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The keys of heaven

Ordinary Sunday 21: 21st August, 2005
Dom Michael King, OSB, Abbot, Benedictine Monastery, Camperdown

In northern Galilee, a few kilometres from today's Lebanese and Syrian borders, is a place of majestic beauty: the base of the southern slope of Mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan, and the towering rock cave of the god Pan, from which it took its name Banias. After Herod's death, Banias passed to his son, Philip, who renamed it Caesarea Philippi in honour of Caesar Augustus and himself. It is in this scenario that the gospel of the Sunday of the keys is set, with its focus on authority and leadership so different from pagan beauty and Roman military might and wealth. Dwarfed by the huge rock cavern and temples, St Matthew situates the little huddle of disciples, one of them to be called 'Rock'.

The disciples are quick with their answer to Jesus' query: 'Who do people say that the Son of Man is?' This is a safe question, requiring no personal involvement. The haunting memory of John the Baptist, the passionate preaching of Jeremiah, the legendary expectation of the return of Elijah, hang in the air. Then comes the direct question: 'But who do you say that I am?' In the boat after the storm on the lake, the disciples had confessed Jesus as 'Son of the living God', but here all the confessional attention is focussed on Peter. He becomes the spokesperson for the disciples with his fuller confession of Jesus as 'the Christ, the Son of the living God.' With all his faults, and perhaps because of them, Peter is a 'little one' to whom the Father has revealed knowledge of the Son.

Then there is an exchange of titles, and it is Simon Bar-Jona's turn to be renamed. 'You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church . . . I will give you the keys of heaven.' In the Greek, there is the word play on the name Petros (Peter) and petra (rock), probably a biblical nickname for this 'Rocky' man who was to be both foundation stone and, a few verses later (in next week's liturgy), a stumbling block; the one who, on the night of Jesus' passion, would crumble into shifting sand. Yet Christ was the chosen high priest because he could sympathize with our weaknesses: 'For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness;' (Hebr. 4:15 Hebr. 5:2)

Surely Jesus wanted a leader for his church who could do the same. In Matthew's gospel, only Peter receives a personal beatitude, a blessing of God, pronounced by Jesus. Keys are also the image of responsibility in the first reading which recounts how Shebnah, King Hezekiah's steward, was stripped of the power of the keys which gave him figurative and literal authority over the royal household. In the verses immediately preceding, we learn that it was ostentation in his chariots and in the rock tomb he had prepared for himself, besides an unexplained shame that earned Shebnah his dismissal. There is to be no such over-reaching for Peter. He may be the supporting foundation stone, but Christ himself will be the builder of 'my church'.

At the Midnight Mass that was part of the Jubilee 2000 celebrations, the late Pope John Paul II opened the great Holy Door of St Peter's Basilica. In his Apostolic Letter, The Third Millennium, John Paul wrote that the Church: ... 'cannot cross the threshold of the new millennium without encouraging her children to purify themselves, through repentance, of past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency and slowness to act.' His action then was reminder to the church and to the world that the power of the keys is meant primarily to open doors rather than shut them, although it must also discern what are the real gospel abuses, the 'powers of death', against which the door must be closed, and the protecting power of Christ sought.

To 'bind' and to 'loose' were rabbinic terms for 'to permit' and 'to forbid'. In Matthew 18.vv17,18 we read 'If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.' In the context of forgiveness, Matthew widens such a responsibility to make it binding on all members of the church. Today it would often seem as if due processes of forgiveness receive less attention than undue processes of condemnation. Benedict would have none of this. In the chapter 64 on the election of the abbot he says in speaking of the abbot's role that he wants him to 'distrust his own frailty and remember not to crush the bruised reed. By this we do not mean that he should allow faults to flourish, but rather, as have already said, he should prune them away with prudence and love as he sees best for each individual. Let him strive to be loved rather than feared.'

Gospel values should inform both the attitude of the abbot and also the wise members of the community – Gospel values should also inform the attitude of all Christian people – ourselves included. Lost in wonder and praise, St Paul tells the church at Rome that no one can ever plumb the depths of God's wisdom. Whether it be the divine plan for creation, for Peter, for the Romans, for any one of us, God is always the giver and we the receivers of his saving mercy. Even our ability to receive this mercy is a gift of God. In a great convergence of praise, Paul unites everything that is from God, by God, and for God in his resounding 'Amen'.


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