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August 27 2017 (A) Twenty-First Sunday of the Year

  1. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
  2. Reflection & Dialogue: One must live with the mystery that is God.

The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

First Reading (Isaiah 22:19-23). I place the key of the House of David upon his shoulder. This present passage from the book of Isaiah has been chosen to go with today’s Gospel reading because it describes the power given to the master of the palace of the House of David, with the key of the House of David placed on his shoulder, with the power to open and to close. The same images and terms are used by Jesus in the Gospel passage, as he confers on Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven with power within the Church. It is worth going beyond today’s liturgical reading to consider the entire passage of Isaiah’s prophecy on Shebna (Isaiah 22:15-25), which has lessons for our own day and for every age. The prophet had free access to the upper levels of Jerusalem society and to the royal palace, the House of David itself, but this did not in the least take from his prophetic concern for thr poor and powerless. This oracle is directed against an individual named Shebna. The oracle is unique in that it is the only, or at least one of the few, prophetic oracles directed against individuals. With regard to Shebna himself, unlike most other biblical figures, there is no mention of his father or of a genealogy. He was possibly an outsider, or commoner, who worked his way to the top, to become master of the royal palace, with control of those who would be allowed an audience. He had literally the key of the royal palace (House of David). Keys at that time could be heavy, so heavy in fact that they needed to be carried don the shoulder. Here, however, the key is a symbol of power. Shebna would have an input into political decisions of state. From the prophet Isaiah’s point of view the position was not just a position for power. He was expected to be father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the House of Judah. Not so with Shebna, who was a jack-in-office, pompous and out for his own welfare and for the perpetuation of his name after his death. He had cut out a tomb for himself in the Kedron Valley. Such ancient tombs are still to be seen there. One of them bears the title “Master of the Palace” but unfortunately the name to go with it is lost. It could well be that of Shebna. In Isaiah’s prophecy the Lord was to remove Shebna from office and give his authority, his finery and robes of office, to a named person Eliakim son of Hilkiah, whom he expected to act a true father to Jerusalem and Judah. Both these named persons, Shebna and Eliakim, belong to the history during the reign of King Hezekiah shortly before 701 B.C. When a delegation from the Assyrian king came to Jerusalem seeking it to surrender, mention is made of Eliakim, master of the palace, and of Shebna the secretary. Shebna had evidently been demoted. However, Isaiah’s hope and prophecy concerning Eliakim were not to be fulfilled. He was intended to be a peg in a sure place, to support others. However, he worked for his own welfare. Thr passage ends by noting that the peg will be cut down, and Eliakim removed. Similar things would happen in later times!

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 137[138]). Your love, O Lord, is eternal, discard not the work of your hands.

                                                                                                                                            

Second Reading (Romans 11:33-36). All that exists comes from him, all is by him and for him. In these second readings over the past three Sundays we have been listening to St Paul as he spoke of his sorrow and his endless mental anguish arising from the fact that his own beloved countrymen, the Jews, had refused to accept Christ, and thus the fulfilment of the promises made to them. As best he could, Paul explains the problem arising from this refusal. He is quite certain that God’s covenant made with them has not been broken. God never takes back his gifts or revokes his choice. But in today’s reading Paul is obliged to admit that it is all a mystery. God himself is, and remains, a mystery, even after he has revealed himself in Christ. It is impossible penetrate God’s motives, his judgments, or understand his ways. Paul, no doubt had reflected on this mystery for long during his missionary activity, in conjunction with the relevant scriptural texts. He ends his reflection in this reading by citing some of them, from the books of Isaiah and Job: “For who has known the mind on the Lord, or who has been his counsellor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” Paul ends his reflection with an act of faith in God, and final words of praise: “All that exists comes from him; all is by him and for him. To him be glory for ever. Amen”.

The Gospel (Matthew 16:11-20). You are Peter, and I will give of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. This incident occurred in the region of Caesarea Philippi, a city that takes it name from Philip, son of Herod the Great and half-brother of Herod Antipas tetrarch of Galilee. Philip had inherited that area through the will of his father (who died in 4 B.C.). About the year 3-2 B.C. he built his capital there, near the sources of the Jordan. In Galilee, especially after the murder of John the Baptist, people were inquiring as to the true identity of Jesus, who precisely was he. Opinion was divided. Now outside of strictly Jewish territory, and in a semi-pagan setting, Jesus puts a question to his followers on the issue, first with regard to the opinion of the populace in general and then with regard to their own. Simon Peter answers on behalf of the Twelve. According to Mark’s gospel he professes that they believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Jewish Messiah, a conclusion that they would easily have arrived at from their companionship with Jesus, coupled with a prevailing Jewish belief on the hoped-for advent of the son of David. In Jewish expectation, presumably shared by Simon Peter and the Twelve, the Christ, the Messiah, was a this-worldly, figure, part of Israel’s history. With regard to the term, matters changed profoundly with the death and resurrection of Jesus and his ascension to the right hand of the Father. The Christ was no longer merely a this-world figure. He was the Son of the living God. And this is exactly how Peter professes the faith of the Twelve in Matthew’s Gospel. They believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. And in Matthew’s Gospel (not in the others) Jesus replies that this profession of faith did not come from natural observation (“flesh and blood”) but from a special revelation of the Father in heaven. As we have it in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter’s profession of faith is probably a reformulation of the initial one at Caesarea in t he light of post-resurrection belief.

            Peter’s original and true name was Simon Bar (son of) Jonah. This was an Aramaic name. Jesus changed it to the Aramaic name Cephas, an Aramaic word which means “rock”, petra in Greek and Latin, to give the new name Petros (Greek), Petrus (Latin), and the English name Peter. Simon or Simon Peter is occasionally referred to by his Aramaic name Cephas in the New Testament (for instance John 1:42; 1 Corinthians 1:12; Galatians 1:18), but it never became a Jewish or Christian name. Jesus gave this change of name to Simon Son of Jonah to indicate that he was in some sense about to build his Church on him, on Peter the rock. The true, and only, real foundation of the Church, of course, is Christ, but a special position is promised to Peter. And the Church itself will be a rock against which the forces of hell (“the gates of hell”) will not prevail. Peter is given a certain power of judgment (“to bind and to loose”), a power later given to all the apostles (Matthew 18:18), just as on Easter Sunday they will be given the power to forgive sin (John 20:24). This honour conferred on Peter is in keeping with the charge later given top him to feed Christ’s lambs and sheep.

  1. Reflection & Dialogue:

Reflection on the Second Reading. One must live with the mystery that is God.

One lesson to be learned from the second reading, in which Paul is speaking to the Romans, is that one must live with the mystery of God. Not that God is completely a mystery, in no way knowable. Quite the contrary, As John tells us in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel: No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. And this the Father has done out of his great love for humanity. God’s same love for the world has been made manifest in the death of Christ on the Cross for its redemption. All this was known to Paul and was central to his missionary message, as it has been to that of the Church down through the ages. But all this is not to say that God’s essence, his inner Being, has been exhausted in this revelation. God remains infinite, and Paul’s words to the Romans hold true. We are all reminded of this truth at times.

            Another aspect of the mystery that is God is the divine holiness. The term holiness in relation to God, as used in the Bible and outside of it, has a variety of meanings. One is that God is removed from the world, the “Wholly Other” as some philosophers express it, the Numinous, the Mysterium trememdum et fascinans, a mystery that is both terrifying and fascinating, applied to the presumed Otherworld, or otherwo$rld Power, not specifically to the God of Israel. Aspects of this concept, contact with God that creates fear, can be found in some texts of the Old Testament. In religious people of all ages there will be a certain amount of reverence and reverential fear for God. At some periods the distance between the human and divine is to the fore, at others the nearness. For a long time in the Catholic Church lay ministers did not touch sacred vessels without the use of hand gloves. Not that one approach or other made a difference to their Christian life as such, which would always be judged by fidelity to the two great commandments of love of God and of one’s neighbour.

Reflection on the Gospel Reading. See the reflection on this same reading for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, 29 June.