Upon This Rock: Royal Authority & Stewardship

A few observations on the Gospel reading for this week…

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

19 I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. 20 On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; 21 I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. 22 I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open. 23 I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family; [NAB]

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given him anything that he may be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. [NAB]

13 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 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. 18 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. 19 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.” 20 Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah. [NAB]

Knowing & Knowing Of: It’s interesting to note the way Jesus frames the two questions he presents to the disciples: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” vs. “Who do you say that I am?” The people, who are remote, know “the Son of Man,” but He is to them a remote figure whom they know inadequately, in a kind of third-person relationship: not as a “thou” but as a “him”. Really, they know of Jesus; they don’t know him. On the other hand, the knowledge of the disciples is personal, and therefore able to be brought to completion. Not long before this, Matthew tells us, Jesus had explained to His disciples: “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted.” (Matthew 13:11, NASB). Peter’s confession is the logical conclusion to this string of ideas showing the disciples as the privileged stewards of God’s revelation.

On Peter: Much is made in certain circles of the difference in the Greek between the masculine form of the name now given to Peter (Petros), and the feminine form (petra) of the “rock” upon which Jesus will build His ecclesia. The difference, it is said, is as one between a stone and a large rock mass. The usual rejoinder from the ultramontane crowd is that in the Aramaic which Jesus would actually have been speaking that day to this Galilean fisherman, there is no such distinction, and the word used in both instances would have been kepha. This may be so, but I like to think the inspired character of the text given to us in Greek offers us insight that goes beyond any extrapolation back into the Aramaic.

The obvious Old Testament parallel and type for this passage is the passage from Isaiah 22 that we see in the first reading. The oracle, pronounced against Shebna, the king’s steward (“master of the palace”), makes reference to his being thrust from his office, and replaced by Eliakim, who, unlike Shebna, would act as God’s servant in his fulfillment of the office. This stewardship was not a singular role that was intrinsic to Shebna personally, but an office that he filled – and that others would continue to fill so long as there was a Davidic king to be served as steward. I think this may be a useful interpretive key to the linguistic differentiation of the two “rock” words in the Greek.

Perhaps Jesus is saying here that He will build His Church not simply “on you, Peter” but “on Peter writ large.” In other words, not only on Peter personally (although He certainly did that), but on the office of royal authority – of king’s steward – that Peter would inaugurate anew and serve as the paradigm for. The following verse about the giving of the keys of the Kingdom seems to make this clear, referring quite evidently back to Eliakim’s taking on of the stewardship of the Davidic kingdom.

The calling attention to the stone/rock-mass (petros/petra) distinction often seems proposed as a rather coy means of minimizing the significance of Peter’s foundational role, and more importantly, by extension, in claiming that Peter himself is not the foundational “rock mass” after all, despite the obvious parallelism at play in Jesus’ pronouncement, of writing off the claims of Peter’s successors to a role of chief stewardship. However, I think the Petrine claims to such an office become even more convincing when this passage is seen in its broader Biblical context, and the linguistic differentiation of scale in the Greek text actually points forward beyond the personal (which would have made the statement mythological, since the historical Peter would live only another thirty-odd years or so), to the historical unfolding of that Church which would not appear in an instant, but rather will , we are told, be built. As the rest of the passage makes clear, Jesus was conferring real authority – His authority – upon Peter, and Peter could not possibly have personally exercised that authority continuously until the Church prevailed against the “gates of the netherworld” in the resurrection.

The Rock: Even more interesting to me is Jesus’ choice of the name “Rock” for Simon. He could have called Simon anything, but He chose a term that had been widely used in Scripture to refer to God Himself. This says simply amazing things about Peter, or more properly, about the nature of the authority Jesus was conferring on him. It is clear that Jesus intended that those who heard the voice of Peter should consider that they heard the voice of God. If this is not clear enough in the gospel text, it is recapitulated, by inference, in Rev 3:7:

“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this:” [NAB]

Here the Risen Lord, seated in authority, uses language that hearkens back again both to Peter’s commission as foundation of the Church, and all the way back to Eliakim, a faithful servant become steward, whose name means “God raises up.” Then, we see at Pentecost, Peter, the faithful servant become steward of Christ, proclaiming to the world “God raised Him up”: “But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power” [Acts 2:24, NAB]. Peter then testifies with the Pentecostal Spirit of Truth to the Lordship of Jesus “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” [Acts 2:36, NAB] which proclamation is the faithful fulfillment of his commission.

Peter Receives the Keys to the Kingdom (Perugino, 1481)

The Keys to the Kingdom: The liturgy’s association of the Isaiah 22 passage and Mt 16:19 makes clear both how Christ intended the kingdom He was inaugurating to be the fulfillment of the Davidic kingdom, and the kind of authority He was handing to Peter as steward. The authority is historical. That is to say, while it is certainly a “spiritual” authority, it is temporal, even if it has eschatological implications. The authority of the Kingdom is not something waiting to be revealed in a mythic or even eschatological future. The Kingdom is now, and the king’s steward exercises the King’s authority.

While it’s certainly true that the breaking in of the Kingdom is far from complete, this passage, and its articulation of the historical reality of the Kingdom in the Church, thoroughly repudiates the popular American Evangelical theology known as Dispensationalism – a recent variation on millenarianism which denies the present reality of the Kingdom, and expects instead a future 1000-year temporal reign of Jesus from modern-day Jerusalem, inaugurated in apocalyptic mayhem. It is quite ridiculous to picture Peter exercising Christ’s royal authority on earth in such a scenario, with Christ Himself somehow also both reigning directly on earth as He does in heaven, and yet still “building” His Church on petra! If Dispensationalism is true, then Jesus must not have meant anything He said to Peter that day.