In Sunday’s Gospel Jesus’ asks some important questions about the local gossip and his own identity—which brings up a number of important questions we should be reflecting upon: who do people say Jesus is? Who do I say Jesus is? Who am I to Jesus? And what exactly did we make Taylor Swift do? #LWYMMD
But the question we’re reflecting on today is “What’s with the keys?” Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom… but what does that mean? Is it keys to life like “everything you need to know in life you learned in kindergarten?” or is it like Jesus’ spare key that he let his neighbor hold onto in case he loses his? And what about the keys we read about in the First Reading from Isaiah? Are they the keys to Hezekiah’s Tesla?
Keys to the Kingdom
Whenever we run into something weird in the New Testament it is always a good idea to see where that same weird thing was talked about in the Old Testament. The fancy theological term for this is typology. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches “Christians to read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, disclos[ing] the inexhaustible content of the Old Testament.” Likewise, the New Testament has to be read in the light of the Old.
Jesus talks about the “Kingdom” a lot. The phrase “Kingdom of God” occurs 122 times in the New Testament (99 times in the three Synoptic Gospels—90 of these 99 spoken by Jesus himself). In Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI notes that the Kingdom of God has multiple dimensions, i.e. a Christological dimension (Jesus is the Kingdom), a mystical dimension (the Kingdom is within the heart), and an ecclesiological dimension (The Church is the Kingdom). The multiple dimensions of the Kingdom can be likened to the facets of a diamond, each showing the brilliance of the whole. We know that in Matthew 16, Jesus is talking about this ecclesiological dimension of the kingdom—and the “keys” that open it rather than the keys to Jesus’s heart (Christological dimension) or Peter’s heart (mystical dimension). How do we know? He says in the previous verses that it is upon the rock of Peter that Jesus will build his Church. Church=ecclesiological. Important sidenote: the keys to my heart include mac & cheese, youtube videos of raccoons eating grapes, and fresh flowers.
When trying to understand references to “the kingdom” in the New Testament… we have to ask ourselves, what kingdom could Jesus be talking about? Surely not that of King Herod the Baby-killer. To a first century Jew listening to Jesus, any talk of “the Kingdom” would be a reminder of the good ole days under King David and the Davidic Kingdom that followed. And glory-filled days they were… until division, infighting, murder, intrigue, general human sinfulness eventually tore everything apart (tale as old as time, amiright?)
The Davidic Kingdom, in its heyday, was a sophisticated, hierarchical structure with many offices, one of which was called the Royal Steward. The royal steward was “head of the household” or master of the palace (1 Kgs 4:6; 18:3; 2 Kgs 15:5; 18:18, 37; 19:2; Isa 22:15-24). Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, served in this role under King Hezekiah (2 Kgs 18:18, 26:37; 19:2; Isa 36:3, 11, 22; 37:2). Most notably the royal steward was the keeper of “the key of the house of David (Isa 22:22).” In Matthew 16, Peter makes a profession of faith which results in his elevation to the leader of the apostles, to be the rock on which the Church would be built—the Royal Steward of the NEW Kingdom (the CHURCH)! Jesus’ elevation of Peter (Matt 16:18-20) echoes Isaiah’s description of the Royal Steward (Isa 22).
Compare Isaiah 22 and Matthew 16 below (emphasis added):
- Isa 22:21-24, RSV: And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house. And they will hang on him the whole weight of his father’s house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons (…sound familiar? That was the first reading! It’s like it’s all true!!!)
- Matt 16:18-29, RSV: You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Think about it… if the King is off fighting in a war, who is staying behind to make sure every thing is running smoothly? When the King of Kings takes His heavenly seat who is making sure the kingdom on earth is okay? The Pope—our royal steward! By giving the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” to Peter, Jesus places the Authority given to the royal steward of the Davidic Kingdom on his shoulders… and that is the same authority passed down century after century through today… and tomorrow… and the next… and the gates of hell shall never prevail against it!!
How cool is that? It’s like it’s all true.