Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
Psalm 86  1-3
This Psalm applies to St. Peter and his successors. They are the only men that have surrendered to God part of their individual freedom to serve the cause of Christ. Surrounded by the riches accumulated in 2,000 years of Church history, they own nothing. They are tied for life to God’s will in everything that pertains to instruction on faith and morals but their life is a constant oblation. With one acceptam their lives disappear into God’s will.
Chapter 16 of Matthew begins with the Pharisees and Sadducees demanding a sign from Jesus. The leaders of the two religious parties of the day had more than enough evidence that Jesus was the Christ. Because certain things were concealed from them — such as Jesus’ real place of birth — and others appeared a bit shady — such as the apparently irregular circumstances of Jesus’ birth — they could not be absolutely sure. Jesus’ miracles were abundant and very impressive but to the legalistic religious mind of the age were not enough. So they kept asking for a sign, some confirmation beyond any doubt that Jesus was the Messiah.
The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ Then he left them and went away. Matthew 16:5-12.
Jesus knew that they had studied the prophets and they knew the Messiah had to appear to Israel at that time. That is why Jesus tells them that they know how to predict the weather to some extent but they cannot connect the powerful works of Jesus with his divine origin. They are blind to the facts. Why are they blind? Because in their heart they are not faithful to the Divine Covenant. They have managed to keep themselves ceremonially pure but deep inside they are still distrusting their God and walking unfaithfully, fearing Roman power and trusting them for protection. See John 11:49-50.
Jesus calls them “an evil and adulterous generation” with just cause and promises them a sign, the “sign of Jonah” — a sign given to the evil Ninevites of antiquity who repented when the prophet Jonah warned them of their impending judgment. The name of that prophet means “dove” and it may be related to the Holy Spirit that descended in the form of a dove at the time of Jesus’ baptism. See Matthew 3:13-17. The sign of Jonah was obviously divine, moving the Ninevites to repent en masse. That was a sign that resulted in salvation. The sign that Jesus is promising to Israel will be seen the next Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descends on the Church before the eyes of the whole city of Jerusalem. Having said that, Jesus goes away with his disciples. They are going to cross to the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee, to Caesarea Philippi where the Gentiles live.
When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ They said to one another, ‘It is because we have brought no bread.’ And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!’ Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Matthew 16:5-12
Then Jesus warns his own disciples about the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” that is, the ferment of parties, political positions, ideologies, etc. that can contaminate their faith. In the parallel account of this passage by St Luke, the Evangelist identifies the yeast with hypocrisy. That is perfectly consistent with a previous teaching of Christ when he condemned their legalistic ways:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” Matthew 23:25-27.
The disciples at first do not understand his figure of speech. Jesus has to remind them how he provided bread for thousands of people before. Why worry about bread? If Jesus is present there will always be bread! This is clearly pointing to the Eucharist but it is impossible for the disciples to discern that because the institution of the Eucharist is still a few weeks away. That sign is there in the Gospels for the Church that is still to be born at Pentecost. For a learned Jew, this should have been a powerful sign. Descending from the mountain, Moses gave Israel the Torah at Pentecost. After ascending to Heaven, Jesus will later send the Holy Spirit to give the New Israel, a New Law. The New Covenant will be born of the sign of his Resurrection, prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the bowels of the big fish. Connect the passage in chapter 16 with Matthew 12:39-41.
“A wicked and adulterous generation demands a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now One greater than Jonah is here.” Matthew 12:39-41.
Jerusalem did not repent after hearing Jesus preaching and after seeing his many displays of divine power. The inevitable happened when their Roman protectors turned into enemies destroyed Jerusalem in a.D. 70 and carried Israel into slavery and exile.
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.
Back to Matthew chapter 16. Jesus and the disciples board Peter’s boat and sail across the Sea of Galilee. That action is an apt representation of the Church’s long pilgrimage through history. Because their aim is to reach the coast where the Gentiles live, that also represents her mission to take Jesus to the nations of this world. Pharisees and Sadducees are left behind with their puny local ambitions; Jesus and the Twelve are out to conquer and save the world.
There is a parable hidden in the location chosen by Jesus to unveil his identity. The scene is so rich that is impossible for any exegete to do it justice but we can try to paint a very imperfect sketch. The Romans had taken control of Jerusalem. At first, the Romans came as allies and liberators but their legions never left. Judea was occupied by foreigners powerful enough to control the land completely. The Roman Consul had also taken control of David’s citadel atop of the hill dominating Jerusalem. Since the Roman Emperor was at the same time King of all Kings and Pontifex Maximus, the Romans could not allow anyone to have a similar position. So the High Priest in Jerusalem was forbidden to serve for life as required by Levitical Law. He was forced to name a replacement. Anas the High Priest was forced to alternate the exercise of the High Priesthood with his son-in-law Caiaphas. That is why Jesus choice of the Caesarea location makes complete sense. The King of Israel begins the conquest of the world, and his first objective is to conquer Rome. The Roman abomination is “standing where it ought not” in the house of David, and the Temple of the God of Israel. So Jesus counterpoints by taking the Twelve to the area of Israel reserved for the pagan foreigners, Caesarea Philippi. There Jesus selects a small valley, next to a cave where the pagans have built a shrine to Pan, the god ruling the dark depths, graveyards, and the base instincts of the human race.
There he asks the Twelve a question: ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ The disciples respond giving an account of all the popular opinions. So much for the wisdom of crowds, they are all wrong. Then Jesus asks, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ There hidden in both questions lies the answer: Jesus had always referred to the Messiah obliquely as ‘Son of Man’ and now he replaced ‘Son of Man’ with ‘I’ in the second question. That is a clear case of the transitive property of equality: if a=b and b=c then c=a. Jesus is the Son of Man! But before anyone can utter a word, the oldest and slowest of the Twelve comes forth with the answer. Yes, it is old Simon, the thick, impulsive, foot-in-the-mouth Simon shouting what all have been thinking but no one ever dared to say: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ One can imagine the other eleven wincing, thinking to themselves, ‘Simon, there you go again’ but Simon is right this time. In fact, he had never been so right in his whole life. “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.
Before we go any further we have to contemplate the scene. Let us send an imaginary drone flying over Caesarea and take a look. There is Jesus surrounded by twelve men he calls his brothers. Sitting close to him is the youngest, John the disciple Jesus loved. Jesus is about to reveal his secret identity. To the Jewish mind, the scene is an echo of the encounter of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph revealed his identity to his unsuspecting brothers in the pagan country of Egypt. Through Joseph, all of Israel was saved from perishing in a great famine. Parallelisms between both scenes abound. Surprisingly, it is Simon (Peter) who receives a supernatural revelation about Jesus’ messianic identity and for the first time calls him Son of God. Simon means ‘God hears’ but in this case, God has spoken to Simon’s heart. Remember that Simon is the second oldest son of Jacob and Leah, the one born before Levi, the patriarch of the priestly tribe of Israel. He is called the ‘son of Jonah (Yonah)’ although in other passages he is also called ‘son of John (Yehohanan)’. Some are still trying to figure out this small discrepancy. Perhaps the word Yonah doubled as a short form of Yehohanan pretty much like the word ‘Jon’ is sometimes used in place of Jonathan while it sounds the same as ‘John’. The important thing for us is that Jonah connects Simon Peter and the Church to the sign promised by Jesus and besides, Simon is in the fishing business. Early on in Jesus’ ministry, Simon was promised: “From now on you will be catching men alive.” Luke 5:10.
Here Peter is given a new name: ‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church.’ Let us examine that name. Peter is the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic name ‘Kepha’ meaning a rocky crag or promontory. The High Priest named by the Romans was called Caiaphas, a name that sounds almost the same as ‘Kepha” in Aramaic (ka’-a-fas, ki’-a-fas, for Kaiaphas; Caiaphas, pronounced Kephas, cf. Dods in Expositor’s Greek Test, I, 803, and has also been interpreted as meaning “depression”) The images of both names are physical opposites although their names sound very similar. Jesus is pointing purposely to the facts: an illegal High Priest has been named by the powers occupying Judea. Jesus, the Eternal King of Israel goes to Caesarea (meaning Caesar’s realm) and names a real High Priest, Peter. Within walking distance of that small valley in Caesarea there is that cave, the shrine of Pan. They all think of that when Jesus says to Peter that ‘the gates of Hades will not prevail against’ his Church. The whole import of the phrase is aggressive, military almost. The New Israel is militant and set on conquering the world at large but not only the world but the realms of the dead. Christ will ‘descend to the dead’ ab infernus to the very depths and take as trophies the souls imprisoned by death. He will be the first to burst the gates of Hades to return triumphantly to life. He will give that awesome power to his Church also. Additionally, he will also give his Church the power to conquer the base instincts of human nature. All men will be able to conquer their sinful nature through the power given by Jesus to his Church.
Peter receives the awesome power of the keys: ‘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.’ Jesus’ phrase is reminiscent of the judgment of the unfaithful steward Shebna in Isaiah 22.
Thus says the Lord God of hosts: Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is master of the household, and say to him: What right do you have here? Who are your relatives here, that you have cut out a tomb here for yourself, cutting a tomb on the height, and carving a habitation for yourself in the rock? The Lord is about to hurl you away violently, my man. He will seize firm hold of you, whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball into a wide land; there you shall die, and there your splendid chariots shall lie, O you disgrace to your master’s house! I will thrust you from your office, and you will be pulled down from your post.
On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open. I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his ancestral house.
The meaning of the name Eliakim is ‘whom God will raise up’ which completes the image of the elevated crag. Peter will be raised up like Eliakim and will be named the Steward of the royal house of Israel, the Viceroy or Vizier who rules the royal household ‘tying and untying’ while the King is absent. Think of the consequences of this divine act. God has allowed a man to tie him up. He has delegated the power of the keys in a mere man. God who exists outside of time and space is so absolutely sure of the victory of the Church that He makes a field Marshall out of a man who has a dismal record of failure and cowardice. With God, the weakness of man can conquer the unconquerable.
The bad servant Shebna wanted to remain in the memory of men pretty much in the style of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs by preparing for himself a splendid tomb. God does not approve of that kind of thinking. A vizier gains eternity by serving his King well. All stone monuments will one day be turned to dust but the memory of the Creator never perishes. Shebna did not secure his place in eternity but Eliakim did. He was fastened to his duties with honor and no one could move him from the place where God had placed him.
Moved by the Divine Will, Peter will go to Rome, to the city of Caesar. There he will die a glorious martyrdom on the Roman Circus located on the Mons Vaticanus, the hill where the ancient Roman prophets, the augures, used to climb to sacrifice a white doe to read its entrails and divine the future. There they uttered the sacred prophetic oracles, the vaticinii. St Peter’s Basilica was built on that hill the early Romans called the Mount of Prophecies. The purpura, the purple symbol of Caesar’s power will later be the color that the Catholic Bishops wear to symbolize the victory of Christ’s blood. In the best tradition of the Oriental conquerors, that used to cut the tongue of their vanquished rivals, Jesus symbolically cut the tongue of Caesar and appropriated his language: Latin is now exclusively the official language of the Church. Caesar was utterly defeated by Christ and the Fisherman.
Who could have predicted what the Messiah had in mind for the world? Who could guess it now? No one can, because the story of his Kingdom is just beginning.
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counsellor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.