Who’s in charge? Whenever we find ourselves working in a group situation this is a very fundamental question. While all the members of the group may have certain skills they can bring to the table, it takes a leader to effectively marshal those skills (and individuals) to their goal. In fact, it’s built into our human nature. Think about any crisis situation… without someone to step in and take charge, chaos reigns. Yet when it comes time for someone to step up, many people also find comfort in letting someone else do it.
When it comes to Church, however… the People of God, the question of who’s in charge is both simple and complex… and is the core question considered in our readings for this 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time:
The Word for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Psalm: 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8
Our first reading comes from a rather obscure passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah. In fact, this passage is so obscure it only appears in our lectionary this once throughout all the Sunday and Daily reading cycles. Upon first reading, without recognizing the characters nor understanding the context of the situation, it is still clear that God is not happy with Shebna, and intends to replace him with Eliakim. This situation is not new or unique in scripture… in fact, God has made use of his prophets on many occasions to condemn leadership and anoint another in their place. In this passage (and the many others like it in scripture), our initial question (who’s in charge) is answered quite plainly… It is the Lord God who is in charge, and God will appoint whomever he feels is best suited to lead his people and carry out his command. While I find the deeper context of this passage quite compelling, in this rare occasion I can say that having a deeper understanding the characters and the situation is not necessarily relevant. The “key” point of the story for this Sunday is in the line, “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder.” God has said that Eliakim is now in charge.
These very same “Keys to the Kingdom” is what connects this passage with our Gospel from Matthew. We continue our Summer-time journey traveling with Jesus and his disciples.
This week we find ourselves in Caesarea Philippi, the area located some 100 miles North of Jerusalem, about 25 miles North of the Sea of Galilee, in the modern area of the Golan Heights. The name alone tells us this is primarily a Roman city, no doubt with a majority Gentile population. Here Jesus is compelled to ask his disciples “who do people say that the Son of Man is?” After getting some of their answers, he then asks the disciples directly, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon, without hesitation, answers that he is the Christ, Son of the living God. At hearing this Jesus is pleased that God has revealed this to him and gives him the name Peter (meaning Rock), making him the foundation of his church and giving him those same “Keys to the Kingdom.” Following in the same tradition of the other great prophets, Jesus has put Simon Peter in charge. Jesus knows his days are numbered, so he is taking this moment to establish how his Church will continue and grow once he is gone.
It is for this reason, by tradition, that we Catholics consider Peter to be the first Pope (though this isn’t a title that Peter himself would have recognized). It was understood by Jesus’ followers that Peter had been placed in a special position of leadership, a leadership we see blossom in the Acts of the Apostles through the power of the Holy Spirit. His position among the Apostles was so notable that upon his martyrdom in Rome the early Church fathers felt the need to appoint Linus to take his place, and so began a long line of succession which we honor today with our current Pope Francis.
The Petrine ministry – the Papacy – is one of the traditions that make the Catholic Church unique among the world’s religions, yet its purpose and authority can easily be misunderstood. Everyone knows that the Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals. But if you ask those same Cardinal electors that same question, their answer will likely be that it is “the Holy Spirit” who gives us the next Pope. Following the same prophetic tradition of the scriptures, our modern-day prophets gather to discern who is being called to lead the Church. Who does the Lord feel is best suited to continue Peter’s mission of spreading the Gospel to the people of this age.
But how is it that they know who God is calling to be the next Pope? I think our second reading holds the key. In our continuing study of Paul’s letter to the Romans, we learn that we need to trust in “the depth of riches and wisdom and Knowledge of God!” This wisdom survives in our scriptures, from Moses, to Isaiah and the other prophets, to Jesus himself. The beauty is that not only does God provide us with the love to know what is right, but he also shrouds us with his mercy when we fail and seek his redemption. So while Peter and his successors my hold the “keys to the kingdom,” they are also eager to share and give us a copy. For as Jesus himself taught us, if we love God and love our neighbor, we too can unlock the gates of Heaven.