The Pope’s Authority Is God’s
User's Guide to Sunday, Aug. 24
Sunday, Aug. 24, is the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A).
Aug. 25 is the feast of St. Louis of France. Pray for St. Louis and all involved in the tragic events unfolding there.
Isaiah 22:15, 19-23; Psalm 138:1-3, 6, 8; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20
In today’s Gospel, Christ gives Peter an extraordinary authority, saying, “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.”
It seems disproportionate. Peter is just a man, after all, and a weak one at that. How can Jesus give him this power?
Today’s readings explain how this is possible and why Peter is the right one to receive it.
Take the first reading, from Isaiah. In it, the Lord explains to Shebna, master of the palace, how fleeting his authority really is.
“I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station,” says the Lord. “I will summon my servant Eliakim; … I will clothe him with your robe … and give over to him your authority. … When he opens, no one shall shut.”
These words show the flip side of the authority that Our Lord gives to human beings. He can give the power; he can also take it away. The lesson: The authority given to the servants of God is ultimately God’s authority, not their own.
As easily as Peter is given power, he can lose it.
And not only is his authority God’s, but Peter’s wisdom is God’s, too. The second reading explains.
“How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways,” St. Paul writes about God. “For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor? Or who has given the Lord anything that he may be repaid? For from him and through him and for him are all things.”
Not only is all authority ultimately God’s, all truth is his as well. What can Simon Peter add to the perfection of God? Nothing. What can the teachings of Peter add to the Lord’s teaching? Nothing. Is it ever Peter’s place to add or subtract from the truth? Never.
So what is happening in the reading when Peter is given the keys of the kingdom of God? Why does Christ say, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” to him?
It is clearer in the context of the story. Remember how it begins: Jesus is asking the disciples who he is. They aren’t sure, and they answer by referring to what they have heard others say.
Only Peter answers with confidence, offering his own answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
It is only when he has said this that Peter receives authority and becomes the first pope.
Ironically, it is only when Peter admits that he is himself in no way the answer to the world’s problems — Christ is — that Jesus makes him “the rock.”
This subservience to God is the key to the ministry of Peter. Jesus drives this point home after the Resurrection, when he sums up Peter’s job in three words: “Feed my sheep.”
This is the way Pope Francis has described his office — not as a wielder of a heavy authority, but as the bearer of a heavy responsibility: “The same Peter who confessed Jesus Christ, says, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. I will follow you, but let us not speak of the cross. This has nothing to do with it.’ He says, ‘I’ll follow you on other ways, that do not include the cross.’ When we walk without the cross, when we build without the cross and when we profess Christ without the cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly; we are bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.”
Yes, Jesus gives remarkable authority to Peter — and his successors, the popes. But what Jesus says of himself remains true through it all: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” And even being a pope does not change that.
Tom and April Hoopes
write from Atchison, Kansas,
where Tom is writer in
residence at Benedictine College.
- Aug. 24-Sept. 6, 2014