Summary: Let's review our attitudes toward authority, particularly in the Church.
21st Sunday in Course 2017: Ordinary Form Homily
Is authority a divine gift? The story we read from Isaiah suggests that Shebna, the corrupt official whose name we learn in an earlier verse, was given his office by God, and cast out of that office by God. Then God raised up Eliakim ben Hilkiah to bear the key to the kingdom. All who are in authority ultimately hold that ministry of service from God. That’s especially true in the Church.
So let’s look at the scene where the Son of God establishes that authority:
The backdrop is the massive stone complex of Jurassic limestone called Mount Hermon, 2.2 kilometers high, right on the border between Israel, Lebanon and Syria. There was a pagan shrine there in Jesus’s day, built over a huge, deep sinkhole. It was so deep that the locals called the hole “the gate of Hades.” Jesus and His disciples were there one day, as St. Matthew tells the tale, and He was questioning them about an informal survey they had taken. We’d probably call it listening to the Galilean gossip.
But before we hear a two-thousand year-old Zogby poll, let’s ask about how pious Jews talk–both then and now. The second commandment tells them and us not to use the name of the Lord in vain. Well, we–and they–are only human. Do you and I really respect the name of God enough? Just think of the number of times people text “OMG.” And substitutes like “O my gosh” or “by golly” are pretty easy to decode, aren’t they? I fear that the name “Jesus Christ” may be used more in vain than in prayer. When I led a civic organization I went to the office one day. A long-time member was doing some work inside and I must have appeared abruptly at the door and called his name. Startled, he exclaimed “Jesus Christ.” I replied, “Eli, I think you are mistaking me for somebody else.” Let’s face it–there’s as much ignorance and misuse of the second commandment as there is of the second amendment.
So a pious Jew–then and now–simply doesn’t use the name of God at all. Many orthodox Jews, whenever referring to God, will say “Hashem”, which is a Hebrew word meaning “name”. You can’t misuse a name you don’t ever say. But in the first century, Jews frequently would pronounce a blessing when they could not avoid using the words “Adonai” in Hebrew or “Kyrios” or “Theos” in Greek. We can see this all over St. Paul’s letters. For example, in Romans, he writes “of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, be blessed for ever. Amen.” (9:5) You can’t be abusing the name of our Lord when you are pronouncing a blessing or prayer with that precious Name. So let me suggest, in passing, that when somebody says in your presence, “O Lord” or “Jesus Christ,” just add “have mercy.” That makes it a serious prayer and a light rebuke all at once.
Anyway, in the first century, in verbal communication, if Jews had to say the word “God,” they always added something like “blessed is He.” St. Paul does something like that right here in today’s Epistle: “to Him be glory forever. Amen.”
Now let’s return to the foot of Mount Hermon, close to the pagan shrine over the “gate of hell.” Jesus wants to hear the latest popular opinion about Himself. “Who do people say I am?”. The disciples report that there are many notions: some say He’s John the Baptist come back to life, because He isn’t afraid to call a sin a sin, preaches forcefully, and ticks off the Pharisees and Sadducees. Others say Jesus is Elijah or another prophet come back from the dead, because they, too, worked wonders. But Jesus is just prepping them for the big question. And it’s the biggest question in our lives, too. He turns to the Twelve and his other followers and asks “who do YOU say that I am?”
The disciples let Simon give the answer, and the Holy Spirit inspires him to do just that, and to say it exactly right. We can infer Peter’s exact words, because the Gospels agree, and he was a pious Jew: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God, blessed is He.” Jesus then picks up on this profession of faith: “blessed are YOU, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Jesus is not finished. Since Simon has acknowledged Jesus’s true identity, Jesus now gives Simon his: “And I tell you, you are Peter, [which means Rock] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell 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.”