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All three synoptic Gospels narrated Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah (Mk 8:27-29; Mt 16:13-30; Lk 9:18-20). In today’s Gospel Matthew significantly modified Mark’s version: a. in his question regarding his identity (v13), Jesus used the title Son of Man, a self-designation frequent in this gospel (Mt 8:20; 9:6; 10:23; 11:19: 12:8, 32, 40; 13:37, 41; cf s1S#20 Son of Man, 2/28/20); b. the confession is of Jesus both as Messiah and as Son of the living God (v. 16; cf s1S#8, Messiah, 12/06/20); c. Jesus’ response attributes the confession to a divine revelation granted to Peter alone, drawn principally from material peculiar to Matthew (v. 17); d. makes Peter the rock on which Jesus will build his church (v. 18); and e. the disciple whose authority in the church on earth will be confirmed in heaven, i.e., by God (v19).
The authority of Peter is symbolized by the key given to him by Jesus. The term
“ kleis “ ( κλλείς ) occurs six times in NT and refers to “key” only in a metaphorical sense, but with powerful symbolism in each context. In Mt 16:19, Jesus promises to give Peter the “keys” of the kingdom as a sign of his apostolic authority. In Lk 11:52, the kleis refers to the “key” of knowledge which the Israelite lawyers had removed and deprived many people of the opportunity to enter into the kingdom of heaven. The supreme spiritual authority of Jesus the Messiah-King is indicated by the risen Christ holding the “keys” to death and Hades (Rev. 1:18), and the “key of David” (Rev 3:7). In Rev. 9:1; 20:1, kleis refers to the “key” of the bottomless pit as one of the symbols for the place of eternal punishment.
The image of the keys is probably drawn from Is 22:15-25 (cf first reading) where Eliakim, who succeeds Shebnah as master of the palace, is given”the key of the house of David,” which he “opens and “shuts” authoritatively (Is 22:22). There are many instances in rabbinic literature of the binding-loosing imagery. Of the several meanings given there to the metaphor, two are of special importance here: the giving of authoritative teaching, and the lifting or imposing of the ban of excommunication. The promise of the keys is given to Peter alone. But in 18:18, all the disciples are given the power of binding and loosing, but the context of that verse suggests that there the power of excommunication alone is intended. That the keys are those to the kingdom of heaven and that Peter’s exercise of authority in the church on earth will be confirmed in heaven shows an intimate connection between, but not an identification of, the church and the kingdom of heaven.
Today we are reminded that as the head of the Church, Peter and the Popes have a special place expecially when it comes to teaching us and instructing us about matters of faith and morality. Let us pray for Pope Francis and other leaders of the Church so that they remain steadfast in the ministry entrusted to them by Christ and that we all remain loyal to the Church even when it is continually rocked by scandals that erode her credibility. Amen