ColumnsSunday’s Word

The holder of the keys of the kingdom

August 27, 2017


Is 22:19-23

The holder of the keys of the palace

Ps 138:1-3, 6, 8

I will give thanks

Rom 11:33-36

Who has known the mind of God?

Mt 16:13-20

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The “O Antiphons” are part of the liturgical countdown to Christmas. More specifically, they are the Vespers antiphons of the previous seven days. Each is taken from the Scripture, to represent one of the Old Testament foreshadowings of the Messiah. An example is that for Dec. 20:

“O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel,

who opens and no man shuts, who shuts and no man opens:

come, and bring forth the captive from his prison,

he who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

King David was the founder of the royal family from which the royal Messiah was expected to come. One more example, one thinks, of the pattern of Old Testament promises. However, in this case the pattern doesn’t quite work.

Of course, the reason I am bringing this up out of season is because the pertinent Old Testament text is today’s first reading. And a mysterious one it is. Shebna and Eliakim are prominent officials during the siege on Jerusalem mounted by Sennacherib, the Assyrian emperor, and subject of a poem by Lord Byron, “The Destruction of Sennacherib.” They appear elsewhere, in Isaiah 36-37 and 2 Kings 18.

In the present passage there is a separate problem, about ambition, and a difference of opinion from the prophet. Scholars conjecture that Shebna favored alliance with Egypt, which in turn incurred the wrath of Assyria. Isaiah opposed this alliance, and Shebna hears about it. He is about to lose his office and hand it over to Eliakim.

The office in question seems to be comparable to secretary of state, or maybe royal chamberlain. The chamberlain was in charge of domestic affairs, did the accounting and had the key to the treasury. A symbol of the office was a large decorative key on a chain hung from the neck. One thing is clear, the key holder in question is not the king, but rather a royal official of the king. His authority is not his own, but is delegated.

Of course, the reason that this somewhat obscure passage is chosen for our reflection today is that it also contributes background to the Gospel reading. The Gospel passage is a familiar one for anyone growing up Catholic. Upon hearing Peter identify Jesus as “the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God,” Jesus responds in kind. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. … And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

The “rock” involved here is not a stone, but an outcropping of rock, a solid bedrock such as those chosen for building fortresses. One thinks of the passage that concludes the Sermon on the Mount in this same Gospel. The parable of the two builders compares the wise person who built his house on rock with the one who built his house on sand (Matt 7:24-27). Those who hear the words of the sermon and act on them are like those who built their house on rock.

But our passage for today continues on. And here we find the allusion to the passage from Isaiah.

“I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;

and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:19).

Again we have the motif of the key, along with the commission to open and close, bind and loose. But in this case, unlike the O Antiphon, the evangelist gets it right. The passage is invoked on behalf of Peter, not Jesus; the royal officer, not the king himself.

For reflection: How would you translate the images of rock and key to Peter’s role?

 Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.