Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Hearing the Word
God has a unique way of dealing with human beings and directing history. Today’s liturgy of the word makes us aware of this fact by referring to some of God’s distinctive and surprising choices.
The first reading is firmly rooted in the history of Judah and Jerusalem. The oracle is thought to refer to the events of 701 BC when the city was preparing for an Assyrian attack in reprisal for an earlier Israelite rebellion against Assyrian occupation. King Hezekiah, who ruled over Jerusalem at the time, succeeded in gaining independence for a brief period of time, but the Assyrians were coming back with a vengeance and the city was preparing for a siege. It appears that the inhabitants of the city, together with the chief official entrusted with preparing the defence, an individual called Shebna, were utterly confident that the city would be able to repel their enemies and remain secure. Shebna’s confidence was such, that, instead of strengthening the city defences even further, he became concerned with self-serving projects, such as building an elaborate tomb for himself and his family (Isa 22:16); he was convinced that he would die and be laid to rest in the city. His confidence was shared by the inhabitants of Jerusalem who celebrated and partied, forgetting repentance and religious observance (Isa 22:12-13). This showed that they either did not trust that God would protect them, or completely relied on Shebna’s defences and the alliance with Egypt (Isa 22:5-10). In either case, neither he nor the people of Jerusalem recognized that God might have his own reasons for allowing the Assyrian aggression, namely, that it was a result of the Israelites’ infidelities and misconduct. Isaiah decries the misguided confidence of Shebna and all his preparation because he ignored God and did not take his plans into account (22:11). God, in turn, speaking through Isaiah, declared Shebna unsuitable for leadership. He would be removed and replaced by another leader capable of providing sound leadership according to the model of King David. This new leader, Eliakim, will exercise his task of governing well; he will have the ability to authoritatively “open and close”, which means acting according to God’s decisions and purposes. Shebna’s inability, or unwillingness, to understand God’s will, made him blind to God’s purposes, following his own choices and desires instead.
In the second reading Paul concludes the section of Romans where he extensively deals with the issue of Israel’s rejection of Jesus and its effects. We reflected on his statements in the course of the last two Sundays. In his final words on the subject, Paul utters words praising God for wisdom and knowledge shown in directing the history of Israel in such a way as to make it possible for the Gentiles to be included among God’s people. He recognises God’s complete autonomy in designing and directing history in ways which only God himself completely understood. God’s ways and choices are ultimately mysterious, and Paul acknowledges that no one had initially understood what God was doing. Only after reflecting deeply on what God had done in Christ, Paul realizes that God’s purpose, from the very beginning, was the salvation of both Jews and the Gentiles. This leads him to speak words of praise where he humbly acknowledges that God’s purposes, even though initially mysterious, were always oriented towards the ultimate salvation of humankind.
Today’s Gospel passage consists of two distinctive parts. The first is the so-called “confession of Peter”; not the confession of sins but the confession of faith. The apostle, in response to Jesus’ inquiry, correctly identifies him as the Messiah (the Christ) and the Son of God. His words reflect an accurate understanding of who Jesus is as well as the purpose of his mission – as the Messiah he will be entrusted with carrying out God’s purposes on earth.
The second part of the passage might be called “the confession about Peter”. Here, it is Jesus who makes a declaration about Peter and his mission. Peter will be entrusted with the leadership of the new Christian community which, for the first time in the NT, is called “the Church”. In doing so, Peter will have the authority of “binding and loosening” on earth and in heaven. “Binding and loosening” is a Jewish expression which stands for laying down rules and obligations which the community members ought to follow. Peter’s authority will extend to the entire community, as in Matthew 18:18 the same power is given to it. This means that Peter and the Christian community are entrusted with recognising God’s will and implementing it on earth. These decisions are so significant that they will be binding not only on earth but also in heaven. This means that God will approve the decisions made by the community in his name. Such authority is an awesome gift but also a great responsibility. Interestingly, these privileges are given to a flawed individual and an imperfect community. Peter would soon show himself a man of questionable commitment and disloyalty to Jesus whom he betrayed to save his own skin. Likewise, the Christian community described in Matthew ch 18 faced problems of internal scandals and divisions which led Matthew to issue stern warnings against scandalising others and detailed instruction on reconciliation and forgiveness. Today’s Gospel shows that God still entrusts imperfect individuals and communities with his own authority. God’s autonomy and free will in choosing those individuals and groups to carry out his purposes cannot be questioned.
Today’s liturgy, by demonstrating how God’s ways and choices are beyond our understanding and often contrary to what we would have chosen or decided, contains a call to humility. Having secured Jerusalem, Shebna became so confident in his own undertakings and proud in his accomplishments that he failed to include God in his own plans and designs. He was then rejected as a leader, and the very city he sought to protect would suffer utter destruction 120 years later. Paul shows the opposite attitude. Having reflected on the fate of Israel he was led to a humbling realization that God’s ways and plans surpass human plans and understanding. This led him to acknowledge and praise God for working out his plans in mysterious and yet salvific ways. Peter and the first Christian community were nowhere near perfection. And yet, because of their adherence to Jesus, God made them the instruments of his will on earth. He chose them freely, and gratuitously entrusted them with authority, to discern his will and act to implement it through “binding and loosening”. The lesson for today is to humbly seek the understanding of God’s will and choices, even if they appear unusual or even odd to us. With the psalmist, therefore we can proclaim: “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.”.
Listening to the Word of God
The theme of this Sunday calls us to reflect on God’s choices, on the mind of God and how God directs the universe and human beings. The readings make us aware that we are only human beings and our minds are incapable of fully comprehending God’s will and choice. As we cannot reach the root of his decisions and ways we often wonder and question God asking why this, rather than that, has happened. The decisions and choices of God are beyond our human comprehension, because, as human beings, we tend to explain the ways of God using our limited understanding and senses. Let us look at some examples of God’s choices in the history of humankind and see what we can learn from them.
Firstly, God choose the people of Israel as his favourite nation (cf. Deut 7:6). We may wonder why God, the creator of all living beings, chose the Israelites and not any other nation as his special people; what did they do to win his heart? The answer is that they did nothing; it was God’s choice to elect them, and, through them, to extend his loving mercy to all nations. As Christians we too cannot fully comprehend the mind of God. We marvel at the authority and the rulings of God. Why should a loving God send rain and sunshine on the wicked who constantly renounce his name and cause his children to suffer? The reason is that God follows his own ways which are not ours. We could speculate what would happen if God were to be influenced by sentiments and moods like we are – someday God could capriciously decide that there will be no oxygen or no sunshine for us to live. While humbled by our limits, we should be grateful for God’s constancy in providing us with the essentials to live by. We thank God for his faithful love which endures forever.
Secondly, God chooses earthly leaders and endows them with authority. In the first reading and the Gospel we hear about God electing leaders to govern his people in fairness and justice. It was in the mind of God to elect Peter, an imperfect man, to be the head of the community. As Catholics we believe that the ecclesiastical offices in the Church were instituted by Christ himself. As Christians, we have the duty to pray for the leaders in the world (cf. 1 Tim 2:1-3) so that God may inspire their decisions and choices to benefit the common good. Pope Francis righty asks us to pray for him, so that he may lead God’s people in truth. But, all of us are called to discharge the offices and duties that are entrusted to us well, starting from the household or a community. As the father or mother of the family, as a Church leader, in the SCC, parish level or even as a civic or political leader we ought to direct God’s people with unwavering love and justice.
Finally, God’s freedom of choice demands our active response. We should always seek to understand God’s will for our lives so that we may also cooperate with his plans for ourselves and the world. God chose you and me to be alive today. It is not by chance or coincidence that we are here; our life is a result of God’s steadfast love and free choice. To better understand God’s will for us, we ought to deepen our faith in and knowledge of Jesus, and allow him to inspire our minds and thus help us in making fundamental choices that lead us to eternal life. If we let the Holy Spirit enlighten us in our decision making process we shall be blessed like Peter and say like the Psalmist, “on the day I called, you answered me”.
“He who thinks he is a leader and has no one following him/her is only taking a walk.”
Who is Jesus Christ to me? Do I daily confess my faith in Jesus Christ?
Response to God
I make a personal commitment to God that, in the course of this week, I will let the Holy Spirit inspire my decisions, actions and choices.
Response to your World
As a way to respond to my world, I will always respect and pray for the leaders in the Church and all earthly leaders.
As a group let’s think of an activity that best enables us respond to the Word of God in our contemporary world, for example, organizing a workshop on formation of church leaders.
Yahweh our God, we praise and glorify your Holy Name. We recognize that your ways are not our ways, your choices are not ours. Your wisdom and knowledge surpasses our human limited thinking. We ask you, to inspire our thoughts and minds so that the decisions and choices we make be guided by you and lead us to eternal life. Give us strength to confess and witness your Son Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour daily. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Scripture quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, © 1989, 1993. Used with permission.