Gospel for Thursday, June 29: Matthew 16:13-19
Feast of Saints Peter and Paul
13Jesus, having come to the region of Caesarea Philippi, asked his disciples, “People, who do they say the Son of Man is?” 14They answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, others Jeremiah or any of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But you, who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for neither flesh nor blood has revealed him to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the powers of hell shall not prevail against it. 19To you I will give the keys of 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.”
Dear Sisters and Brothers of the Misericordie, I am Carlo Miglietta, doctor, biblical scholar, layman, husband, father and grandfather (www.buonabibbiaatutti.it).
Also today I share with you a short meditation thought on the Gospel, with special reference to the theme of mercy.
A Church that bears witness to Christ
At the heart of the passage is the explication of the term “ekklesìa,” Church. Matthew probably draws the Cesarea of Philip confession from what exegetes call the “common source,” or “Q source,” making a few changes: in place of “I” he inserts “Son of Man”; he adds, among the possible “doubles” of Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah, the one who perhaps most of all had to suffer, and precisely in Jerusalem, persecution by the priests and elders of Israel; he expands Peter’s response from the parallel text in Mark’s Gospel (Mk. 8:27-38) and Luke’s Gospel (Lk. 9:18-27).
It is a passage of great importance, on which the debate has always been alive, fruitful, but sometimes conflicting. First, it is stated there that the task of the Church is the profession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This is the mission of the Church. To be in the world the proclamation of Jesus Lord of the world, to be his sign and witness.
This confession of faith had appeared shortly before on the lips of the disciples when Jesus had walked on the water: literally, “Truly of God you are son!” (“Alethòs theoù uiòs eì”: Mt 14:33); thus, at his death, the soldiers on guard, struck by the cosmic phenomena accompanying the Nazarene’s passing, exclaimed, “Truly of God son was he” (“Alethòs theoù uiòs èn oùtos”: Mt 27:54). Note how there are no determinative articles: Jesus is recognized generically as a divine personage. But Peter instead reinforces his claim with no less than two determinative articles, “You are the Son of God!” (“Su eì o Chrisòs, ò uiòs toù Theoù”: Mt 16:16). So will Caiaphas at the time of his trial: “Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (“Eìpes eì su eì o Chrisòs, ò uiòs toù Theoù”: Mt 26:63): such a clear statement of the singularity of Jesus’ sonship relationship that will be the cause of his condemnation to death.
Jesus affirms that Peter’s mission is not chosen by men, but precise will of God: “for neither flesh nor blood has revealed it to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:17). “Flesh and blood” is a Judaism that indicates the human dimension: “flesh,” “basar,” indicates frailty; “blood,” “dam,” indicates human life, but often in its connotation of legal impurity. Human capacity is not sufficient to profess the messianicity of Jesus: it takes a “revelation,” an “apocalypse” (“apekàlupsen”).
A Church supernatural reality
Jesus promises his Church that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). The expression “gates of the underworld” refers to the “gates,” the place where righteousness and power were practiced, and to the “underworld,” Hebrew for “sheol,” the underworld of the dead. The meaning is that the Church will not be subservient to the power of transience and death, that is, it will not be a reality of only a natural order, but will have an otherworldly dimension.
The role of Peter
It is then said that the Church will be founded on Peter, whose name is changed and who is given “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” and the power to “bind or loose” (Mt 16:18-19).
We note how Peter is called “bar Jonah,” “son of Jonah,” in the Aramaic language, even in the context of the passage, which is in Greek: interestingly, in contrast, in the Fourth Gospel Peter is not “son of Jonah” but “son of John” (Jn 1:42). Perhaps Matthew, in attributing Peter’s authorship to the prophet Jonah, wants to give the latter’s statement prophetic significance.
Name change, in the Bible, always indicates a particular calling. Consider Abram, meaning “the father is great,” whose name is changed to Abraham, probably meaning “father of a multitude” (Gn 17:5); Sarai, who is called Sarah (perhaps two variants of “princess”) (Gn 17:15); Jacob, whose name derives from the fact that at birth he grasps his brother’s heel, “‘aqeb” (Gen 25:26), sees his name changed from God to Israel, meaning “God fights,” “Ysre’èl,” from the verb “will be,” to fight, or “God is strong,” from the verb “saran,” “to be strong, to prevail.” The later Christian tradition, especially in monasticism, will also use the name change as a sign of a new role or mission from God.
Jesus makes a play on words, telling Simon that from now on he will be called Peter. We are now used to using this proper name fluently, and have lost the novelty and originality of this “invention” of Jesus. In Aramaic it is more immediate to grasp its meaning, because “kepha,” “the stone,” is masculine: Simon will be called “the stone.” In Greek, on the other hand, as in Italian, the word “pètra,” “stone,” is feminine, while “Petrós” is masculine: thus “Petrós” is not a habitual proper name in Greek either. The Gospel thus uses a neologism to indicate Simon’s function: he will be “the stone,” the rock on which Jesus will build the edifice of his “ekklesìa.” Perhaps it would be more intuitive for the English to equate Simon’s new name not so much with “Peter” as with “Rocky.”
Peter is given to the Church as a gift of security, of defense, as a promise of stability and victory. It cannot be accepted that it refers only to the impetuous character of the apostle Peter, as some have claimed.
Simon’s mission is thus delineated with three metaphors: that of the stone, that of the keys, and by the phrase “binding-unbinding.”
The theme of keys is typically biblical (Is 22:20-24; Rev 3:7). The expression “bind – loose,” in Aramaic “‘asar – sèrah,” is rabbinic and indicates precise intervention in the field of doctrine or morality, indicating what is truth and what is falsehood, or what is permitted and what is forbidden, and the power to admit or exclude from the community.
In any case, the Church is always Christ’s alone (“my Church”: Mt 16:18), even though he uses the apostles to build it up. Already the prophets had called the Messiah a “cornerstone” (Isa 28:16; Zech 10:4). Jesus will apply this definition to himself (Mt 21:42; cf. Sl 118:22-23). Other New Testament passages will reiterate that indeed the only rock is Christ, as indeed the very first letter of Peter states (1 Pet 2:6-8).
The context does not allow us to determine whether when Jesus says, “I will build my Church,” the verb “I will build” (“oikodomèo”: Mt 16:18) relates to Jesus’ earthly life or to the period after his resurrection. The admonition with which the passage closes would depose a post-Easter dimension: “Then he commanded the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ” (Mt 16:20): the Church’s witness to Christ begins only after his resurrection. But perhaps the term “edify” embraces both the earthly and later dimensions of the Lord’s life, for Jesus’ teaching here on the Church seems relatable to that on the “Kingdom of God” that so characterizes all of Jesus’ preaching in Matthew’s Gospel.
Happy Mercy to all!
Anyone who would like to read a more complete exegesis of the text, or some insights, please ask me at firstname.lastname@example.org.