Celebrating the Word of God

Commentary on the Readings

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – August 27, 2017



A picture of Christ wanted: long hair, untrimmed beard, friend of the marginalized, herald of a revolutionary message, frowned upon by the powers that be, circulated at the end of the 60s. It was the Jesus of the protesters. It made its appearance alongside the mystic who was attracted by the religious devotions and spiritual intimism.

The triumphant Jesus had also his time, between banners and flags: He was the "conqueror of kingdoms" and the protector of the rulers of this world.

The Jesus of religion is the most rustproof. He guarantees justice, awards the good, protects the pious and punishes the wicked. Sometimes someone puts him down to the role of bogeyman or bugbear for the children who misbehave. He is still the useful guarantor of moral behavior deemed positive.

Jesus is a character that everyone seems to want to yank to have him on one’s side.

There’s also the Jesus that we carry within us since the years of our childhood. He is presented to us by sometimes more willing than prepared catechists. A Jesus that may never have convinced us to the end. At some point of our life, he did not have much more to say to us.

After two thousand years, he never ceases to provoke and question every person and, as he did one day near Caesarea Philippi. He urges us with a puzzling question: "Who do you say I am?"

In front of so many circulating images of him, it is difficult to select the authentic one.

To internalize the message, we repeat:  
"I do not venerate a character from the past nor his doctrine, we believe in Christ, the Son of the living God."


First reading: Isaiah 22:19-23

The fact referred to this prophecy is well-known. King Hezekiah (VIII century BC)—a good man, but also rather naïve—has chosen Shebna as butler Shebna. He was an opportunist and corrupt, who used public money to build his own splendid mausoleum. He was also an intriguing humbug who, against the opinion of Isaiah, advocated an alliance with Egypt. Shebna was deposed and his place was taken by Eliakim, son of Hilkiah. Isaiah approved this wise decision: Eliakim was honest, capable, politically reliable. The prophet speaks of him in glowing terms: "He will be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the people of Judah" (v. 21).

The episode interests us because it gives information on the manner in which the power was conferred to a new butler. The king tore the cloak and belt of the man who had shown himself incompetent and handed them over to the new charge. This was clothed in robes of his predecessor, wrapped with his scarf and decorated with his insignia; finally the keys of the palace were given to him (vv. 20-22).

Receiving the keys equalled to getting all the powers in the palace, to administer the assets of the sovereign and decide who could be received in audience.

The passage closes with two other images that herald the condition in which Eliakim will be placed. He will be as a peg firmly stuck in a wall and as a throne of which all his family can boast (v. 23).

It seems that the prophet forsees for him a brilliant career and achieving a prestigious position. However he is announcing his political sunset. In the following verses (vv. 24-25—not reported in the reading) Isaiah describes, with subtle irony, the dishonorable end of Eliakim. To him—he says—"will hang the load of his father’s house-offsprings and descedants, all the little vessels from bowls to jars. The peg fastened in a sure spot will give way: it will be cut down and the load hanging on it will fall.” It is a satirical presentation of the consequences of nepotism which also Eliakim, unfortunately, will end yielding to it. He will take advantage of his position to encourage relatives, friends and offspring who will cling to him to become an intolerable burden: "the peg" will give way and all those who will be tied to it will fall and shatter themselves. Poor Eliakim, a good man ruined by power!

Second Reading: Romans 11:33-36

The passage concludes the long exposition of the problem that has so distressed Paul. His people refused to recognize in Jesus the Messiah of God. We have seen that the unfaithfulness of Israel has had a positive side. It has allowed the pagans to enter and be part of the church. It was the persecution of the Jews that forced the disciples to leave Jerusalem, to disperse to the world and proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 11:19-21).

Faced with this "ability" of God in guiding events of history and bringing good even out of evil, Paul exclaims: "How deep are the riches, the wisdom and knowledge of God. His decisions cannot be explained nor his ways understood” (v. 33).

The designs of the Lord are really incomprehensible and unpredictable not only in the history of peoples, but also in everyone's life.

The enigma of evil has always plagued humanity and no mind, no matter how enlightened, is able to give a convincing explanation. Even in the book of Job, in which the problem is directly addressed, no answer is given.

Paul invites us to bow before the mystery and humbly recognize that God's ways are "unsearchable." There is but a certainty that's given by faith: everything that happens is guided by the love of the Father and every event, even the most dramatic, still makes sense.


Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20

We know very well how to distinguish a friend from a co-worker, playmates, bar friends, or sports fans. The feelings for a girl just met are different from those for a girlfriend or a bride. When one is involved in love it triggers the mechanism of jealousy. The torment of one who fears of losing the person loved, of one who does not tolerate rivals, shows. "Wrath is cruel and anger, impulsive but who can withstand jealousy?” (Pro 27:4); it shortens your life, worrry makes you old before time (Sir 30:24).

Even God is "jealous" because no one more than him is enamored of man. For dozens of times in the Old Testament the expressions echo: "For I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God" (Ex 20:5). "I am intensely jealous for Zion" (Zech 8:2). "Then the fire of my jealous wrath will burn the whole land” (Zep 3:8). God demands exclusive love that involves all your heart, all your soul, all your strength (Dt 6:6); in the human heart, there should be a place only for him.

This love without reserve is also claimed by Christ: "If you come to me, unwilling to sacrifice your love for your father and mother, your spouse and children, your brothers and sisters, and indeed yourself, you cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). Nothing must be placed before him, not even the most natural affection. This is the meaning of the paradoxical image he used

One day, near the city of Philippi, founded by one of the sons of Herod the Great in the extreme north of the country, Jesus addresses the apostles two questions. The first is simple enough: "Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The second is more challenging: “Who do you say I am?”

The cirulating opinions draw him near eminent personalities: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, the ancient prophets (vv. 13-14).

The admiration of men of all times for Jesus cannot be denied. However, the esteem and veneration are not enough. He is not the embodiment, the materialization of excellent values, typically pursued by all people of good will. He is not one of the many who have distinguished themselves for their honesty and loyalty, love for the poor, the commitment to justice, peace, non-violence.

Already as a man – it is true - Jesus outdistances them all, because he does not follow the tactics and strategies of men. It’s enough to consider the choices he has made: to have waited for maturity to begin his mission, to have given priority to the hidden life, to gradually revealing his project only to intimates, to having overturned all human logic till he offered his life, making the defeat his triumph. But even this is not enough to be considered "disciples" by him. Disciple is one who has understood that he is unique, as unique as the person to whom one falls in love, to whom one trusts and for whom one is willing to do anything.

It is at this point that Peter intervenes with the surprising answer. He speaks in the name of all and shows to have understood everything. He says to him: “You are the Christ” you are Messiah, the savior of which the prophets spoke about and all our people are waiting for (v. 16). You are the one for whom we are willing to wager our life.

It is difficult to find a more exact answer, but—in the last verse of the passage (v. 20)—the Evangelist reminds that Jesus sternly imposes silence to the disciples, as he has already done with the demons. The reason is simple. Peter gave a correct answer only in form, actually he has in mind a completely distorted idea. He is convinced that Jesus is about to begin the kingdom of God on earth and thinks that he will implement this through a show of force, wonders and signs that will require the attention of all. He is certain that he will get a resounding success. This is also the opinion of the other disciples who, despite having understood something more than the crowds, they are still prisoners of the common mentality that evaluates life’s success based on triumphs. No one has yet realized that, from the outset, the Master has considered diabolical the proposal to seize power and rule over the kingdoms of this world.

In the second part of the passage (vv. 17-20) the answer of Jesus to Simon is referred to: "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church ..."

The interpretation of these words is more difficult than it looks. Why and in what sense Simon is called "rock" on which the church is built? A simple statement of the primacy of the pope? No, much more than that.

Let us start to make two observations that may help us better understand this important text.

First of all, we note that the "rock" as a basis of the church is talked about other times in the New Testament. This solid, immovable “rock”, is always and only Christ. "No one—says Paul—can lay a foundation other than the one which is already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:11). The Christians of the communities of Asia Minor are reminded of their glorious condition: "Now you are no longer strangers or guests, but fellow citizens of the holy people; you are of the household of God. You are the house whose foundations are the apostles and prophets, and whose cornerstone is Christ Jesus. In him the whole structure is joined together and rises to be a temple in the Lord" (Eph 2:19-21). Peter is even more explicit. In his first letter he invites the newly baptized to never break away from Christ because he is the living “rock,” rejected by people, but chosen and precious in the sight of God. Then he develops the image and turning to the Christians he says: “You too become the living stones built into a spiritual temple,” united as you are to “the chosen and precious cornerstone” placed by God on Easter day, as foundation of the whole building (1 Pt 2:4-6).

The second observation is that the name given to Simon—Cephas-Peter—in Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus) in all probability does not mean the rock, but just building stone.

If things are in these terms, the stone of which Jesus speaks, is the faith professed by Peter. This faith constitutes the foundation of the church, which keeps it united with Christ-rock, makes it indestructible and allows it to never be overwhelmed by the forces of evil. All those who, like Peter and with Peter profess this faith, are inserted, as living stones, in the spiritual building designed by God.

The expression: the gates of hell should not be understood materially. These gates represent the power of evil. They indicate everything that is opposed to life and to the good of man. Nothing ever - ensures Jesus - can prevent the church to complete her work of salvation, provided that she is always closely united to him, the Son of the living God.

Peter also receives the keys and the power of binding and loosing. Prior to clarifying the meaning of these two images, frequently used by the rabbis, we note that the power of binding and loosing is not reserved for Peter, but is given soon after, to the whole community (Mt 18:18; cf. Jn 20:23).

Handing over the keys - we have revealed in the commentary on the first letter—is equivalent to entrust the task of managing the life that takes place inside the palace. It means giving the power to introduce into the house or to deny access.

The rabbis were convinced that they possess the "keys of the Torah" because they knew the Scriptures. They believed that everyone had to depend on them, their doctrinal decisions, their judgments. They felt entitled to discriminate between the just and unjust, between saints and sinners.

Jesus takes up this image in his harsh indictment against the scribes: "A curse is on you, teachers of the Law, for you have taken the key of knowledge. You yourselves have not entered and you prevented others from entering” (Lk 11:52). Instead of opening the door of salvation, they barred them, not revealing to the people the true face of God and his will.

Jesus has taken away from them the key of which they abusively appropriated. Now it is only his. Returning to the prophecy of Isaiah to Eliakim, the seer of Revelation declares that Christ and no one else, "opens, nobody shuts and if he shuts nobody opens” (Rev 3:7).

The spiritual edifice which Jesus refers to is "the kingdom of heaven," the new condition where whoever becomes his disciple enters and the key that allows one to enter is the faith professed by Peter.

By handing over the keys to Peter, Jesus does not charge him not to be the gatekeeper of heaven, still less to "lord it" on the people entrusted to him. Jesus instead tells him to "become an example to the flock" (1 P 5:3). He entrusted him to open wide the entrance to the knowledge of Christ and his gospel. Who passes through the door opened by Peter with his profession of faith (this is the "holy door") has access to salvation, who refuses remains excluded.

The image of binding and loosing is also well-known because the rabbis of the time of Jesus employed it often. It referred to decisions on moral choices. To bind meant to prohibit, to loose is tantamount to declaring lawful. It also indicated the power to make judgments of approval or condemnation of the behavior of people and thus to admit or to exclude them from the community.

We will deepen and clarify this concept when, two Sundays from now, we will examine Matthew 18:18. In this passage it appears that this same authority to declare who belongs to the kingdom of heaven and who does not, is given by Jesus to the whole church.

In conclusion, we can say that, from today's Gospel, as in many other texts of the New Testament (Mt 10:2; Lk 22:32; Jn 21:15-17), it is clear that Peter is entrusted with a particular task in church. He always appears first, is called to feed the lambs and the sheep and must sustain his brothers in the faith.

Misunderstandings and disagreements are not born of this truth, but from the way of performing this service. Throughout the centuries—we admit it with sincere humility—so many times it degenerated. From being a sign of love and unity, it became an expression of power.

As the Pope himself has expressly recognized, it is necessary to revise the exercise of this ministry, so that the bishop of Rome can become truly for everyone, according to the beautiful definition of Irenaeus of Lyons (second century), "the one who presides over charity ".

Fernando Armellini

Fernando Armellini is an Italian missionary and biblical scholar. With his permission we have begun translating his Sunday reflections on the three readings from the original Italian into English.

Sunday Reflection

There is a video available by Fr. Fernando Armellini with commentary for today’s Gospel