“ I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)
These words of Jesus are the traditional starting point for the Church’s teaching regarding the Sacrament of Reconciliation. A second New Testament passage focuses and interprets this power of binding and loosing. “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (John 20:22-23). In the passage from John’s Gospel Jesus clearly gives his power to forgive sin to the apostles. We continue to celebrate this gift in our Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Extraordinary as this gift is, Jesus was entrusting more than the power and authority to forgive sins when he gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Let’s examine this passage closely. We begin by noting the setting for this event.
Jesus brought the apostles to Caesarea Philippi, a place sacred to the religions of the pagan world because it was believed to be the birthplace of the Greek god Pan. It also was the site of a magnificent temple to the divine Roman emperor. Inside a cave in the hillside there flowed a spring. This was one of the sources of the Jordan River. Jewish memory associated the river with Joshua and the entrance of the Israelites into the Promised Land. In this place sacred to Romans, Jews and Gentiles, the entire world one might say, Jesus asked his core group of disciples a transcendental question, “Who do you say that the Son of Man is?”
The answer came quickly. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” Jesus’ eyes lit up when he heard this answer. His heavenly Father had given this insight to Simon, not “flesh and blood,” not mere observation. This answer, this insight, was so profound that it initiated a dramatic response from Jesus. Immediately he changed Simon’s name to Peter – rock. “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” By changing his name Jesus was declaring that Peter was a new person.
Peter saw the inner reality of the Jesus event. Jesus was the Messiah, but not the conquering hero people expected. The Messiah was “the Son of God.” Something radically new had begun to evolve on earth – the kingdom of heaven.
It’s important to note that Simon didn’t receive the keys of the kingdom, Peter did. “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. 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. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
The phrase “blessed are you” should ring a bell. Matthew begins chapter five of his Gospel with nine acclamations that we’ve come to call the Beatitudes. Blessed are you who are poor in spirit! Blessed are you who mourn! Blessed are you who are meek! Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness! Blessed are you who are merciful! Blessed are you who are clean of heart! Blessed are you who are peacemakers! Blessed are you who are persecuted! Blessed are you who are insulted and persecuted because of me! These are the marks of the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Peter’s recognition of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God earned him the acclamation of the kingdom. “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah.” When Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter he sealed a transformation in him – he was to be the first stone of the new edifice Jesus was building. He then gave the new man, Peter, a mission. He entrusted the keys to the kingdom to him.
The symbolism of the keys comes from a Jewish tradition. The Scribes were considered stewards of the treasury of divine wisdom. When they were granted the title, “Scribe” they were given a symbolic key meant to open and close the door to that treasury. They were commissioned to interpret the Law, the body of divine wisdom.
Jesus awarded the keys to the kingdom of heaven not only to Peter, but, through him, to everyone who is born again – who takes on the life of the Beatitudes. Through us, the kingdom of heaven is being built one stone at a time. By our being living examples of the kingdom – by being humble and poor of spirit, by mourning with those suffering loss, by living simply and unselfishly, by interacting with pure and honest hearts, by laboring for peace, by willingly suffering persecution and insult for the kingdom of heaven we extend Jesus’ invitation to enter the kingdom community. What an exalted and demanding mission we have accepted!
I began writing this reflection in the days following the events at Charlottesville and Barcelona. I rested my head in my hands as my mind grappled with the tremendous upheaval going on. I wanted to weep as I thought of the suffering the human family is inflicting on itself. It’s a dark time not only for our country, but for our world.
With these events resounding in my mind and heart, I felt challenged by the account of Peter’s confession of faith in a way I have never been before. I felt that this passage had a powerful message for today. I knew it wasn’t merely a passage about the Church’s power to forgive personal sins. I struggled to understand the meaning of the keys. After days of reflection I realized that the keys were the Beatitudes – the new commandments Jesus gave us. They don’t tell us what to do or not do. They tell us what to be. They challenge us to be reborn just as Simon was reborn as Peter – the rock.
ROCK! What a powerful image of the kingdom! Think about how many times Jesus told his disciples not to be afraid. They were to be as solid as a rock. Their mission was to transform the world through the way they lived – through the Beatitudes.
It’s a tremendous challenge for us to live a kingdom life – a life energized by the power of the Beatitudes. We must be careful not to sink back into the chaos of the world. We have to have tremendous courage. We can’t be afraid. Remember always what Jesus promised. “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
O.K. Let’s get to work.