by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“I’ll give him (Eliakim) the key of the Davidic heritage. He’ll have the run of the place – open any door and keep it open, lock any door and keep it locked…He’ll secure the Davidic tradition.” Isaiah 22, 19-23

Jesus pressed them: “And how about you? Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter said: “You’re the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responded: God bless you, Simon, son of Jonah! You didn’t get that answer out of books or from teachers. My Father in heaven, God himself, let you in on this secret of who I really am.” Matthew 16, 13-20

Today’s gospel reading is, at one and the same time, inspirational, challenging and puzzling – inspirational in Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus, challenging in that, if we dare to be participants in the story, not just observers, we, too, are called to answer Jesus’ question, and puzzling because, having accepted that Peter had identified him correctly as the Messiah, Jesus tells him and the other disciples not to breathe a word to anyone about his being the Christ, God’s anointed messenger.

While all the Evangelists (Matthew 16, 13-20; Mark 8, 27-30; Luke 9, 18-21; John 6, 69) record Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus, Matthew is the only one to record in any detail the exchange between Jesus and the disciples that followed Peter’s textbook accurate answer to Jesus’ question to them: “And how about you? Who do you say I am?”

It was not by accident that Matthew set the scene of Peter’s extraordinary profession of faith in the district of Caesarea Philippi. In the city itself, there was a panoply of shrines and temples dedicated to various gods, including Pan, the Greek god of nature and the Syrian god, Baal. In the centre of the city there was a huge white temple built by Herod and dedicated to the “divinity” of Caesar. It was in this context that Jesus asked the disciples what the gossip was about him. Predictably, they began with what a fearful and superstitious Herod had been reported as saying: that Jesus might be John the Baptist who had come back from the dead to haunt him. They then advanced to the rumours that were circulating about Jesus being a reincarnated Elijah or some other prophet. That was not surprising because they were able to rely on the prophet, Malachi, who had quoted God as saying: “Behold, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 3, 23).

It was then that Jesus took the risk of turning to those closest to him and asking: “And how about you? Who do you say I am?” It was a risk, because he exposed his own vulnerability. He stood to being deflated. Moreover, we know deep down that that’s not a question that we human beings dare to ask anyone, even our closest friends. We’re also familiar with the hurt teenagers sometimes inflict by posts they put on twitter about one another. We know a bit about the reality of cyber bullying, and its consequences. We adults would run a mile rather than risk asking family and friends: “What are people saying about me? And who do you think I am as a person?”

So, I imagine that the disciples were taken aback, and that there was probably a long silence as they struggled with how they might respond. Fortunately, Peter came to the rescue with a response worthy of a reputable theologian: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16, 16), and in line with God’s affirmation of Jesus at his baptism by John: “This is my beloved Son. My favour rests on him” (Matthew 3, 17).

Affirmed and encouraged by Peter’s words, Jesus concluded that he had been inspired by God, and immediately appointed him to lead all those who would commit themselves to walking in Jesus’ footsteps. Moreover, using the image from Isaiah of “the power of the keys” Jesus conferred on Peter the authority to “bind and loose” – to call people to their responsibility to live with integrity and to free them from fear and oppressive legalism (cf Isaiah 22, 22 “I, the Lord, will give to Eliakim the key to the Davidic heritage. He’ll have the run of the place – open any door and keep it open, lock any door and keep it locked”. Church leaders through the centuries have been quick to limit this power of binding and loosing to the sins of the people in the pews. Rather, binding and loosing are all about freeing people from all that oppresses them and helping them to appreciate that law is not about stifling people and tying them up in knots. Rather, law is about helping us all to preserve our own dignity and respecting the dignity of everyone we encounter.

Christians of my generation will have vivid memories of Parish Missions, in the course of which preachers set out to motivate us by threatening us with the fear of hell because of our sinfulness. The sad consequence was that many good people ended up being somehow obligated to a God of fear instead of being freed to grow into their true selves and to know that they are loved unconditionally by the God who had loved them into life.

I suggest that it well worth our taking the time to read the part of Matthew’s Gospel that follows immediately after Peter’s profession of faith. Jesus informs the disciples that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly there at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be put to death, and raised up on the third day” (Matthew 16, 21). True to form, Peter has a rush of blood to his head and launches into using his newly acquired power of binding, protesting: “Impossible, Master! That can never be!” (Matthew 16, 22) For his outburst, Peter his severely reprimanded: “Peter, get out of my way. Satan, get lost. You have no idea how God works” (Matthew 16, 23).

I dare to suggest that binding and loosing are two aspects of the process of helping people to grow. They complement one another. When we understand the role of law and the need to live as thinking, responsible, human beings we are on the way to healthy human and Christian maturity. It is a bonus when we are loosed from the oppression of legalists and fundamentalists, and the fears encouraged by those who think they can frighten us into conformity. In entrusting Peter with the authority to bind and loose, Jesus was calling him to see the need for compassion and encouragement in his role as leader.

In the piazza at the front of St Peter’s basilica in Rome there are two huge statues of Peter and Paul, giants of faith in Jesus. Yet both had their failures and human weaknesses. Peter denied Christ and Paul persecuted Christ’s followers. They both discovered the need to change and to grow, to seek forgiveness for their failures; they both learned the way of compassion and encouragement. In today’s second reading from Romans we hear Paul lamenting the fact that so many of his fellow Jews were unable to recognise that Jesus was the Messiah, the messenger of God to the world. Yet he was able to see that force could not compel people to believe and to admit that the ways of God are not our ways. Peter grew out of bumbling and opening his big mouth out of turn, and came to know in his heart that Jesus forgave his act of denial. They are both wonderful leaders for us all because their very lives are testimony that they were both wounded healers for their Christian communities.

If we care to think about it, everything we do and say in our lives is meant to be a response to Jesus’ question: “Who do you say I am?” Most times our words and actions testify to our belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ of God. Sometimes we falter and miss the mark.

And as for the puzzling part of today gospel-reading, the answer as to why Jesus told the disciples not to broadcast the fact that Peter had rightly recognised him as the Messiah, these men had not yet grown to the point that their words and actions did not yet fully match. True witness requires credibility. Moreover, those not so close to Jesus would not have been able to cope with such a startling truth. There is still room for growth and conversion in all of us on the journey to becoming fully credible witnesses to the Gospel.