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Fernando Armellini - Sat, Aug 26th 2023



A mugshot of Christ on the ‘wanted’ list: long hair, untrimmed beard, a marginalized friend, herald of are volutionary message, frowned upon by the powers-that-be, circulated at the end of the 60s. It was the Jesus of the protesters. It made its appearance alongside the mystic who was attracted by the religious devotions and spiritual intimacy.

The triumphant Jesus also had his time, between banners and flags: He was the ‘conqueror of kingdoms’ and the protector of the rulers of this world. The Jesus of religion is the most rustproof. He guarantees justice, awards the good, protects the pious and punishes the wicked. Sometimes someone relegates him to the role of a bogeyman or bugbear for children who misbehave. He is still the helpful guarantor of moral behavior deemed to be a positive influence.

Jesus is a character that everyone seems to want to yank onto their side. There is also the Jesus that we have carried within us ever since our childhood years. He has sometimes been presented to us by well-meaning catechists as a Jesus that would never have convinced us to follow him to the end. There have been times in our life when he did not have much more to say to us.

After 2,000 years, he has never ceased to provoke and question everybody, as he did one day near Caesarea Philippi. He urges us with a puzzling question: “Who do you say I am?” In front of so many conflicting images of him, it is challenging to select the authentic one.


  • To internalize the message, we repeat:“I do not venerate a character from the past nor his doctrine,we believe in Christ, the Son of the living God.”


First Reading: Isaiah 22:19-23

Thus says the Lord to Shebna, master of the palace: “I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open. I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family.”


The fact referred to this prophecy is well known. King Hezekiah (8th century B.C.)—a good man but also somewhat naïve—has chosen Shebna as a butler. He was an opportunist and corrupt, who used public money to build his own splendid mausoleum. He was also an intriguing humbug who, against the opinion of Isaiah, advocated an alliance with Egypt. Shebna was deposed and his place taken by Eliakim, son of Hilkiah. Isaiah approved this wise decision: Eliakim was honest, capable, and politically reliable. The prophet speaks of him in glowing terms: “He will be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the people of Judah” (v. 21).

The episode interests us because it gives information on the ceremonial way power was conferred on a new butler. The king tore the cloak and belt of the man who had shown himself incompetent and handed them over to the new charge. He was clothed in the robes of his predecessor, wrapped with his scarf, and decorated with his symbol. Finally, the keys of the palace were given to him (vv. 20-22).

Receiving the keys equated to receiving all authority over palace life, administering the assets of the sovereign, and deciding who could be received in audience. The passage closes with two other images that herald the status which Eliakim will be accorded. He will be as a peg firmly stuck in a wall and as a throne of which all his family can boast (v. 23).

It seems that the prophet foresees for him a brilliant career. However, he is announcing his political sunset. In the following verses (vv. 24-25—not reported in the reading), Isaiah describes, with subtle irony, the dishonorable end of Eliakim. To him—he says—“will hang the load of his father's house-offspring and descendants, all the little vessels from bowls to jars. The peg fastened in a sure spot will give way: it will be cut down and the load hanging on it will fall.” It is a satirical presentation of the sad consequences of the nepotism to which Eliakim will unfortunately yield. He will take advantage of his position to encourage relatives, friends and offspring who cling to him but ultimately become an intolerable burden: ‘the peg’ will give way, and all those tied to it will fall and be shattered. Poor Eliakim, a good man ruined by power!


Second Reading: Romans 11:33-36

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor? Or who has given the Lord anything that he may be repaid? For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. 


The passage concludes the lengthy exposition of the problem that has so distressed Paul. His people refused to recognize in Jesus the Messiah of God. We have seen that the infidelity of Israel has had a positive side. It has allowed the pagans to enter and be part of the Church. The persecution of the Jews forced the disciples to leave Jerusalem, disperse to the world, and proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 11:19-21).

Faced with this ‘ability’ of God in guiding events of history and bringing good even out of evil, Paul exclaims: “How deep are the riches, the wisdom, and knowledge of God. His decisions cannot be explained, nor his ways understood" (v. 33). The designs of the Lord are incomprehensible and unpredictable, not only in the history of people but also in everyone’s life.

The enigma of evil has always plagued humanity, and no mind, no matter how enlightened, has been able to give a convincing explanation. Even in the book of Job, where the problem is directly addressed, no answer is given. Paul invites us to bow before the mystery and humbly recognize that God’s ways are ‘unsearchable.’There is but one certainty given by faith: everything that happens is guided by the love of the Father and every event, even the most dramatic, still makes sense.

Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20

Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. 


We know how to distinguish a friend from a co-worker, a playmate, a drinking friend, or a sporting acquaintance. The feelings we have for a woman we have just met are different from those for a girlfriend or a bride. When we are involved in a love relationship, it can trigger jealousy. The torment of losing the loved one for anyone who cannot tolerate rivals is manifest. “Wrath is cruel and anger, impulsive but who can withstand jealousy?” (Prov 27:4); it shortens your life; worry makes you old before time (Sir 30:24).

Even God is ‘jealous’ because no one can be enamored of the human being more than he does. On dozens of occasions in the Old Testament, this sentiment echo: “For I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God” (Ex 20:5). “I am intensely jealous for Zion” (Zec 8:2). “Then the fire of my jealous wrath will burn the wholeland” (Zep 3:8). God demands exclusive love that involves all your heart, soul, and strength (Deut 6:6); in the human heart, there should be a place only for him.

This love, without reserve, is also claimed by Christ: “If you come to me, unwilling to sacrifice your love for your father and mother, your spouse and children, your brothers and sisters, and indeed yourself, you cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). Nothing must be placed before him, not even the most natural affection. This is the meaning of the paradoxical image he used.

One day, near the city of Philippi, founded by one of the sons of Herod the Great in the extreme north of the country, Jesus addresses two questions to the apostles. The first is simple enough: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The second is more challenging: “Who do you say I am?” The commonly circulating opinions compare him with eminent personalities: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, the ancient prophets (vv.13-14).

The admiration of people of all times for Jesus cannot be denied. However, esteem and reverence are not enough. He is not the embodiment, the materialization of supine values, typically pursued by all people of goodwill. He is not one of the many who has distinguished themselves for their honesty and loyalty, love for the poor, commitment to justice, peace, and non-violence.

Already as a man, Jesus outdistances them all because he does not follow human tactics and strategies. It is enough to consider the choices he has made: to have waited for maturity to begin his mission, to have given priority to the sheltered life, gradually reveal his project only to those intimate with him, to overturn all human logic until he offered his life, and triumphed in defeat. But even this is not enough in his mind to be considered a ‘disciple.’ A disciple has understood that he is unique, as unique as the person with whom we fall in love, whom we trust, and for whom we are willing to do anything.

It is at this point that Peter intervenes with a surprising answer. He speaks in the name of all and shows he has understood everything. He says to him: “You are the Christ,” you are Messiah, the Savior who the prophets spoke about, and all our people are waiting for (v. 16). You are the one on whom we are willing to wager our lives.

It is difficult to find a more exact answer, but in the last verse of the passage (v. 20), the evangelist reminds us that Jesus imposes a strict silence on the disciples, as he has already done with the demons. The reason is simple. Peter gave a correct answer, but only in form. What he has in mind is another completely distorted idea. He is convinced that Jesus is about to begin the Kingdom of God on earth and thinks that he will implement this through a show of force, wonders, and signs that will command the attention of all. He is confident that he will be a resounding success. This is also the opinion of the other disciples who, despite having understood something more than the crowds, are still prisoners of the typical mentality that evaluates life’s success on triumph. No one has yet realized that, from the outset, the Master has considered diabolical the proposal to seize power and rule over the kingdoms of this world.

In the second part of the passage (vv. 17-20), the answer of Jesus to Simon is referred to: “You are Peter,and on this rock, I will build my Church ...” The interpretation of these words is more complicated than it looks. Why and in what sense is Simon called ‘rock’ on which the Church is to be built? A simple statement of the primacy of the pope? No, much more than that. Let us start by making two observations that may help us better understand this critical text.

First of all, we note that the ‘rock,’ as a basis of the Church, is discussed on other New Testament occasions. This solid, immovable ‘rock’ is always and only Christ. Paul says: “No one can lay a foundation other than the one which is already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:11). The Christians of the communities of Asia Minor are reminded of their glorious condition: “Now you are no longer strangers or guests, but fellow citizens of the holy people; you are of the household of God. You are the house whose foundations are the apostles and prophets, and whose cornerstone is Christ Jesus. In him, the whole structure is joined together, and rises, to be a holy temple, in the Lord” (Eph 2:19-21). Peter is even more explicit. In his first letter, he counsels the newly baptized never to break away from Christ because he is the living ‘rock,’ rejected by people but chosen and precious in the sight of God. Then he develops the image further and turning to the Christians, he says: “You, too, become the living stones built into a spiritual temple,” united as you are to “the chosen and precious cornerstone” placed by God on Easter day, as a foundation of the whole building (1 P 2:4-6).

The second observation is that the name given to Simon—Cephas-Peter—in Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus) in all probability does not mean the rock, but just a building stone. In these terms, the stone which Jesus speaks of is the faith professed by Peter. This faith constitutes the foundation of the Church, which keeps it united with Christ-rock, makes it indestructible, and ensures it will never be overwhelmed by the forces of evil. All those who, like Peter and with Peter, profess this faith, are inserted, as living stones, into the spiritual building designed by God.

The expression, ‘the gates of hell,’ should not be interpreted literally. These gates represent the power of evil. They indicate everything that is opposed to life and the human good. Nothing ever—ensures Jesus—can prevent the Church from completing her work of salvation, provided that she is always closely united to him, the Son of the living God.

Peter also receives the keys and the power of binding and losing. Before clarifying the meaning of these two images, frequently used by the rabbis, we note that the power of binding and loosing is not reserved to Peter alone but is given soon after, to the whole community (Mt 18:18; cf. John 20:23). As we have revealed in the commentary on the first letter, handing over the keys is equivalent to entrusting the task of managing life inside the palace. It means giving the power to give or deny access to the house.

The rabbis were convinced that they possessed the ‘keys of the Torah’ because they knew the Scriptures. They believed that everyone had to depend on them, their doctrinal decisions, and their judgments. They felt entitled to discriminate between the just and unjust, between saints and sinners.

Jesus takes up this image in his harsh indictment against the scribes: A curse is on you, teachers of the Law, for you have taken the key of knowledge. You yourselves have not entered and you prevented others from entering” (Lk 11:52). Instead of opening the door of salvation, they barred them, not revealing the true face of God and his will to the people.

Jesus has taken away from them the key they abusively appropriated. Now, it is his alone. Returning to the prophecy of Isaiah to Eliakim, the seer of Revelation declares that Christ and no one else “opens, nobody shuts and if he shuts nobody opens” (Rev 3:7). The spiritual edifice, which Jesus refers to, is “the kingdom of heaven,” the new condition where whoever becomes his disciple enters, and the key that allows them to enter is the faith professed by Peter.

By handing over the keys to Peter, Jesus does not charge him to be the gatekeeper of heaven, still less to ‘lord it’ over the people entrusted to him. Jesus instead tells him to “become an example to the flock” (1 P 5:3). He entrusted him to open the entrance wide to the knowledge of Christ and his Gospel. Whoever passes through the door opened by Peter with his profession of faith (this is the ‘holy door’) has access to salvation; whoever refuses remains excluded.

The image of binding and losing is also well known because the rabbis of the time of Jesus employed it often. It referred to decisions on moral choices. To bind meant to prohibit; to loose was tantamount to declaring something lawful. It also indicated the power to make judgments of approval or condemnation on people's behavior and thus to admit or exclude them from the community.

We will deepen and clarify this concept when, two Sundays from now, we will examine Matthew 18:18. In this passage, it appears that this same authority to declare who belongs to the kingdom of heaven and who does not is given by Jesus to the whole Church.

In conclusion, we can say that, from today’s Gospel, as in many other texts of the New Testament (Mt10:2; Lk 22:32; Jn 21:15-17), it is clear that Peter is entrusted with a particular task in the Church. He always appears first, is called to feed the lambs and the sheep, and must sustain his brothers in the faith.

Misunderstandings and disagreements are not born of this truth but from the way of performing the service. With sincere humility, we admit that this truth has degenerated so many times throughout the centuries, from being a sign of love and unity to become an expression of power. As Pope Francis himself has expressly recognized, it is necessary to revise the exercise of this ministry so that the bishop of Rome can become genuinely for everyone, according to the beautiful definition of Irenaeus of Lyons (second century), ‘the one who presides over charity.’


READ: At Caesarea Philippi, Peter makes the profession of faith, and Christ deposits the keys of the Kingdom with Peter. You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my Church.


REFLECT: God chooses not according to human merit but by God’s wisdom that is beyond human understanding. If God has called us to do some tasks, let us humbly realize that it is not out of our merit but of his own that he has chosen us. All praise, glory, honor and worship to him alone.


PRAY: Let us pray for a humble and willing heart to accept God’s call. Let us ask for the grace to be a faithful disciple of Jesus.


ACT: It is easy to criticize our leaders, but have we appreciated them for the good they have done?




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