Matthew 16:13-20 is Sunday’s lectionary Gospel. I set out to make just a few brief observations. It has been one of those pandemic weeks when I found myself simply running on empty. I suspect you know the feeling.
I’ll pray for you, and hope you’ll do the same for me.
In the end, because the text always does this to me, I seem to have written a rather long meditation.
On the 12th Sunday after Pentecost we jump into the middle of Matthew 16, skipping the stories that put this brief conversation between Jesus and the disciples in context. We’ll just have to remind ourselves.
- Jesus had an argument with the Pharisees who asked for a sign. (He turned them down.)
- When they left, Jesus warned his disciples about “the yeast of the Pharisees.”
- His disciples got worried because they forgot to bring any bread to eat.
- Jesus did a verbal face palm, because “yeast” was a metaphor, and they knew he could feed thousands by miracle.
1. Questions of Identity
The first part of Matthew 16:13-20 is a very familiar pair of questions — which I think I’ve always previously misread.
The questions in my memory
In my memory Matthew 16:13-20 goes like this:
- Question 1: Jesus first asks who the people say that he is
- Answer 1: Some biblical prophet risen from the dead.
- Question 2: Jesus asks who the disciples think he is.
- Answer 2: The Messiah.
Message: The crowd hadn’t realized yet who Jesus was, but Peter, for one, got it right.
First of all, the idea that the people in general thought Jesus was Elijah or Jeremiah back from the dead is… well let’s say it’s odd. Probably unlikely.
Today I notice that something else is going on here.
The questions in the text
Here’s question 1 from the text:
Who do people say that
the Son of Man is?
Matthew 16:13 NRSV
My recollection was right about the first part of the question: Jesus is asking about the general public opinion.
There is something else going on in the second part, though. He asks who people think “the Son of Man” is.
That’s a term Jesus borrowed from prophetic and apocalyptic texts. In over a dozen Old Testament contexts the “son of man” is a mysterious, symbolic identification. It’s part of complicated pictures of God bringing salvation to Israel and the world.
Jesus refers to “the Son of Man” some 30 times in Matthew. You and I read those passages and we think “He’s talking about himself.” But look up those 30 references and try to imagine what people at the time were hearing. It isn’t so clear.
- Sometimes it seems to be about himself — but even then it is really weird, since he would be talking about himself in the third person, almost as if talking about someone else.
- Sometimes it seems more like he’s referring back to the OT apocalyptic and prophetic texts, saying something about how they will (someday? now?) be fulfilled.
The Son of Man?
With that ambiguity in mind, Matthew 16:13-20 sounds more like Jesus is fishing for something. Sort of like,
Who do people say that the Son of Man is? You know, that strange figure in the prophets? Are people talking about apocalyptic figures at all around here?
Here’s their wrong answer:
The Son of Man might be one of the prophets? Maybe Elijah or Jeremiah risen from the dead?
Here’s the answer Jesus hoped for:
YOU Jesus! People think YOU are the Son of Man!
Conclusion: The crowd has not yet figured out that Jesus’ convoluted references to the Son of Man refer to himself.
Contrast question 2:
But who do you
say that I am?
Matthew 16:15 NRSV
Okay, he says, forget about the crowd. Let’s come at it from the opposite direction.
Jesus wants to know whether his disciples are tracking with his message and his work. Are they figuring out who he is?
Expected okay answer: “We think you are the Son of Man.” That would have gotten an “A” in disciple school.
Peter’s even better answer:
You are the Messiah,
the Son of the living God.”
Matthew 16:16 NRSV
Go to the head of the class, Peter. A+.
I think that reading the conversation this way is something worth spending some time on. Jesus is wondering whether anyone out there is taking in the biblical use of the name “Son of Man” and comparing his words and deeds and coming to the right conclusion.
Who does anyone say the “Son of Man” is? Is anybody out there getting it right?
2. The Rock
Jesus is over the moon about Peter’s answer. This guy Simon has hit the nail on the head. His faith is hard as a rock. So let’s call Simon, son of Jonah, “Cephas,” that is, “Peter,” i.e. “The Rock.”
If he were Norwegian, he’d have gone down through history as Rocky Jonasson. (That’s “Johnson” in John’s Gospel.)
His response has led to three rather wild misinterpretations of the various parts of Matthew 16:13-20.
First, is a misinterpretation of Jesus’ riff on the idea of Peter and his rock hard faith.
…and on this rock
I will build my church…
In the West, until the Reformation, (and still in the Roman Catholic Church,) this came to be understood as Jesus building the Church on Peter personally as the leader among the apostles, and in his office and the first bishop of the capital city of the empire, Rome.
From this came the idea that the successive bishops of Rome, eventually designated (like other major bishops back in the day) as “Popes”, were forever the heirs of Peter’s authority as the rock on which the Church was built.
I’m not going to convince anybody who believes that this is the case. Still, it does not seem the most likely interpretation.
I think the Reformers of the 16th century were on a better line of thinking when they took it to be a reference not to Peter’s personal authority, but to his faith. On such faith the Church is indeed built.
Reformation polemics aside, there is an important word here for the 21st century Protestants and post-Protestants who think that the whole idea of the Church is a human creation, a relic better left behind.
Thousands, it seems, of what we used to call congregations of the Church now want to think of themselves as simply worshipping communities. Some have more ties to larger Church bodies, and some have really none at all. But claiming to be part of the Church is far from the fashion.
Here, in this conversation, Jesus lets us know that his intention was, in fact, to build the Church. We dare not leave it behind. We must, however, strive with all our might to make it faithful to his call and vision.
3. The Keys
The second notable misinterpretation has to do with the “keys.” It is mostly a relic of the past, and an outgrowth of the first. Jesus says Peter gets
…the keys of the kingdom of heaven…”
Matthew 16:19 NRSV
This comes with the authority to “bind” and “loose” things on earth and in heaven.
Personally, I read this alongside the other verses where we are told that sins we forgive are forgiven in heaven, and vice versa.
Treasury of merits
In the Middle Ages, however, the Church came to the rather extended conclusion that Peter, and his successor bishops of Rome, were the personal holders of the keys of “the treasury of merits.” This was a spiritual stockpile of all the good that Jesus and the saints had done beyond what was needed for their own salvation.
The Popes could unlock this treasure chest, and make use of it to help others on the journey to salvation.
Thus the idea of “indulgences” about which Luther had 95 important things to say.
If you committed sins, the eternal penalty was forgiven by Christ when you confessed, but there was also a “temporal” or earthly penalty to be paid. If you died before it was paid, you went to purgatory till your account was cleared.
So… If you had not done enough acts of virtue to deal with the earthly penalty for your sins, then the Pope could, by the power of the keys, make a withdrawal — an indulgence — from the treasury of merits, and pay your bill.
Out of purgatory you would go, straight to heaven.
4. The Gates of Hades
I’ll close with what I think of as a very common, but rather subtler, modern Protestant misinterpretation of Matthew 16:13-20.
Jesus said the Church would be built on Peter and his rock hard faith,
and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Matthew 16:18 NRSV
I may be wrong about this, but when people talk about this verse it always sounds like they think that the “rock” here is a defensive structure, keeping believers safe and secure against the assaults of the devil and his minions.
But that is not how the metaphor works.
If the rock of faith keeps us from the assaults of hell, this verse gives us the picture of a bunch of gates zooming up from hell to whack us over the head.
No no no.
This is a statement about the Church in mission.
We, with faith like a rock, are supposed to be storming hell, seeking to bring out all who are held in torment by the devil’s chains.
We’re supposed be like the soldiers with the battering ram in the picture at top, trying to rescue those oppressed by sin and its servants.
We are supposed to be smashing the gates of hell, knocking them down.
And Jesus says that the gates of hell are nowhere near strong enough to stop us.
But, alas, we do not really want to storm the gates of hell. We want the Church to give us comfortable middle class lives, ideally behind the iron bars of a modern gated community.
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