Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-First Sunday of Year A, Matthew 16:13-21, August 21, 2011
Ever since sex scandals rocked the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, the local Church in America has never been the same. Many people believe that pedophilia in the ranks of the clergy diminished their trust in Church leadership. No wonder, efforts have been made to restore confidence. The US Bishops, for example, decided a few years back to bar priest-abusers from any position that requires face-to-face contact with parishioners, removing them from parish work, and in some cases to defrock them entirely. Later on, in a move that was less restrictive than the zero-tolerance policy adopted by the American Bishops, the leaders of the US religious orders decided that sexually abusive priests be kept away from children, but not expelled. The document issued by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men states that “these religious priests or brothers who have molested children or adolescents have broken the bonds of trust invested in them. We feel this hurt deeply.” According to a wire from the Associated Press, victims advocates criticized the document by saying that it gives too much freedom in disciplining guilty priests. Which makes people wonder: why are weak and wounded priests given position of leadership in the Church?
I am not sure if today’s Gospel is of any help. But Roman Catholicism has always read the pericope in terms of Petrine leadership. The story in Matthew, like that of Mark, begins with an opinion poll on how people perceived Jesus. People outside thought that he was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. There was, of course, speculation that he was John the Baptist who returned from the dead (Matt 14:1). Elijah, who went up to heaven (2 Kings 2:11), was expected to return (Mal 3:1.23). People might have also thought that he was Jeremiah, because he relived the prophet’s experience of rejection and suffering. Or, they identified him with the prophets of old (Deut 18:15). It seems, however, that this range of opinion is aimed at providing a foil for the assertion of Peter: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:17). Peter’s confession of Jesus’ messiahship is given on behalf of the community of disciples. But for Matthew—and this is distinctive of him— this is not simply a personal assessment of Peter. The perception of who Jesus really is does not come from human speculation, but from divine revelation: “Blest are you, Simon son of Jonah! No mere man has revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” (Matt 16:17). Jesus called him blessed, because God has chosen Peter to be the recipient of this divine revelation.
Precisely because he is the recipient of that revelation, Jesus constituted him the rock of the Church he was to establish by calling him Petros, meaning rock. In the words of Georg Schwaiger, Peter is to guarantee stability and security, permanence and unity. Christ is himself the foundation of the Church, but this foundation appears visibly in Peter. Of course, it has been objected that Peter cannot be identified with rock, for the original Greek gives Petros for Peter and petra for rock. But the problem is only apparent, because in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke, the distinction does not exist. The Aramaic word for both is simply kepha. This, however, cannot be preserved is a Greek translation, because petra, which is feminine, cannot be applied to Peter. Thus the Protestant scholar Howard Clark Kee: “Peter’s nickname now becomes the basis for a play on words: Peter (Kepha) is to be the rock on which the Church will be built.” Accordingly, in the New Testament, Peter is named first in the post-resurrection list of the Eleven, plays a significant role in the election of Matthias, is a preacher in the Jerusalem church and spokesman for the Christian community, the object of miraculous divine care, and presides at the first council in Jerusalem.
And yet, it may be asked: on the basis of what personal merit was Peter chosen to be the rock? It seems that there was no personal basis at all. Judged from worldly standards, he had no special qualification. Unlike the scribes, he was not a theologian or a scholar of the Torah, he had no special social position nor was he wealthy. On the contrary, if one judges him from his portrayal by Mark, Peter was a man of weak faith and had many failures. Jesus accused him of being on the side of men rather than of God (Mark 8:27-33). He rebuked him for failing to stay and watch. Indeed, Peter denied the Lord, probably even to the point of cursing him (Mark 14:37.71). One wonders then why, despite all these, God chose him to be the honored recipient of the fundamental revelation of Jesus’ messiahship, and why Jesus himself chose him to be the rock. Obviously, “flesh and blood,” the earthly capacities of the weak man that is Peter, are not responsible for the choice. It was simply God’s pleasure. Which reminds us that the secrets of the Kingdom of God are revealed only to the little ones, to the unworthy, out of God’s pleasure: “Father, Lord of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise; for what you have hidden from the learned and the clever you have revealed to merest children. Father, it is true. You have graciously willed it so” (Matt 11:25-26).
If the Church was placed in the hands of Peter who was weak, one wonders why people are scandalized when they discover that Church leaders exhibit some frailness or weakness. Weakness is a part of being Church, precisely because, apart from being divine, it is also human, and also because it is put in the hands of weak, frail people. If the Church is strong, it is because God is, and not because of its strong leaders. Personally, whenever the media exposes the weakness of the Church, I am not scandalized. My faith has not been shaken, because I know the Church is in the hand of God. When the late John Paul II, ending the World Youth Day celebrations in Toronto with a big outdoor Mass, urged the drenched 800,000 to stand by the Roman Catholic Church, not letting “be discouraged by the sins and failings of her members,” he was obviously right. The sex scandals in the US are not the first, nor will they be the last. Indeed, if Christ entrusted the Church to weak and frail leaders, it could only mean that he trust them so much—and he even guaranteed them with his presence until the end of the world (Matt 28:30). There is therefore no reason for me to trust them less than God himself does. If God chooses weak leaders for his Church, it is to show that the Church is his, not men’s; Church leaders are there to serve it, not to dominate God’s people. The Church lives, and remains holy, despite its weak and sinful leaders. Therefore, for a leader, there is no substitute for acceptance of weakness, sinfulness and failures. When a weak, scared and sinful leader trusts himself, he becomes arrogant, a hypocrite, and tries to cover up his weakness, sins and failures by using or even "killing" other members to create the appearance of godliness or aura of holiness around himself. But nothing is hidden that is not made known.