did they do to win his heart? The answer is that they did nothing; it was God’s choice to elect them, and, through them, to extend his loving mercy to all nations.
As Christians we too cannot fully comprehend the mind of God. We marvel at the authority and the rulings of God. Why should a loving God send rain and sunshine on the wicked who constantly renounce his name and cause his children to suffer? The reason is that God follows his own ways which are not ours. We could speculate what would happen if God were to be influenced by sentiments and moods like we are – someday God could capriciously decide that there will be no oxygen or no sunshine for us to live. While humbled by our limits, we should be grateful for God’s constancy in providing us with the essentials to live by. We thank God for his faithful love which endures forever.
Secondly, God chooses earthly leaders and endows them with authority. In the first reading and the Gospel we hear about God electing leaders to govern his people in fairness and justice. It was in the mind of God to elect Peter, an imperfect man, to be the head of the community. Pope Francis understood this dynamic of human imperfection to serve God’s perfection when he asked the faithful to pray for him, so that he may lead God’s people ably and in truth. However, all of us are called to discharge the offices and duties that are entrusted to us, as well as we can, starting from the household or a community. As the father or mother of a family, as a Church leader, in the SCC, parish level or even as a civic or political leader, we ought to direct God’s people with unwavering love and justice.
Finally, God’s freedom of choice demands our active response. We should always seek to understand God’s will for our lives so that we may also cooperate with his plans for ourselves and the world. God chose you and me to be alive today. It is not by chance or coincidence that we are here; our life is a result of God’s steadfast love and free choice. To better understand God’s will for us, we ought to deepen our faith in and knowledge of Jesus and allow him to inspire our minds and thus help us in making fundamental choices that lead us to eternal life. If we let the Holy Spirit enlighten us in our decision making process we shall be blessed like Peter and say like the Psalmist, “on the day I called, you answered me”.
What did God call me to? Am I aware of my purpose and goal while on earth? Do I seriously pursue it?
What are my greatest failures as a leader or a potential leader? How can I overcome them?
Response to God
I make a personal commitment to God that, in the course of this week, I will let the Holy Spirit inspire my decisions, actions and choices.
Response to your World
As a way to respond to my world, I will always respect and pray for the leaders in the Church and all earthly leaders, especially if they are fallible and inadequate to the task.
As a group we will organize a session or workshop on adequate leadership or on how to deal with leadership failures.
Lord our God, we praise and glorify your Holy Name. We recognize that your ways are not our ways, your choices are not ours. Your wisdom and knowledge surpass our human limited thinking. We ask you, to inspire our thoughts and minds so that the decisions and choices we make may be guided by you, and lead us to eternal life. Give us strength to confess and witness your Son Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour daily. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.