Year A: Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

You are Peter, and to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven

Matthew 16: 13-30

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.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. How would you personally answer Jesus if he asked you, “Who do you say that I am?” We all know the theological answer, but are you making new spiritual connections to the reality of who Jesus is for you? How does this happen for you? Explain
  2. What authority does church teaching have in your life? Why does church teaching have this authority?
  3. What authority do you have in other people’s lives? Do you use this authority as a way of letting others experience God’s love for them? Explain
  4. Do you see yourself and your life as a “rock” that Jesus can build his church on? In what ways do we (you) hold keys to the kingdom?

Biblical Context

Matthew 16: 13-30
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Matthew picks up this account from Mark and embellishes it, whereas Luke, actually condenses the original. Although Luke drops the detail that it all happened in Caesarea Philippi, that seemed important to Matthew and Mark. They probably emphasized the location because it was known as the area of a temple to the shepherd-god Pan, and its name connected it with imperial power. Caesarea Philippi had a long history of development and had been named for successive emperors and kings. Even before there is any conversation, the setting itself hints at questions of rulers and kingdoms. There seems to be no other reason for mentioning the geography.

As the scene opens, Jesus takes the initiative and asks a loaded question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Instead of simply saying “What do people think of me?” he used the cryptic designation “Son of Man.” That was the only title he tended to use for himself and he used it with three distinct shades of meaning: as a reference to himself, as the present Son of Man who ate and drank with others and could assume the authority to act as Lord of the Sabbath; as his self-designation as the one who would be betrayed and handed over; and as an apocalyptic reference to the Son of man known from the Hebrew Scriptures who would be revealed in glory. The term thus describes Jesus’ self-concept as the man who shared life with others, who would suffer immensely, and to whom God promised a glorious future. In a sense, asking the question by using “Son of Man” vocabulary gave the disciples a mysterious hint about what he thought of himself even as he asked to hear other perspectives.

It sounds as if all the disciples who were present got in on round one of the answer session. “Some say John the Baptist.” That had already been published as Herod’s frightened or superstitious explanation of Jesus’ mighty works and popularity (Matthew 14:2). Following that reference, the disciples went a bit further afield and mentioned that some people identified Jesus with their favorite prophets from of old. Surprisingly, they all seem to just take it in stride and make no comment about the fact that each attempt to describe Jesus identified him with someone who had already died. Could they not imagine that God might send a fresh prophet into their moment of history?

Having heard what the religious rumor mill was turning out, Jesus turned the spotlight on his friends. Peter took the role of spokesman and proclaimed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

What we can assume is that even if Peter might not have had the most orthodox theological or dogmatic propositions in mind, his words connoted a commitment. Speaking for the group, he declared that they believed God was speaking through Jesus in quite an extraordinary way. In fact, they were betting their lives on it. For them, Jesus was the Christ, God’s anointed, the one who was speaking God’s will and word in that moment.

To the title “Christ,” Peter added “the Son of the living God.” That reiterated what the disciples had said on the boat after Jesus came to them and calmed the storm. Then, they said it gratefully in relation to his mastery of the forces of nature. Now, in a moment of tranquility when they were invited to make a deeper assessment of what they believed, they assented to Peter’s proclamation.

Just as Peter spoke for the group, Jesus’ reply to him was directed to them all. Jesus pointed out that what they believed about him was not the result of their intelligence or any incontrovertible evidence; it was the fruit of grace. That grace was what made Jesus confident that Peter and the group could be the living stones from which to construct a community that would become his church.

Getting it Right

John Shea

With regard to the spiritual dimension of life, getting it right is not an ego accomplishment of which we can be proud. Nor does it mean “mission accomplished” and we can now move on to other things. Rather it means we have momentarily allowed the Spirit to have influence. But this is a beginning, not an ending. Getting it right initiates a process.

Peter’s confession that “gets it right” does not solve the riddle of Jesus’ identity. It opens him to the essential mystery that unites Jesus and himself, an essential mystery that now beckons him further. Therefore, another phrase for “getting it right” might be “in over your head. Or, put in another more enigmatic way, “getting it right” lays a firm foundation for a life of “getting it wrong.

The disciples in the Gospels are eloquent testimony to the rhythms of getting it right and getting it wrong. Jesus compliments them and criticizes them in equal measure. In this story he names Peter the rock upon which he will build his Church. In the next episode Peter will be called Satan and told to get back into Jesus’ following (Matt 16:21-23). ‘Getting it right,” having a spiritual insight, begins a process that requires ongoing correction and adjustment. We know the bedrock truth of what we have perceived, but we do not know the full scope of what we have said or all of its implications.

Spiritual teachers often make a distinction between realization and integration. Realization is “getting it right.” We grasp, for a moment, the necessity of Jesus’ death on the cross or the meaning of grace or our grounding in eternal life. A man who had a powerful religious experience exclaimed, “So that’s what it is!” When he was asked, “What?” he said, “God, that’s what God is!” He had always heard about God, but he had no idea what the word referred to. This religious experience filled the word with meaning. He realized the truth of a theological concept he had inherited.

He got it. But what will he do with it? How will he integrate the God realization into his life?

Strange to say, the sage advice is to ponder and not to rush. Jesus does not want Peter and the disciples talking to others about the Messiah because they will get it wrong. They do not know the full reach of their initial insight. They have inherited ideas about the Messiah and the Son of God. What they see in Jesus challenges those ideas. But it will take time before they are completely rejected or modified. They need to understand more fully before they act.

I think this is true for most of us. Spiritual insight seldom comes with a clear path of action attached. We need to ponder, to take more inner time to comprehend and see implications. Any rush to action might be premature. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, a year of bold action is usually followed by a year of apology. In spiritual teaching, action is ripe fruit that falls from the tree. We have to wait for the harvest. When we fully realize our initial spiritual insight, we will see paths of integration. When the appropriate actions flow, “getting it right” turns into “getting it complete.” The problem is we cannot envision the action ahead of time. We can give broad categories like compassion, love, justice, mercy, etc. But this does not disclose the concrete way these values will be enacted. But, if my experience is any indicator, when it happens, it will come as a surprise. Denise Levertov, the poet once described the fig tree that Jesus cursed (Matt 21:18-22) as telling the disciples that they were withholding “gifts unimaginable.” We know we are in the full reaches of “getting it right” when gifts unimaginable are flowing from us.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.