Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 21 August 2011
Isaiah 22:19-23; Psalm 138:1-3, 6, 8; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20
Who do we say that Jesus is? What do we say with our lips, and what do we say with our lives? Peter called him the Christ, Son of the living God. Peter, together with the other disciples, witnessed the life and ministry of Jesus and his eyes were opened to its true significance. Because he knows Jesus and is being transformed by him, Peter’s mission is to build up the community of Jesus’ followers.
The reading from Isaiah invites us to see Jesus’ commission to Peter in light of that given to the chief steward in the king’s household. Shebna was the palace manager for King Hezekiah but he used his position for his own advantage and to create a memorial to himself. And so Isaiah prophesies his downfall and replacement by another who will act as the Lord’s servant and fulfill his duties properly. Eliakim will be given the key to the king’s house, signifying authority to act in the king’s name. He will have both the authority and the power to act, so that he can fulfill his responsibilities.
The one who receives the keys from Jesus is also given power to act. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Surely not! Can God give so much power to his representatives that they end up dictating to God what is to be done? Yes and no. I understand ‘in heaven’ here to mean in the spiritual realm. I grew up in apartheid South Africa and am now living in Ireland through a time of exposure of horrific scandals. I recognize the enormous power of those who speak in God’s name to affect the spiritual dimension of individuals, communities and nations. So much has been ‘bound’ and ‘loosed’ by the actions of the church and her representatives, some of it good, some of it evil, but all of it effective in the realm of the spirit. People have been liberated and enslaved, built up and destroyed. The human community is both more and less human as a direct result of the words and actions ‘on earth’ of Christ’s followers. We must not lose sight of the enormous force for good that Christianity has been in the world, but neither should we close our eyes to her shadow.
But, as Paul reminds us, God is still in control. We may not understand how God works, but we can trust that ultimately God’s will shall be done ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. God won’t forsake the work of God’s hands. And in the meantime, with the psalmist, we can work at naming God truly in the presence of the powers that be.