We were required to select one or more passages (or pericopes) and write three brief homilies. I chose Matthew 16:13–20.
For the latest scripture course on the Synoptic Gospels, we were required to write our assignments in a way that was accessible to a wide audience (or as our instructor called it, in a "pastoral" style). I didn't quite attain that tone with the first assignment but still fared well enough. I'm still not sure I think this approach is appropriate for a graduate level course, but it's behind me now.
We were required to select one or more passages (or pericopes) and write three brief homilies. I chose Matthew 16:13–20.
The Church of Christ
The gospel reading today comes from Matthew 16:13–20 (RSV). In this section of the gospel, Jesus asks His disciples who people say that He is. The apostles give Him a variety of responses—Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. Then He asks the disciples directly, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). Peter responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Whether Peter fully understands what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, we will set aside for now, because our real interest today is in Jesus’ words to Peter:
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! 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, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:17–18, emphasis mine)
This passage is particularly relevant to us as Catholics because it is commonly used to support the authority of the papacy or the See of Peter. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites this passage in sections 552 and 553 as the basis for ecclesial authority: “Christ, the ‘living Stone,’ thus assures His Church, built on Peter, of victory over the powers of death.” Given the importance of this passage to the doctrine of the faith, we must understand its full implications. Today, we will focus on a word that is largely misunderstood today, the word “church,” particularly as it is used in the context of this passage: “I will build my church.” We will come back to why the words “my church” are important, but first let us explore some of the language used here so we can better appreciate Matthew’s meaning.
The word “church” that we find in our English version of scripture is a loose translation of the Greek term ekklesia, which means “assembly.” You may have heard two related terms—ecclesial or ecclesiastic—which refer to Church-related matters. The English word “church” comes to us through west Germanic from a Greek word (κϋριακύν) meaning “the house of the Lord,” which might explain why we sometimes confuse the place of worship for the people who worship there. Nonetheless, the word properly refers to the people assembling rather than the place. Without the building, we still have the Church. So while our English term has obscured the reality of the original Greek term ekklesia, the spirit of scripture is still with us.
The word, ekklesia, appears throughout the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, which is the scripture that most Diaspora Jews used at the time Jesus lived. The word ekklesia is also used in Acts; in the letters of Paul, James, and John; and in the Revelation to John. So the word ekklesia has a long-standing history of use in scripture prior to and following its use in Matthew, and it reinforces the relationship between the Jewish-Gentile Church and the People of Israel.
Out of all the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the term ekklesia occurs only in Matthew in chapters 16 and 18. This omission has been remarked upon by numerous scholars. The common consensus seems to be that the author of Matthew wrote this gospel to address some specific dilemma facing a local church, most likely the church of Antioch, and to clarify the relationship between the followers of Christ and the Jewish tradition from which Christ and the original Christians came. The people of the church of Antioch were trying to understand why they came from the same scriptural roots as the synagogue down the street but did not worship with them. The author of Matthew made intentional connections back to the ancient tradition of the Hebrews, using words that came right out of the text of the Old Testament.
What makes Matthew 16:18 unique is that Jesus is not talking about a local church. Jesus is talking about His church, the Church of Christ—not just a local congregation. Jesus’ Church is the whole Church, and it belongs to Him. Matthew relates that this is an assembly belonging to Jesus, called out by Him, for Him. This church exists both in Jewish tradition but also as a reality established by Christ. We are the assembly called by Christ, established on the rock of Peter against which the gates of Hell shall not prevail.
As modern people, and particularly as modern U.S. citizens, we like to think that our opinions and preferences take precedence over everything else, and that sensibility often extends to how we think the Church should operate. More than one so-called Catholic organization touts slogans such as “We are Church” as if somehow our participation were the very thing that gives the Church legitimacy. Such thinking is a misunderstanding of the term sensus fidei or “sense of the faith.” Many of us act as if the Church should operate as a democracy, with “truth” conforming to the will of the majority. The Holy Father has commented numerous times on this culture of relativism—this sense that there are no absolute truths and that every belief is up for negotiation. Part of that culture is this insistence that all “truths” somehow match our culture’s expectations. But that is not the nature of Truth, and that is not what it means to be a part of Christ’s Church. We did not select Him, but rather He selected us (John 15:16–19). As those who are called to the assembly, we must fully accept that to which we are called.
If we are truly to be Christ’s Church, it must be on His terms, not our own. We must reconcile ourselves to Christ and not expect all things to be reconciled in a way that we expect. We must submit and obey and accept that Christ’s Way may not look like our way. Accepting the Truth of Christ and embracing the Church cannot be done by degrees. Our baptism into the ekklesia, the assembly, means an acceptance of the call—a complete immersion in and submission to Christ and His Church.
The Keys of the Kingdom
Our Christian culture has a common image, shared by many Catholics and non-Catholics alike: St. Peter standing at the gates of Heaven with the “book of life,” allowing those whose names are in the book to pass and sending those whose names do not appear in the book off to the Netherworld. It is a common context for jokes and even somewhat of a euphemism for death itself—meeting St. Peter at the pearly gates. This image comes to us in part because of this passage from today’s reading in Matthew 16:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matt. 16:17–19, emphasis mine)
St. Peter is the one with the keys. Who else would be watching the gates of heaven but the guy holding the keys? However, the passage isn’t really addressing the gates of heaven but something right here on earth. That something is the visible Church, the means by which we attain salvation in Christ.
While keys are useful for locking and unlocking doors and gates, they can also represent something, namely authority. In fact, Matthew’s words here are intended to evoke a memory for those familiar with scripture, in particular, a passage from Isaiah 22:
In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. (Isaiah 22:20–23)
In this passage, the Lord God raises Eliakim to be steward for King Hezekiah over the house of David. The name “Eliakim,” by the way, means “God of raising” in Hebrew, so the name of the person raised here reflects the action taking place. This meaningful use of names in scripture is very common, and you can often find greater meaning to a passage and to the relationships among books in the Bible by searching out the meanings of the names.
God raised Eliakim to the position of steward. Being a steward was a big responsibility because one was expected to make decisions on the king’s behalf. Needless to say, if the steward did not make decisions that conformed to the king’s wishes, the steward did not live long. The steward’s authority had to be exercised with care toward the wishes of the king and not solely according to his own whim.
The similarities between Matthew 16:19 and Isaiah 22:22 are
striking: the key to the house of Judah versus the key to the kingdom of heaven; and the authority to open and shut versus the authority to bind and loose. What we see in Matthew 16:18–19 is that Christ is bestowing the authority of stewardship on Peter. He gives to Peter alone the keys and then the power to bind and loose—a power He later extends to the other apostles in Matthew 18:18.
Let’s consider what kind of authority is conferred in stewardship. Someone who is a steward has no power or authority on his own. He exercises power in someone else’s name. Peter holds the keys to bind and loose and can use that authority, but the keys he holds do not belong to him. The authority of Peter is not of absolute power but of leadership in someone else’s place, namely in the place of Christ. Peter (and the bishops who later became bishops of Rome) held the keys for Christ. This fact does not mean that the authority was false but that it resided in Peter only in trust. The true authority belonged to Christ.
What, then, do the words “bind” and “loose” mean in this passage? Peter’s stewardship, like the stewardship of Eliakim, is over a house, in this case, “the house of the Lord,” the Church. Inherent in the allusion to Isaiah are the responsibilities of opening and shutting doors to keep people in or out. However, the authority also includes the binding and loosing of sins, as Christ clarifies in Matthew 18:17–18: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Section 553 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies what this authority includes:
The “power of the keys” designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, confirmed this mandate after his Resurrection: “Feed my sheep.” The power to “bind and loose” connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church.
Peter’s authority is over the whole of the Church, and this authority is shared with the other apostles, just as the governance of the Church involves not only the Pope, but the bishops of the local churches as well. Peter’s role is unique, as the keys are given specifically into his hands, but the exercise of that authority falls not only to Peter but to all the bishops down through the ages. The stewardship of Peter represents a headship and centralization of authority—the “visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.” Peter and the bishops who followed in his place are a visible sign of communion, albeit a communion that is at the time imperfect and broken, but one to which we as Catholics owe our loyalty and obedience. Let us as faithful Catholics accept that authority, embrace that tradition, and pray that the communion it represents will someday be complete again.
Does Peter Truly Hear?
I have found over the years that I have come to sound much wiser than I actually am, and I attribute that perception to one trait I’ve developed: I keep my mouth shut more often than in the past. A quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln noted this sentiment: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” I’m a walking example of this principle. Simon Peter in the gospels also fits the description. He is impetuous and passionate, and he often seems a bit foolish. He sounds a whole lot like me.
That’s one of the reasons I love him so much. I love the image of him in John 21:7 putting on his clothes before jumping into the water to meet Jesus on the shore. I also love the story of him with James and John at the Transfiguration. While Matthew and Luke let Peter off the hook in their accounts of the Transfiguration, Mark doesn’t let him escape so easily. While Peter is fumbling for words about how to honor Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, “[A] cloud formed, overshadowing them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!’ (Mark 9:7, emphasis mine). The irony here is in what Mark does not say. Peter’s real name is Simon, which comes from the Hebrew name, Simeon or Shimon (שמעון), which means “hearing.” Simon Peter, the rock who has heard, has to be reminded to listen.
Perhaps the ultimate irony, and some evidence of God’s great sense of humor, is that Jesus chose to make this man Peter the foundation of His Church. In Matthew 16, Simon Peter indicates correctly that Jesus is the Christ, to which Jesus replies:
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! 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, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:17–19)
This is Simon Bar-Jona, the son of Jona who hears. If we are not paying attention, we might miss the fact that not more than a few minutes later, Peter attempts to tell Jesus how things will be (Matthew 16:22)—that Jesus will not suffer at the hands of the elders and chief priests and that He will not be killed and raised. And Jesus, moments after blessing Peter and predicting that He will build His Church upon the rock, rebukes Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God but on men.” (Matthew 16:23). This gaffe is not the only misunderstanding or failing of Peter either. Before the gospel of Matthew is over, Peter denies he even knows Jesus (Matt. 26:69-75).
Some rock. If this man is the foundation for the Catholic doctrine of infallibility, we’re in trouble, right? However, Jesus called him Peter—the Rock. He said He would build His Church on this rock, and that “the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). So is Jesus mistaken? Is Jesus lying? How can we see this fallible man Simon and accept him as the rock on which Christ’s Church is built? These are reasonable questions, so we have to look to the real meaning behind Jesus’ promise and His words to Peter.
First, Jesus notes the source of the truth that Peter speaks in verse 17. We can see other places in scripture where Peter falls back on his own flawed understanding and either says or does something foolish: when Peter relies on his own concept of the Christ in Matthew 16:23, the passage cited above; when Peter claims he will never betray Jesus even to death in Matthew 26:33; even after Pentecost when Peter distances himself from the gentiles in Galatians 3:11. However, when Peter listens to Christ and allows the Holy Spirit to work through him, he speaks the truth. For example, in Acts 2:2–4 following the descent of the Holy Spirit, Peter speaks out forcefully and truthfully to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. In the next chapter, Peter says to the lame man in the temple, “I have no silver or gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” (Acts 3:6). While Peter relies on what he has been given by Christ, he sees and hears the truth and passes it on. When he relies on his own understanding, he fails.
Second, Jesus does not promise Peter that he will not fail. He promises that the Church will not fail. At the end of Matthew, Jesus sends the apostles forth in the Great Commission and says, “[L]o, I am with you always to the close of the age” (28:20). In John 14:26, Jesus says, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said.” The Church, Christ’s assembly, prevails because of Christ’s continual presence with it and because of the constant teaching and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Third, Jesus indicates that Peter binds and looses on earth what is already true in eternity. In the original Greek of Matthew, the verb tenses in Jesus’ words reveal something interesting. He says to Peter:
[W]hatever you should have bound upon the earth, it shall have been bound in the heavens; and whatever you should have untied upon the earth, it shall have been untied in the heavens. (Matt. 16:19, emphasis mine)
He verb tenses tell us here that whatever Peter does in binding and loosing, it shall already have been done in the heavens. What Peter does, what he hands on, is already the truth, not some new truth that Peter has invented. To invoke the allegory of the steward and the house from Isaiah 22:22, Peter’s role is only to safeguard what already exists in the house. He can bind and loose, can open and shut. He cannot make up his own truth. The truth is Christ’s and Christ’s alone.
Simon Peter, the rock who has heard, gets it right when he hands on what has been given to him, and he fails when he relies on his own understanding without the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is no personal faculty of his but a Divine trust to which he and all his episcopal brethren humble themselves. The charism that the Holy Father shares with the college of bishops depends on this Divine guidance and only confirms and preserves in doctrine what is already the Truth.
Works Cited and Referenced
“Abraham Lincoln Quotes.” BrainyQuote, 2008. <http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/
quotes/a/abrahamlin109276.html>. 18 June 2008.
The Apostolic Bible: Lexical Concordance. Newport: Apostolic Press, 2006.
The Apostolic Bible: the New Testament. Newport: Apostolic Press, 2006.
Brown, Raymond E., and John P. Meier. Antioch & Rome: New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity. New York: Paulist Press, 1983.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971. 2 vols.
The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version. Catholic Edition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1966.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Revised. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.
Strong, James. “A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible.” In Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, by James Strong, 53. Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, Inc., 1986.
 εκκλησίαν, The Apostolic Bible: Lexical Concordance,, (Newport: Apostolic Press, 2006), 110.
“Church,” The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 411.
 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, Revised ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 192.
 Raymond E. Brown and John P. Meier, Antioch & Rome: New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity, (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), 57–72.
 Johnson, 191.
 Brown and Meier, 66.
 “εκκκαλέω,” The Apostolic Bible: Lexical Concordance, (Newport: Apostolic Press, 2006), 110. Also, “ecclesia,” The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 830.
 “Βαπτισμός,” The Apostolic Bible: Lexical Concordance, (Newport: Apostolic Press, 2006), 52.
 James Strong, “A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible.” In Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, by James Strong, (Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, Inc., 1986), 15.
 Brown and Meier, 64.
 Austin Flannery, ed., Lumen Gentium, Vatican Council II: the Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, (Northport, New York: Costello Publishing, 2004), 376.
 “Abraham Lincoln Quotes,” BrainyQuote, 2008, <http://www.brainyquote.com/ quotes/quotes/a/abrahamlin109276.html>, 18 June 2008.
 James Strong, “A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible.” In Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, by James Strong, (Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, Inc., 1986), 157.
 The Apostolic Bible: the New Testament, (Newport: Apostolic Press, 2006), 26.