First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Pentecost 11

William Loader

Pentecost 11: 24 August Matthew 16:13-20

This passage is about identity - of Jesus and of the church. One of the best known passages in the New Testament for all kinds of reasons, including arguments about the papacy, this reading is rich and has a rich history. It is an expansion and revision of what Mark brings us in Mark 8:27-30.

In Mark the passage has often been recognised as a turning point. For the first time these dull disciples get it right. Peter hails Jesus as the Messiah. The euphoria is short lived. Already 8:30 has Jesus warn the disciples not to tell anyone. What is the problem? Modesty? Hardly. The next verses expose it. Mark 8:31-33 has Jesus predict his pathway of suffering and rejection before being raised from the dead. Peter objects and is rebuked. What he meant by Messiah was different from what Jesus intended. Peter is by no means unique in this. What we mean when we say or sing acclamation to 'Christ' and 'God' may have little resemblance to what the gospel is about - history teaches us that - and our own experience? After Jesus' suffering the right understanding would dawn on the disciples. Mark 9:9 makes that explicit. Perhaps Caesarea Philippi is deliberately identified as representing the northern most part of Israel and a symbol of Roman imperial power. Mark would be setting Jesus' kingdom in contrast to that of the power of the day as well as in contrast to popular notions of messiahship which arose to oppose it.

Matthew retains the basic structure of Mark's story and its themes, including Peter's failure to understand correctly and the warning about waiting till they have experienced the full story. 16:13-20 does not include Jesus' prediction of his suffering and the rebuke of Peter; that comes in 16:21-28, next week. That passage still needs to be borne in mind, however, in interpreting 16:13-20, otherwise we may find ourselves giving the kind of impression which had been Peter's.

For Matthew the location is also Caesarea Philippi and perhaps the same shadows of imperial power or power through its local Jewish proteges of Herod's family are in mind. But in Matthew the passage is not such a turning point as it is in Mark. We saw two weeks back that they had all acclaimed him Son of God already (14:33). So Peter is reaffirming something rather than confessing for the first time. Matthew also changes Jesus' question from, 'Who do people say that I am?' (Mark 8:27) to 'Who do people say that I, the Son of Man, am?' (16:13). 'Son of Man' is a weighty title in Matthew. Matthew's Jesus assumes they have grasped all of that. So the focus of the passage lies elsewhere.

Matthew lists the same popular expectations: John the Baptist (recalling Herod Antipas's fears in 14:2), Elijah and one of the prophets. Both Elijah and a prophet like Moses were standard expectations, based on biblical predictions (Mal 4:5; Deut 18:15-20). At least such people are identifying a divine initiative in Jesus such as was promised for the climax of history. The tradition will have Jesus linked with both figures in the transfiguration vision (Mark 9:4; Matt 17:3). To these Matthew adds Jeremiah, the suffering prophet. How appropriate!

Peter gives the correct response: Jesus is the Christ (the Messiah). Matthew has expanded the tradition at this point adding: 'the son of the living God' (16:16). Jesus will be asked at his trial by Caiaphas if he is the Christ, the Son of God (26:63). While 'son of God' was a title which belonged to royalty, as Psalm 2:7 shows, in Matthew it carries richer associations of a unique relationship with God (11:27) and of Jesus' miraculous creation at conception. It is still the same as the confession of the disciples in 14:33. Peter reaffirms it.

The rest of the passages turns the attention from who Jesus is to who Peter is and this is the new emphasis which Matthew brings. Peter, Simon bar Jona (John 1:42 says, 'son of John'), can make this affirmation because of revelation from God. The passage is strikingly reminiscent of Paul's description of his call in Galatians 1:15. Not flesh and blood, but God revealed his Son to Paul. Was this a standard way of speaking of a call? Was it at some stage competitive between Peter and Paul? Were these both originally speaking about encounters with the risen Son of God (as in Paul)?

Certainly the focus is on Peter's calling and the tradition varies as to when that is described as happening: when Jesus summoned him and Andrew to be fishers of people (Mark and Matthew), after the miraculous catch of fish (at the beginning of his ministry - so Luke; after Easter: so John 21). Peter's prominence reflects doubtless his first encounter with the risen Christ (Mark 16:7; 2 Cor 15:3-5; Luke 24:34). Or was he already the leader during Jesus' earthly ministry? There is some fluidity on the issue of timing, but not about the fact of a call and its implications.

Matthew knows the tradition that Jesus gave Simon the name, 'Peter', Aramaic, 'Cephas', meaning rock. Mark had mentioned that Jesus gave Simon the name, Peter, but without explanation (3:16). The result in Matthew is a neat exchange. Peter says: You are the Christ, the son of the living God' (16:16). Jesus responds: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church (16:18). The church will be built on Peter and on all who join him in confessing Christ. The imagery of building was common for describing communities (holy temple, house of God, are other examples). The role description expands: the powers of death will not prevail against it. This may still be retaining the building metaphor and refer to the stability of the building founded on a rock (cf. 7:24-27!). Or it may have shifted to thinking of literally 'the gates' of Hades/death not holding out against the church. Certainly what is evoked is the encounter with the deep powers represented in the sea. Peter is being commissioned, the church is being commissioned to walk on water, to take the authority to exercise God's mission in the face of the powers of destruction and death in our world. 14:22-33 and 16:13-20 are closely linked (also by the confession as Son of God).

The focus on the church's role is continued in the word about the keys of the kingdom (16:19). There were traditionally in the hands of interpreters of the tradition. 23:13 accosts the scribes and Pharisees for using them to shut people out of the kingdom. Now there is to be a new body of scribes, who are to be inclusive. Binding and loosing reflects technical language and refers both to binding and releasing interpretations of law (scripture) and their consequences. We see how it might apply in particular cases in 18:15-18, where the local congregation is invested with the authority to deal with cases of discipline in the community.

So instead of the passage celebrating a turning point in recognising who Jesus is, as in Mark, it has become in Matthew a celebration of what the church is. Nothing suggests a dynasty where power is exclusively Peter's and his successors. Clearly 18:18 implies the same power is be taken and exercised by the congregation. Peter is representative, but it is significant that it is precisely Peter who represents. He was the first witness to the resurrection according to many traditions. He appears to have been chosen as a leader. He and the others are to be the church, the community, who walk on water, who bring God's compassion into confrontation with the destructive powers of life. That will sometimes mean having to say, no, having to exercise discipline within the church. The challenge to the scribes and Pharisees shows that it will be possible to abuse such authority. Next week's passage will show that it is possible for Peter to be a Satan to Christ and the gospel. History has many examples where Peter's success rate has been matched. Matthew is affirming the authority and waving in our face the dangers and the fallibility of leaders.

The foundation for such authority and confidence is that Jesus is the Christ and this cannot be appreciated until we know the whole story (16:20). The whole story portrays brokenness in compassion which God affirms by resurrection. Without the whole story (and without next week's passage) the dangers are enormous. The church has always been in danger of becoming one of the powers which we are called to confront. That reality is lived out in history - on a grand scale, but also in each of us. The will to power is very seductive, not least in ministry.

Epistle: Pentecost 11: 24 August  Romans 12:1-8

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