Character vs. Perfection
Homily for August 27, 2017 (21st Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Isaiah 22:19-23; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20
The word “authority” is derived from the Latin auctor, which means master, leader or author. Our readings today invite us to reflect on authority: who has it, how it is given, and how it is lost.
Whether or not we recognize it, we all have some kind of authority. Our most basic authority is rooted in our humanity and our experiences. We can call it internal authority. The knowledge and authority we gain from study is important. However, people tend to pay more attention and give us more respect when we can say not only “I read about this” but also “I’ve been there” or “I’ve done that.” We can teach people about the Bible and the Catechism all day—and that’s good—but the essence of evangelization is sharing with others our personal encounters with Jesus Christ and the difference that faith has made in our lives, i.e. how we’ve “walked the talk.”
In our second reading, St. Paul describes a unique kind of internal authority: divine authority. Paul is referring to the history of salvation and particularly how God came to include the gentiles among God’s chosen people. Both Jews and gentiles, despite the sins and resistance of some to God’s plan, have received the gift of faith. For Paul, who had been trained as a Pharisee, this was a deep mystery. He could only marvel at it, and as he saw it at work in the early church he gave glory to God for it.
Today’s well-known gospel passage and our first reading reveal yet another kind of authority. It is the kind that is given to one by another with greater power or by virtue of an office. Because of Simon’s profession of faith in Jesus as the Cristos (the Messiah) and “the Son of the living God,” Jesus gives him the Aramaic Kēphas or Petros in Greek, which means “stone” or “rock.” In addition to his new nickname, Peter also receives from Jesus “the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” which is why many depictions of this apostle show him holding a large set of keys and why the flag of the Holy See features a set of crossed keys.
As we will hear next Sunday in the continuation of this gospel story, St. Peter struggled at times with the authority that Jesus gave to him. He sometimes acted impulsively. At others he caved in to social pressures. Worst of all, fearing persecution, he denied even knowing Jesus not once or twice but three times! But the Lord still saw a lot of good in Peter, and he not only forgave him but he strengthened his faith and enabled him to become a leader in the church, first in Jerusalem and eventually all the way to Rome.
An office is strengthened or undermined by the character and actions of the one who holds it. Jesus doesn’t demand perfection of us who, like Peter, are entrusted with our own ministries, offices or vocations. But he does expect our effort, our integrity, and our desire to follow in his footsteps and do his will. +