The first reading this Sunday may seem like an obscure passage written by an archaic prophet, but at the time it was steeped in real economic and political concerns that threatened the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. A constant worry among the ancient Jews was the real danger posed by neighboring nation-states and imperial powers. For most of their history, the Israelite kingdoms had to contend with small, rival nations who competed for control of the commercial and agricultural resources in the eastern Mediterranean region. The principal enemies of the northern kingdom were Aram and Moab, while the southern kingdom of Judah principally competed with the Philistine city-states and Edom.
However, it was the rise of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires to the north that were of the most concern because of their aggressively expansionist policies. The Israelite kingdoms were sandwiched between Egypt and these two empires, whose joint goal was the conquest of Egypt to the south, as well as control over the trade routes between them. Egypt of course resisted, and the Israelite kingdoms were caught in the middle. To stave off war, Egypt tried to convince several vassal states of Assyria to revolt, forcing the political giant to focus its attention elsewhere.
The prophet Isaiah insists that Judah refuse such political machinations and instead trust God to protect the nation. Although Judah ultimately did not join the conspiracy against Assyria, which spared the city of Jerusalem, the ensuing revelry among its inhabitants angered Isaiah, who said their conspicuous consumption and disregard for the poor would result in God’s judgment. In particular, Isaiah blamed the king’s chief of staff, Shebna, and predicted his fall from power and replacement by another royal steward named Eliakim. The royal steward traditionally held the keys of the kingdom because he had the most powerful governmental position in Israel under the king.
In the gospel reading today, Jesus borrows this ancient feature of royal power when he says that Peter will be installed as the chief steward of God’s kingdom. He and his successors will possess the keys, so that “when he opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open” (Is. 22:22). His teaching and juridical authority and ability to forgive or retain sins will allow him to “loose” and “bind” on earth with authority.
Throughout its history, the Church has derived its understanding of the papacy from this passage. The dogmatic constitution, Pastor Aeternus on the Church of Christ from the First Vatican Council in 1870 teaches and declares, “according to the testimony of the Gospel, that the primacy of jurisdiction over the whole Church was immediately and directly promised to and conferred upon the blessed apostle Peter by Christ the Lord.”
In our postmodern, anti-institutional culture, power and authority are immediately suspect. In a confusing and relativistic world, however it is not a clear abdication of the power of free thinking to trust in the solid foundation of the authority of Peter and his successor popes on which Christ himself founded his Church.
Father Roger Gustafson