My wife, Therese, a businesswoman, joins other lay worshippers in a weekly prayer group called Daughters of Mary in which (among other things) one participant each week provides a spiritual reflection based on that week’s Gospel. This was my wife’s week to do so. I thought her insights well worth sharing, indeed better than my own this week, so the following is adapted from the notes for her oral presentation….
(On Matthew 16:13-20)
The answer that Jesus receives from His first question (Who do people say the Son of Man is?) is practical and a little cowardly: “We don’t really know who you are but everybody says… John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, a prophet….” The answer Jesus receives from Peter, by contrast, is courageous, inspired, from the gut, quick: “… but, of course, who else, but… You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. ” Peter has departed his companions and exclaimed without hesitation his profound Messianic belief.
At this point, Jesus proclaims “You are Peter.” The Greek word Petros can be translated “rock.” Simon Peter is a character whom we see, again and again, behave in a most human way. Sometimes, an unstable way. Kind of like us. Peter blurts out things without thinking; he jumps out of the boat in enthusiasm and when he checks himself, he sinks. He even denies Jesus when Jesus is in the most need of his loyalty. Peter is a bit of a mess and sometimes unreliable. And yet Jesus chooses him as his Rock, the firm, immovable, substantial Rock on which he will build his Church.
As I read this gospel, I thought about rocks. (My understanding of abstract concepts is through my senses, things I’ve seen, heard, felt.) So I am thinking about rocks. Rocks are of this earth. They are hard. They are cold. Rocks can be stable and substantial and can be unstable and dangerous. Rocks are formed over millennia by heat, friction, and movement. Once formed, they can be used to do things that give us stability – rocks are used to form foundations, they are used to shore creek beds and fill ravines. Rocks stabilize things and rocks can also break things. We’ve all heard of rock slides and the devastation they cause.
Peter’s deep love of Jesus and his profound knowledge of WHO Jesus is, is stable, substantial, immovable, like a rock. Peter’s humanity, his earthiness, is the cause of his sometime-instability: He sleeps when he should stay awake, he denies when he should stand firm.
Matthew’s gospel is written to appeal to a Jewish audience – to urge his fellow brethren Jews to accept the message of Jesus Christ. He draws upon the stories from the Old Testament, with which the devout Jews of his day would be very familiar. In our short gospel for Sunday, Matthew alludes to Jonah, a well familiar figure — an Old Testament prophet.
[Aside: In my Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the words that Jesus exclaims after hearing Peter’s answer to his question, are “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!” (This is Hebrew for “Simon, son of Jonah.”) I like the sound and the cadence of Simon Bar-Jonah! It effectively conveys Jesus’ amazement at Peter’s answer.] This is also the only time I can find where Jesus specifically refers to Peter by reference to his father. Why would he do so this time?
Jesus sounds as if he is astounded – and delighted — by what Peter has said. His exclamation also evokes an immediate comparison between Peter, son of Jonah, and Jonah of the Old Testament.
Jonah was a funny character. When God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh to plead for the people there to repent from evils committed against Him, Jonah immediately bolted in the exact opposite direction – as if he thought God couldn’t find him – boarding a boat for Tarshish. Of course God found him, blew up a storm, and Jonah found himself in the belly of a whale – where he asked for God’s deliverance. He received it and went on, reluctantly. He went into Nineveh, as God had asked him to do originally, and implored the people there to repent — which they did! But Jonah hated Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and deplored the fact that God had granted thousands of people there mercy for their idolatrous ways. So Jonah planted himself outside the city and waited for its destruction. He sat brooding and fuming that the Ninevites had been spared.
What happens next is to me the great parallel between this charming story and our Gospel for Sunday. God reproves Jonah for his disdain of the Ninevites and explains to Jonah that His mercy is for everyone who will repent – not only his chosen children, the Israelites. God had shown Jonah mercy – the whale vomited him on the beach. And God again shows Jonah mercy with this generous revelation: “As you pity a plant you did not make… so, should I not pity Nineveh where 120,000 people do not yet know me?”
Jesus sees in his disciple, Simon Peter, not just as the son of his father Jonah but as a spiritual son of the more famous Jonah – one who will proclaim the mercy of God to all peoples, even those who do not know Him, those who by no fault of their own have not yet had the proclamation of joy and the possibility of eternal life revealed to them. Jesus identifies Simon Peter as the Rock of His new Church. Peter, of flesh and blood, impulse and daring, like Jonah, is the one to reach out, to gather together all the peoples of the world, in addition to His chosen Jews. Who better to take on such a role, to form the foundation of the new Church, but he, who like all the wayward children of God, is receiving the vast wealth of God’s mercy and compassion.
As G.K. Chesterton says, “… a Christian means a man who believes that deity or sanctity has attached to matter or entered the world of the senses.” Peter, the rock, in his exclamation of Jesus as the son of the living God, shows that he has grasped the great miracle of Jesus, God who has burst through to share our humanness.
Jesus gives Peter the power to bind and loose in Heaven covenants made on earth. Peter and the successive heads of our church are like you and me in that we are all made by our Heavenly Father of flesh and blood. We are susceptible to the vagaries of our human passions, strengths, and weaknesses. We make mistakes and bad judgments and beg for forgiveness, or not. We go away from our Father and come back again, we forget and remember. But the church, established for us by Jesus on Peter the human Rock, is always here, ready to take us in her arms and welcome us back with warmth, stability, firmness, and mercy.