Let Us Not Forget That Peter Holds the Keys

Biblical Reflection for 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time A

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By Father Thomas Rosica, CSB     

TORONTO, AUG. 16, 2011 (Zenit.org).- During my graduate studies in Israel in the 1990s, I spent time with the Israeli archaeological team working on the excavations in Caesarea Philippi in northern Israel. Caesarea Philippi is situated about 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee in the territory that had been ruled by Philip the tetrarch, a son of Herod the Great, from 4 B.C. until his death in 34 A.D. He rebuilt the town of Paneas, naming it Caesarea in honor of the emperor, and Philippi («of Philip») to distinguish it from the seaport in Samaria that was also called Caesarea. 

The place is now known as «Banias,» a deformation of the word «Paneas,» referring to the Greek god Pan. At the time of Jesus, a fertility cult was thriving in the pagan temple to Pan at this location on the northern border of Israel and Syria at the foot of majestic Mount Hermon. It was here — in this center of sexual excess and pagan worship to the Greek god Pan — that Jesus asks about the disciples’ understanding of his Messiahship. It was here that Peter acclaims Jesus as the Messiah of the one true God. What a stunning backdrop for today’s dramatic Gospel story from Matthew 16:13-20!

Today’s Gospel story has parallels in Mark 8:27-29 and Luke 9:18-20. Matthew’s account attributes the confession to a divine revelation granted to Peter alone (17) and makes Peter the rock on which Jesus will build his church (18) and the disciple whose authority in the church on earth will be confirmed in heaven, i.e., by God (19). In light of the rich Greek mythological background associated with this impressive site in Northern Israel, let us consider several words and expressions used in today’s Gospel.

«You are the Messiah»

In response to Jesus’ question (13) «Who do people say that the Son of Man is?» the disciples list a whole series of labels that people have applied to Jesus. These names reveal the different expectations held about him. When Jesus asked Peter the critical question, «Who do you say that I am?» Peter answered him: «You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.» Given the majestic backdrop of today’s Gospel story, was Peter in fact pronouncing a death sentence upon all other gods, especially Pan, that were standing about him by acclaiming Jesus as the Son of the Living God? Did Pan’s death bring about an authority crisis for Tiberias and his potential to inherit the power from Augustus?

Son of the living God

«Son of God» must be understood against the Greek mythological background of the site where Peter’s confession occurred. The Greek god Pan was associated with a mountain in Arkadia and a grotto in Attika. Since Arkadia was not rich in large cattle, the goat was its characteristic beast and Pan was thus half goat in shape. Pan became a universal god in Greek mythology, popular with shepherds, farmers and peasants. In general, Pan is amorous as is the nature of a god whose chief business it was to make his flocks fertile! He supposedly loved caves, mountains and lonely places, and was a very musical creature; his instrument was the pan-pipe! Pan was a son of Zeus, therefore a son of god!

Peter declares Jesus to be «the Son of the living God.» The addition of this exalted title to the original Marcan confession (Mark 8:27-29) eliminates whatever ambiguity was attached to the title «Messiah.» Peter’s declaration cannot help but take into consideration the Greek mythological background that was associated with Caesarea Philippi!

Flesh and blood

In Verse 17, Jesus acknowledging Peter’s declaration says to him: «For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.» «Flesh and blood» is a Semitic expression for human beings, especially in their weakness. That Peter revels Jesus’ true identity indicates that his knowledge is not through human means but through a revelation from God. This is similar to Paul’s description of his recognition of who Jesus was in Galatians 1:15-16: «When he [God] … was pleased to reveal his Son to me.»

You are the rock

In Verse 18, Jesus revels Peter’s new identity: «You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church» (18). The Aramaic word «kepa» — meaning rock and transliterated into Greek as «Kephas» — is the name by which Peter is called in the Pauline letters (1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:4; Galatians 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14), except in Galatians 2:7-8 («Peter»). It is translated as Petros («Peter») in John 1:42. The presumed original Aramaic of Jesus’ statement would have been, in English, «You are the rock (kepa) and upon this rock (kepa) I will build my Church.»

When Jesus declared Peter to be the rock upon which the Church would be built, was he referring to the massive stones which surrounded him in this area, and which housed temples to pagan gods and a secular leader? Were the deaths of the Great Pan and of Christ, both occurring under Pontius Pilate’s procuratorship, linked together? Did early Christians wish to see a link between these two events as Eusebius points out in his writings?

Matthew’s use of «Church»

Matthew is the only evangelist to also use the word «Church» (Greek ekklesia) here in Verse 17. The word is used twice in today’s Gospel text. What might be the possibilities for the Aramaic original that would have been spoken by Jesus himself?

Jesus’ Church means the community that he will gather and that, like a building, will have Peter as its solid foundation. That function of Peter consists in his being witness to Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

The gates of Hades

Is the reference to «the Gates of Hades not prevailing over the Church» in some way referring to the massive cave believed to be the entrance into the underworld, and from which gush up the mighty waters of the river Jordan? In the time of Jesus and of the New Testament writers, the predominant conception of Hades (Sheol) among Jews and Christians was the abode of the dead, not a place of punishment.

The ancients believed that the Jordan sprang up in a large cave, which is the centerpiece of the national park now situated at the mouth of the Jordan at Banias. The mouth of this cave was also believed to be one of the entrances into the underworld (Hades/Sheol). Once one entered this cave, there was no return to the land of the living.

This realm or abode was sometimes believed to house not only the human dead but also the demonic agents of death and destruction. In Jewish apocalyptic language, the end times also implied that the powers of cosmic chaos, retained since creation, would break forth from their restraint and bring about unparalleled tribulation and destruction on the earth. This power was kept welled up in a cave within the bowels of the earth.

Scripture scholars have written that the image of the Gates of Hades is one of rulers of the underworld bursting forward from the gates of their heavily guarded, walled city to attack God’s people on earth. This image is certainly vivid when one understands it in its geographical context of Paneas.

Location, location, location

Paneas (Banias) and its rich and ancient history have set the stage for a new drama: one that will not be adoration of a pagan god nor of the state, but adoration of the Son of the Living God, the one upon whom the church is built. It is certainly no coincidence that at Caesarea Philippi (Banias), Jesus was acclaimed by Peter to be the Son of the Living God. One cannot imagine that the massive rocks at the foot of Mount Hermon did not influence the gospel writer, no less the speaker of the words, Jesus himself.

A cave that ancients believed to house the destructive powers of the universe is suddenly said, not that it shall withhold its destructive powers, but that these destructive powers shall not prevail against the power of the church. An ancient god who was said to possess the keys of the underworld is suddenly replaced by a mortal, Peter, who is now sa
id to possess the keys of the Kingdom of heaven.

The keys of the kingdom

In today’s Gospel we also hear of the keys (19) to the kingdom of heaven. The image of the keys is probably drawn from today’s first reading from Isaiah 22:15-25 where Eliakim, who succeeds Shebnah as master of the palace, is given «the key of the house of David,» which he authoritatively «opens» and «shuts» (Isaiah 22:22).

In Matthew 18:18 all the disciples are given the power of binding and loosing, but the context of that verse suggests that a special power or authority is given to Peter. That the keys are those to the kingdom of heaven and that Peter’s exercise of authority in the church on earth will be confirmed in heaven show an intimate connection between, but not an identification of the church and the kingdom of heaven. The Church is the battleground between the powers of Hades and the powers of heaven. How many times over the past years have we felt that the gates of Hades have swung open on the Church, releasing upon it the fire and fury of hell?

In the midst of the storms, however, let us take heart and realize that Peter is given the keys that unlock the gates of heaven. Those gates, too will swing open, and the kingly power of God breaks forth from heaven to enter the arena against the demons. Our faith assures us that Hades will not prevail against the church because God will be powerfully at work in it, revealing his purposes for it and imparting the heavenly power to fulfill these purposes.

Our own Caesarea Philippi moments

The struggle to identify Jesus and his role as Messiah continues today. Some say individual Christians and the whole church should be Elijah figures, publicly confronting systems, institutions and national policies. That was the way Elijah saw his task. Some say, like Jeremiah, that the reign of Christ, through his church, is the personal and private side of life. And there are indeed many who would like to reduce religion and faith to a private affair in our world today.

Jesus probes beyond both approaches and asks, «You, who do you say I am.» In Peter’s answer, «You are Messiah,» blurted out with his typical impetuosity, we are given a concept that involves both of the above ideas and goes beyond them. The Messiah came into society, and into individual lives, in a total way, reconciling the distinction between public and private. The quality of our response to this question is the best gauge of the quality of our discipleship.

Everyone at some stage must come to Caesarea Philippi and answer the question, «You, who do you say I am?» Where are the Caesarea Philippi places in my life where I have been challenged to identify Christ for whom he really is for me, for the Church and for the world?

Like Peter, do I struggle to accept how God acts in the world through, as Pope Benedict said, «the defenseless power of love»? How does love transform scenes of tragedy and suffering today? How have I seen the power of God’s love at work in the trials and tragedies of my own life? In the storms of life, what consolation have I received because I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ?

[The readings for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time are Isaiah 22:19-23; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20]

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Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, chief executive officer of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network in Canada, is a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. He can be reached at: rosica@saltandlighttv.org.

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