Beware of those who think they have God figured out

  • August 7, 2008

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 24 (Isaiah 22:15, 19-23; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20)

Scandal in high places — nothing new about that, is there? The setting is Jerusalem in the seventh century BC in the court of King Hezekiah. Shebna was a very high ranking official (master of the palace), signified by his possession of the "key of David." This was apparently a symbol of governing authority exercised in the name of the king. Shebna had committed an unnamed offence that dishonoured the name of his master the king. He was bounced from his position and demoted to scribe and Eliakim elevated in his place — end of story.

This was seen as the confirmation of an oracle delivered by Isaiah supposedly on the behalf of God. So where is the spiritual message in all of that?

The passage enjoys an interesting second life in the New Testament. In Jewish tradition, the key of David referred to the authorized teachers and interpreters of the Law. There is a possible reference to this when Jesus denounces those teachers and authorities who have the keys of knowledge but do not allow others to enter the kingdom (Lk 11:52/Matt 23:13). In today’s passage from Matthew, the keys to the kingdom that Jesus entrusts to Peter would have been seen as the authority to lead the community and interpret the Law. But to complicate matters a bit, there is an explicit reference to Isaiah’s description of the key of David in Revelation 3:7. In the Revelation passage, however, the holder of the authority is Christ. Perhaps that is a lesson to be learned. The keys to the kingdom do not determine who gets in and who does not for they are not for control or exclusion but understanding and guiding. Christ is the ultimate holder of authority and the interpreter of God’s word. Human beings only share in that through the gracious gift of the Spirit.

Convinced that he has had a glimpse of God’s plan to save both Israel and the gentiles, Paul is overwhelmed with its grandeur and immensity. He can do nothing but utter a paean to God’s majesty and transcendence. And that is a fitting response, for there are far too many people who think that they speak for God or have God all figured out. One should be wary of those who confidently declare what God’s will is or claim to have an insider’s view of God’s desires and plans. God has revealed very few things about which we can be sure, but those few things are everything. God is just; God is merciful; God is compassionate; God is love. Beyond that we should not say much. God shocks, surprises and confuses at times, but in the end God always delights.

Mark, Matthew and Luke all report the story of Peter’s confession of faith. But only in Matthew is Peter praised by Jesus and given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Peter held a special place of honour in Matthew’s community, and it is this community that portrayed itself as the true Israel and Jesus as the new lawgiver or second Moses. What did Peter do in this story that was so praiseworthy? He clearly misunderstands many things about the mission of Jesus and a few minutes later Jesus turns on him in anger and addresses him as Satan. But Peter was willing to listen to the voice within himself — the voice that was declaring Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of the living God — and more importantly, to give voice to that inner conviction.

One wonders if some of the others were thinking along the same lines but were afraid to stick their necks out. It is very easy to keep our inner inspiration to ourselves, especially when we feel that it will not be received eagerly or kindly. Proclaiming our ideals and beliefs boldly and applying them in our day-to-day lives is an act of faith that can withstand anything — even the gates of Hades. This is the faith on which the church is built. We carry the keys of the kingdom within us. The ability to listen to our spiritual inner teacher and to be bold (not in-your-face) about our faith will enable us to withstand the waves of indifference, skepticism, atheism and materialism that seem to characterize so much of our culture.