21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Is 22.19-23; Ps 138.1-3, 6-8; Rom 11.33-36; Mt 16.13-20
“I don’t Care one Bit”
The bishop of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris during the early part of the last century was a great evangelizer who tried to reach out to unbelievers, scoffers, and cynics. He liked to tell the story of a young man who would stand outside the cathedral and shout derogatory slogans at the people entering to worship. He would call them fools and other insulting names. The people tried to ignore him but it was difficult. One day the parish priest went outside to confront the young man, much to the distress of the parishioners. The young man ranted and raved against everything the priest told him. Finally, the priest addressed the young scoffer, saying, “Look, let’s get this over with once and for all. I’m going to dare you to do something and I bet you can’t do it.” And of course the young man shot back, “I can do anything you propose, you white-robed wimp!” “Fine,” said the priest. “All I ask you to do is to come into the sanctuary with me. I want you to stare at the figure of Christ on His cross, and I want you to scream at the very top of your lungs, as loudly as you can. ‘Christ died on the cross for me, and I don’t care one bit.” So the young man went into the sanctuary, and looking at the figure, screamed as loudly as he could, “Christ died on the cross for me, and I don’t care one bit.” The priest said, “Very good. Now do it again.” And again the young man screamed, with a little more hesitancy, “Christ died on the cross for me, and I don’t care one bit.” “You’re almost done now,” said the priest. “One more time.” The young man raised his fist, kept looking at the crucifix, but the words wouldn’t come. He just could not look at the face of Christ and say those words any more. The real punch line came when, after he told the story, the bishop said, “I was that young man. That young man, that defiant young man was I. I thought I didn’t need God but found out that I did.”
The conversation between Jesus and Peter receives diverse interpretations and even opposite ones in the several Christian Churches. In the Catholic Church, this is the foundation for the primacy of Peter. This is why, without in fact, diminishing the significance of the text, it is convenient to place it in the context of the Gospel of Matthew, in which, in other texts, the same qualities conferred on Peter are almost all, attributed to other persons. They do not belong exclusively to Peter.
It is always well to keep in mind that the Gospel of Matthew was written at the end of the first century for the community of the converted Jews who lived in the Region of Galilee and Syria. They were communities which suffered and were victims of many doubts concerning their faith in Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew tries to help them to overcome the crisis and to confirm them in the faith in Jesus, the Messiah, who came to fulfill the promises of the Old Testament.
Who do People say that I am?
Jesus asks the opinion of the people and of his disciples concerning himself. The answers are quite varied. John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the Prophets. When Jesus questions about the opinion of his own disciples, Peter becomes the spokesman and says. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”. Peter’s answer signifies that he recognizes in Jesus the fulfilment of the prophecy of the Old Testament and that in Jesus we have the definitive revelation of the Father for us. This confession of Peter is not new. First, after having walked on the water, the other disciples had already made the same profession of faith. “Truly You are the Son of God!” (Mt 14.33). In the Gospel of John, Martha makes this same profession of Peter. “You are the Christ, the Son of God who has come into the world” (Jn 11.27).
“Blessed are you, Peter!”
Jesus proclaims Peter as “Blessed!” because he has received a revelation from the Father. In this case also, the response of Jesus is not new. First Jesus had made an identical proclamation of joy to the disciples for having seen and heard things which before nobody knew (Mt 13.16), and had praised the Father for having revealed the Son to little ones and not to the wise (Mt 11.25). Peter is one of these little ones to whom the Father reveals himself. The perception of the presence of God in Jesus does not come “from the flesh nor from the blood”, that is, it is not the fruit of the merit of a human effort, but rather it is a gift which God grants to whom he wants.
Peter receives three attributions from Jesus. (i) To be a rock of support, (ii) to receive the keys of the Kingdom, and (iii) to be foundation of the Church.
i) To be Rock
Simon, the son of Jonah, receives from Jesus a new name which is Cephas, and that means, Rock. this is why he is called Peter. Peter has to be Rock, that is, he has to be a sure foundation for the Church so that the gates of the underworld can never overpower it. With these words from Jesus to Peter, Matthew encourages the communities of Syria and Palestine, which are suffering and are the victims of persecutions, to see in Peter a leader on whom to find support, to base themselves concerning their origin. In spite of being weak and persecuted communities, they had a secure basis, guaranteed by the word of Jesus. At that time, the communities had very strong affective bonds with the persons who had begun, who were at the origin of the community. Thus, the Community of Syria and Palestine fostered their bond of union with the person of Peter. The community of Greece with the person of Paul. Some communities of Asia, with the person of the Beloved disciple and others with the person of John of the Apocalypses. Identifying themselves with these leaders of their origin helped the communities to foster their identity and spirituality better. But this could also be a cause of dispute, like in the case of the community of Corinth (1 Cor 1.11-12).
To be rock as the basis of faith evokes the Word of God to the people who are in exile in Babylonia. “Listen to me you who pursue saying injustice, you who seek Yahweh. Consider the rock from which you were hewn, the quarry from which you were dug. Consider Abraham your father, and Sarah who gave you birth; when I called him, he was the only one, but I blessed him and made him numerous” (Is 51.1-2). Applied to Peter, this quality of peter-foundation indicates a new beginning of the people of God..
- ii) The keys of the Kingdom
Peter receives the keys of the Kingdom to bind and to loosen, that is, to reconcile the persons among themselves and with God. Behold, that here again the same power to bind and to loosen, is given not only to Peter, but also to the other disciples (Jn 20.23) and to their own communities (Mt 18.18). One of the points on which the Gospel of Matthew insists more is the reconciliation and forgiveness (Mt 5.7.23-24.38-42-48; 6,14-15-35). In the years 80’s and 90’s, in Syria there were many tensions in the communities and there were divisions in the families. Some accepted Jesus as Messiah and others did not, and this was the cause for many tensions and conflicts. Matthew insists on reconciliation. Reconciliation was and continues to be one of the most important tasks of the coordinators of the communities at present. Imitating Peter, they have to bind and loosen, that is, do everything possible so that there be reconciliation, mutual acceptance, building up of the true fraternity “Seventy times seven!” (Mt 18.22).
iii) The Church
The word Church, in Greek eklésia, appears 105 times in the New Testament, almost exclusively in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Letters. Only three times in the Gospels, and once only in the Gospel of Matthew. The word literally means “convoked” or “chosen”. It indicates the people who get together convoked by the Word of God, and who seek to live the message of the Kingdom which Jesus came to bring to us. The Church or the community is not the Kingdom, but an instrument or an indication of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is much greater. In the Church, in the community, what happens when a human group allows God to reign and allows God to be ‘Lord’ in one’s life, is rendered or should be rendered present to the eyes of all.
Peter, who was a fisherman of fish, became fisherman of men (Mk 1.17). He was married (Mk 1. 30). He was a good man, very human. He was a natural leader among the twelve first disciples of Jesus. Jesus respects this leadership and makes Peter the animator of his first community (Jn 21.17). Before entering into the community of Jesus, Peter was called Simon Bar Jona (Mt 16, 17), that is, Simon, son of Jonah. Jesus calls him Cefas or Rock (Jn 1.42), who later becomes Peter (Lk 6.14).
By his nature and character, Peter could be everything, except pietra – rock. He was courageous in speaking, but in the moment of danger he allows himself to be dominated by fear and flees. For example, the time in which Jesus walked on the sea, Peter asks. “Jesus, allow me also to walk on the sea”. Jesus says. “You may come, Peter!” Peter got off from the boat and walked on the sea. But as soon as he saw a high wave, he was taken up with panic, lost trust, and began to sink and cry out. “Lord, save me!” Jesus assured him and saved him (Mt 14. 28-31).
In the Last Supper, Peter tells Jesus. “I will never deny you, Lord!” (Mk 14.31), but a few hours later, in the Palace of the High Priest, in front of a servant , when Jesus had already been arrested, Peter denied, swearing that he had nothing to do with Jesus (Mk 14. 66-72).
When Jesus was in the Garden of Olives, Peter takes out the sword (Jn 18.10), but ends fleeing, leaving Jesus alone (Mk 14.50). By nature, Peter was not rock!
But this Peter so weak and human, so similar to us, becomes rock, because Jesus prays for him and says. “Peter, I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail, and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers!” (Lk 22.31-32). This is why Jesus could say. “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16.18). Jesus helps him to be rock. After the Resurrection, in Galilee, Jesus appears to Peter and asks him two times. “Peter, do you love me?” And Peter responds two times. “Lord, you know that I love you!” (Jn 21.15,16). When Jesus repeats the same question a third time, Peter became sad. Perhaps he remembered that he had denied Jesus three times. To this third question he answers. “Lord, you know all things! You know that I love you very much!” And it is then that Jesus entrusted to him the care of his sheep, saying. “Peter, feed my lambs!” (Jn 21.17). With the help of Jesus, the firmness of the rock grows in Peter and is revealed on the day of Pentecost.
On the day of Pentecost, after the descent of the Holy Spirit, Peter opens the door of the room where all were meeting together, locked with a key because of fear of the Jews (Jn 20.19), he takes courage and began to announce to the people the Good News of Jesus (Acts 2. 14-40). And he did not stop doing it! Thanks to this courageous announcement of the Resurrection, he was imprisoned (Acts 4. 3). During the trial, he was forbidden to announce the Good News (Acts 4, 18), but Peter does not obey this prohibition. He said. “We know that we have to obey God more than men!” (Acts 4. 19; 5. 29). He was arrested again (Acts 5. 18-26). He was tortured (Acts 5. 40). But he said. “Thank you. But we shall continue!” (cf. Acts 5. 42).
Tradition says that, towards the end of his life, in Rome, Peter was arrested and condemned to death, and death on the cross. He asked to be crucified with the head down. He believed he was not worthy to die like Jesus. Peter was faithful to himself up to the end!.
Completing the context
Peter had confessed. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” He had imagined a glorious Messiah, and Jesus corrects him. “It is necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to die in Jerusalem”. By saying that “it is necessary”, he indicates that suffering has already been foreseen in the Prophecies (Is 53. 2-8). If Peter accepts Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, he has to accept him also as the servant Messiah who will be put to death. Not only the triumph of the glory, but also the journeys to the cross! But Peter does not accept the correction and seeks to dissuade him. The response of Jesus is surprising. “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path because you are thinking not as God thinks but as human beings do”. Satan is the one who separates us from the path which God has traced for us. Literally, Jesus says. “Get behind me” (Get away!). Peter wanted to place himself in front and indicate the direction. Jesus says. “Get behind me!” He who indicates the course and direction is not Peter, but Jesus. The disciple has to follow the Master. He has to live in continuous conversion.
The Word of Jesus is also a reminder for all those who guide or direct a community. They have “to follow” Jesus and not place themselves in front of him as Peter wanted to do. No, only they can indicate the direction or the route. Otherwise, like Peter, they are not rock of support, but they become a rock of obstacle. Thus, were some of the leaders of the communities at the time of Matthew, full of ambiguity. Thus, it also happens among us even today!
Rudolf V. D’Souza OCD
Vancouver - Canada