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21st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle A)

Readings:
Isaiah 22:15, 19-23
Psalm 138:1-3, 6, 8
Romans 11:33-36
Matthew 16:13-20

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for mankind.  That is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: Divinely Instituted Authority
The First Reading and the Gospel Reading address the entrusting of royal authority in the symbolic "keys" of the Kingdom.  God entrusts the key to the palace of the Davidic king to His servant Eliakim, and Jesus, God the Son, entrusts the keys of His Kingdom to Saint Peter.  Both symbolic acts are part of the mystery of God's Divine Plan. 

Jesus, the root and offspring of David (Mt 1:1; Rev 4:5), holds by divine right the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (Rev 1:18; 5:5; 22:16).  The keys of the heavenly kingdom have an earthly counterpart in the key of the Davidic Kingdom that every Davidic king entrusted to his chief steward/vicar.  An example is Eliakim, the chief steward of King Hezekiah, who Scripture calls a spiritual "father" to the covenant people (First Reading). 

The Responsorial Psalm acknowledges that God has a divine plan for the life of every person.  The inspired writer takes up a hymn of joy and thanksgiving because God the Father reveals the mystery of His Kingdom to His people.  Those who sing God's praise in the liturgy of worship must trust in the Lord and His purposes, believing that the Lord is faithful and will not forsake His people.  The Lord sees the condition of the poor and humble.  He hears petitions made in His name, and He gives His people the strength they need to endure suffering.  However, He does not have an intimate relationship with the proud and selfish whose sins take them far from Him.

In the Second Reading, St. Paul gives a hymn extolling God's mercy and wisdom.  Paul declares that God's wisdom and knowledge are beyond the grasp of human understanding, and no one can anticipate God's acts of mercy and grace.  God, writes Paul, does not depend on humanity to dispense His gifts, but He does invite humanity to partake of the richness of His favor through their response to faith in acts of mercy and love. Concerning God's Divine Plan for humanity in establishing the Kingdom of the Church as His vehicle of salvation, St. Paul writes: "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God." 

In the Gospel Reading, Jesus gives St. Peter the keys of His earthly Kingdom of the Church. Jesus' act commissions Peter as the chief steward/vicar of His Kingdom of Heaven on earth that is the universal Church.  Peter and all who succeed him in that office are also acknowledged as a "father" to the New Covenant people and have the power and authority entrusted to them by Jesus, the true Davidic King, to govern the Church until He returns in glory. 

The First Reading Isaiah 22:15, 19-23 ~ The Lord Appoints a Vicar of the Davidic Kingdom
15 Thus says the LORD, to Shebna, master of the palace:
19 "I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station.  20 On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; 21 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.  22 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.  23 I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family."

Shebna was the vicar/chief steward in the court of the Davidic king Hezekiah of Judah in c. 710 BC (he is also mentioned in 2 Kings 18:26, 37; 19:2 and Isaiah 36:3, 11, 22; and 37:2).  Shebna failed in his duties to the Davidic king, and therefore God tells Isaiah to dismiss Shebna from his office and replace him with God's righteous servant Eliakim.  In replacing Shebna, Eliakim will receive all the signs of the office of vicar/chief steward which include:

23 I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family."

Eliakim is divinely appointed by God to be in this place of honor.

The oracle of Isaiah, especially in verse 22, finds significant resonance in the New Testament associated with our Gospel reading.  The text of the same verse also has a link to the Messiah in the Book of Revelation.  That passage describes Him as The holy one, the true, who holds the key of David, who opens and no one shall close, who closes and no one shall open... (Rev 3:7).  Jesus is the new David and the "key of David" that He holds is the key to the door He has been given divine authority to open which is the door of heaven (Mt 3:16; CCC 1026).  The Church's liturgy of the  "O Antiphons" in the week prior to Christmas extols Christ and gives Him the Messianic title: "Key of David and scepter of the house of Israel, you who reign over the whole world, come and free those who wait for you in darkness" (Divine Office, Antiphon at Vespers, December 20th).

Responsorial Psalm 138:1-3, 6, 8b ~ The Hymn of a Grateful Heart
The response is: "Lord, your love is eternal; do not forsake the work of your hands."

1 I give thanks to you, O LORD, with all my heart, for you have heard the words of my mouth; in the presence of the angels I will sing your praise; 2a I will worship at your holy Temple.
Response:
2b I will give thanks to your name, because of your kindness and your truth: 3 when I called, you answered me; you built up strength within me.
Response:
6 The LORD is exalted, yet the lowly he sees, and the proud he knows from afar. 
8b Your kindness, O LORD, endures forever; forsake not the work of your hands.
Response:

The title of the psalm attributes this hymn of gratitude and praise to King David.  Verse 2 seems to suggest that the Levitical choir sang this Psalm during worship services in the Jerusalem Temple.  It begins in verses 1-3 with praise of the Lord for benefits received by the covenant people.  These benefits include the Lord's answer to petitions made in His name and the strength God gave to help His people endure suffering (verse 2b).  The Lord is great, but despite His greatness, the Lord sees the condition of the poor and humble whose petitions He hears (2b, 6a).  He does not, however, have an intimate relationship with the proud and selfish whose sins take them far from Him (verse 6b).  The Psalm acknowledges that God has a divine plan for the life of every person and that those who sing God's praise must trust in the Lord and His purposes, for the Lord is faithful and will not forsake His people (verse 8b).

The Second Reading Romans 11:33-36 ~ Hymn to God's Mercy and Wisdom
33 How rich and deep are the wisdom and the knowledge of God!  We cannot reach to the root of his decisions or his ways.  34 "Who has ever known the mind of the Lord?  Who has ever been his adviser?  35Who has given anything to him, so that his presents come only as a debt returned?"  36 Everything there is comes from him and is caused by him and exists for him.  To him be glory forever! Amen."

After the four times repetition of "mercy" of Romans 11:30-32, Paul breaks into a hymn extolling God's mercy and wisdom.  This moving hymn of praise forms a conclusion to this section of Paul's letter concerning the salvation of all Israel.  The hymn falls into a three-part division:

  1. Opening exclamation of praise (verse 33)
  2. Scriptural rhetorical questions (verses 34-35)
  3. Concluding doxology (verse 36)

In the second part of the hymn, Paul quotes directly from the Septuagint of Isaiah 40:13 and Job 35:7 in a set of three rhetorical questions:  

  1. Who has ever known the mind of the Lord?
  2. Who has ever been his adviser?
  3. Who has given anything to him, so that his presents come only as a debt returned?

In 1 Corinthians 2:16, Paul quotes the same passage from Isaiah and provides the answer: For who has ever known the mind of the Lord?  Who has ever been his adviser?  But we are those who have the mind of Christ.

The other Old Testament passage in the third rhetorical question is from Job 35:7 (LXX), Who has given anything to him, so that his presents come only as a debt returned?  In other words, no one can anticipate God's acts of mercy and grace.  He does not depend on humanity to dispense these gifts.  He does, however, invite humanity to partake of the richness of His favor through our response to faith but not as payment for services rendered or "a debt returned."

36 Everything there is comes from him and is caused by him and exists for him.  To him be glory forever! Amen."
In the final verse that is the doxology of the hymn, St. Paul acknowledges God in three ways, acknowledges God as:

  1. the Creator
  2. the Sustainer, and
  3. the Goal of everything that exists. 

All creation is dependent on God.  Everything comes from Him: Israel's prerogatives as the Chosen People, Israel's hardening of mind concerning the Messiah, and the election of the Gentile nations to the New Covenant graces.  All peoples, in fact, all the earth and the cosmos are destined to glorify Him.

The Gospel of Matthew 16:13-20 ~ St. Peter's Profession of the Christ and Jesus Proclaims the Founding of His Church by giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter
13 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"  14 They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."  15 He said to them, "But who do you [plural] say that I am?"  16 Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  17 Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you [singular], Simon son of Jonah.  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you [singular], but my heavenly Father.  18 And so I say to you [singular], you [singular] are Peter [Petros], and upon this rock [petra] I will build my Church [ekklesia], and the gates of the netherworld [Hades] shall not prevail against it.  19 I will give you [singular] the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you [singular] bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you [singular] loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."  20 Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah.  [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Greek-English, vol. IV, pages 47-48). 

Jesus led His disciples to the region of Caesarea Philippi, a town about 40 km (more than 20 miles) north of the Sea of Galilee.  Caesarea Philippi (also described as a collection of villages in Mk 8:27) was situated on the southern slope of Mount Hermon and strategically located on the border with Syria.  It was on land that had been the territory of the Israelite tribe of Dan and was at one time the northern boundary of the Promised Land.  At the time of Jesus' ministry, it was part of the tetrarchy of Herod the Great's son Philip and had a largely Gentile population.  The city was near the site of one of the springs that was a source of the Jordan River.  The site was considered to be a spiritual location from the time of the Canaanite inhabitants who built shrines to Baal-gad (Josh 11:17; 12:7; 13:5) and Baal-hermon (Judg 3:3; 1 Chr 5:23). 

After the Greek conquest in the 4th century BC, the Greeks dedicated a shrine to Pan (pagan god of nature, shepherds, flocks, the spring and fertility) at the site where the headwaters of the Jordan River emerged from the ground (Josephus, Antiquities, 15.10.3 [364]).  They also named the nearby town Panias after the Greek god Pan.   Then, in the latter part of the 1st century BC, Herod the Great built a temple to Caesar Augustus near the source of the Jordan River.  When Herod the Great's son Philip became the ruler of the region, he rebuilt the small town of Panias into a Hellenistic city, naming it after the Roman Caesar and adding his name, hence, Caesarea Philippi. In choosing this rocky mountain location to announce the foundation of His Church upon Peter and Peter's proclamation of faith in Jesus as the divine Messiah, Jesus was reclaiming holy ground that had been usurped by the pagans.

13 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"  14 They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." 
Using His favorite title for Himself, Jesus asks His disciples what was the common view of the people concerning His identity.  The disciples respond that some, like Herod Antipas, think He is John the Baptist returned from the dead (Mt 14:2).  Others, they say, think He is the prophet Elijah who was prophesied to herald the coming of the Messiah (Mal 3:23/4:5), or that He has come in the spirit of the prophet Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.

All of the men mentioned by the disciples were prophets.  While there had been many false prophets, the people realized that the true spirit of prophecy had been absent from the covenant people of God since the prophet Malachi in the 5th century BC.  The people had waited for centuries for the coming of another prophet like Moses as promised in Deuteronomy 18:15-19.  That event of God sending a divinely inspired prophet and an outpouring of God's Spirit (Ez 36:26-27; Joel 3:1-2) were the signs that the people believed heralded the coming of the Messianic Age.  Jesus was teaching with authority, speaking in the symbolic language of the prophets, and performing miracles and symbolic acts like the prophets.  Jesus also referred to Himself as a prophet several times (see Mt 13:57; Lk 4:24; 13:33).

15 He said to them, "But who do you [plural] say that I am?"  16 Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
Then Jesus asks the disciples "who do you [plural] say that I am?"  St. Peter responds to Jesus' question concerning His true identity by confessing that He is not only the promised Davidic "Messiah" but that He is "the Son of the Living God."  While the usual meaning of the title "son of God" in the Old Testament referred to a form of adoption as "sons" of God for angels, prophets, the children of Israel, or Davidic kings, this is not the way Peter offers his confession of Jesus' identity. 

17 Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you [singular], Simon son of Jonah.  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father (emphasis added).
It is Jesus' response by which He continually addresses Peter in the singular "you" instead of the plural "you" as when he first asked His question which tells us that Peter understands Jesus' true identity as the divine Son of God the Father.  The singular "you" also demonstrates that Jesus is not speaking to the disciples as a group but has singled out Peter. See CCC 441-42.  Acknowledging Peter's confession of faith, Jesus blesses him and tells the assembled disciples that Simon-Peter received this knowledge not from any human person ("flesh and blood") but, by the grace of God the Father, Peter has received a divine revelation of Jesus' true nature. 

18 And so I say to you [singular], you [singular] are Peter [Petros], and upon this rock [petra] I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld [Hades] shall not prevail against it.
Jesus is speaking in Aramaic, and the Aramaic translation of the key words for "rock" in Jesus' statement in English are: "You are the Rock [Kepa] and upon this rock [kepa] I will build my Church."  In response to Peter's confession of faith, Jesus reaffirms the new name He gave him when Jesus first met him on the banks of the Jordan River before He began His ministry in the Galilee.  At that time He said, "You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Kephas" which is translated Peter (Jn 1:42; also see Mk 3:16 and Lk 6:14 for evidence the earlier name change). 

Kephas is the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic word kepa.  In the Greek text, Matthew uses the masculine Petros for the Greek feminine word for "rock" which is petra.  Bible scholars and historians have not found any evidence that either Kepha or Petros were used as personal names prior to Jesus conferring the name on Simon as the leader of the Apostles to symbolize his change in destiny from humble fisherman to the foundation stone of the Messiah's community of disciples.

"You are Simon the son of John ...
Notice that Jesus identified the name of Peter's father as "John" (Yehohanan in Hebrew) in His encounter with Simon in John 1:42.  "John" is also the name given for Peter's father in John 21:15, 16 and 17.  However, in Matthew 16:17 Jesus calls him Simeon bar Jonah (Matthew uses the Aramaic word for son, "bar" instead of the Hebrew, "ben").  This verse is the sixth time Jesus has mentioned the Galilean prophet Jonah (see Mt 12:39, 40, 41 twice, and 16:4 or the chart in Handout 1 of Matthew Lesson 16).  Jesus has repeatedly symbolically linked the prophet Jonah to His mission.  This time Jesus links Jonah to Peter's mission.  Jonah was a Galilean sent by God to the Gentile people of Nineveh, the capital city of the region's superpower, the Assyrian Empire, to tell them to repent and to acknowledge the God of Israel.  Jesus will send the Galilean, Simon-Peter, to Rome, the capital city of the region's superpower, the Roman Empire, to tell the Gentiles of the Roman world to repent and to accept Jesus as Lord-God and Savior.

Jesus changed Simon's name to Kepha—Rock, Petros in Greek and Peter in the English a transliteration of the Greek name.  A change in the name of a servant of God signifies a change in destiny, as in Abram's name change to Abraham (Gen 17:4-5) and Hoshea's name change to Yehoshua/Joshua (Num 13:16).  In the Old Testament, "rock" was a word used to describe Abraham as the physical father from whom the children of Israel were hewn (Is 51:1-2).  Rock is not only an adjective used to describe Peter as the spiritual father of the New Covenant children of God.  Jesus uses the word as a personal name signifying a change Simon's destiny as the leader and foundation "rock" of Jesus' Kingdom of the Church (CCC 881).  For the word translated "Church" in Matthew 16:18, the Greek text uses the word ekklesia, meaning "called out ones."  It is a word meant to define Jesus' assembly of believers, and in English should be translated as "church" (not community).  Ekklesia expresses the same meaning as the Hebrew word for the assembly of the chosen people who were the kahal, the "called out" ones—those called out of the world and into covenant with Yahweh.

and the gates of the netherworld [Hades] shall not prevail against it. 
Hades is the Greek word for the abode of the dead.  In Hebrew, the realm of the dead is Sheol.  The Jews believed the realm of the dead was like a walled city where its inhabitants were imprisoned.  In this statement, Jesus promises that the power of death will not overcome His Kingdom of the Church.  The Church that is His Kingdom will overcome death.

19 I will give you the keys of 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.
Peter receives three spiritual gifts in Jesus' blessing in verses 17-19.  Peter receives divine insight, power, and authority.  He has the authority to forgive sins or to bind sins (thus controlling the entrance into the heavenly kingdom), and Jesus commissions him as the leader of the Apostles and the entire community of believers that will become the New Covenant Church.

Jesus has elevated Simon-Peter above his fellow Apostles to be the leader of Jesus' other ministers and the Vicar of His earthly Kingdom.  Notice the description of the office of the Davidic Vicar/Prime Minister Eliakim in Isaiah 22:20-25 from the First Reading:
15 Thus says the LORD, to Shebna, master of the palace [...] 19 "I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station.  20 On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; 21 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.  22 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.  23 I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family.  24 On him shall hang all the glory of his family: descendants and offspring, all the little dishes, from bowls to jugs.

In the same way, Jesus calls Peter to serve as the Vicar of Christ the King and have authority over His Kingdom of Heaven on earth, the Church that is the "household/family of Christ.  The vicar's leadership role was civil while the high priest's role was religious, but Peter will serve as both the chief steward of Jesus' Kingdom's and religious authority.  Giving Peter the "keys of the kingdom of Heaven" is Peter's official elevation to the office of Vicar of Christ's Kingdom and the shepherd of the "Good Shepherd's" whole flock (also see Jn 21:15-17; CCC 553).  Peter's office and the pastoral office of the other Apostles as Christ's lesser ministers form an apostolic college that belongs to the foundation of the Church.  These are offices founded by Christ and continue in the primacy of the Pope and the universal Magisterium of the bishops (CCC 869, 880-81).

The responsibilities of Peter's high office have been passed down to the Vicars of Christ who have succeeded him.  The authority of the Popes of the Catholic Church who have succeeded St. Peter are very similar to the Davidic vicars:

Unlike the Davidic Vicar in Isaiah 22:22, Peter receives the "keys" plural.  The two keys refer to the power Peter has to "bind and loose" sins, controlling the keys that give access to the Kingdom of Heaven: the key that releases man from the gates of death in Sheol/Hades and the key that provides entry into the gates of Heaven.

Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Jesus repeats the authority to "bind and loose" to Peter and the college of Apostles (Mt 18:18).  And Jesus reaffirms the authority of this binding power after His Resurrection when He breathed the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and told them: "Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (Jn 20:21-23). 

Jesus gives Peter, the Apostles, and the Popes and Bishops who are their successors, special powers in using the metaphors of "binding and loosing."  Christ's Vicar and the Magisterium exercise the power to bind and loose in:

See CCC 553, 1441-45.

From this event forward, the acknowledgement of Jesus' divine Sonship will become the confession of apostolic faith revealed by God, first spoken by Peter and the Apostles and disciples, and repeated by the faithful across the world today.  It is on the rock of this faith confessed by Peter that Christ built His Church (CCC 424).

20 Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah. 
According to the Gospel of St. John, these events took place in the second year of Jesus' ministry.  Jesus warns the disciples not to reveal His true identity.  Such a declaration would serve to intensify the enmity of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and it is not yet time for the climax of salvation history's great drama of the revelation of Jesus' true identity as the Divine Messiah.  However, now that His disciples know His true identity, Jesus will begin to prepare them for the traumatic events they are destined to experience.

Catechism References (* indicates Scripture is quoted in the citation):
Psalm 138 (CCC 304*); 138:2 (CCC 214)
Matthew 16:16-23 (CCC 440*); 16:16 (CCC 424, 442); 16:17 (CCC 153, 442); 16:16-18 (CCC 881*); 16:18 (CCC 424*, 442*, 552, 586*, 869*); 16:19 (CCC 553, 1444)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014; revised 2017