Like many Wisconsinites, my family has a cabin in Northern Wisconsin— “Up “North,” as we say. I recently spent some time there when I was away on vacation. I arrived at the cabin the day my older brother and his family were leaving. Before he left, my brother handed me a brown leather wallet, old and worn from its many years of use. The wallet belongs to my dad and contains the keys to the cabin. Our cabin has been in the family since my dad’s grandfather and, had it not burned down, we would probably still be using some of those original keys.
As it stands, only one key remains from our original cabin, but I still have a sense of awe and reverence when I handle that worn leather wallet. It represents our family’s history as well as a certain amount of authority and responsibility over the cabin. When my grandfather passed on the keys to my dad, he was passing on this authority and responsibility to him. My grandfather was still alive when this happened, but when he gave my dad the keys, it was now my dad’s decisions about the cabin that mattered. At some point, my dad will pass on the keys to one of us kids, presumably my oldest brother. It will then be his decisions that matter. He will be the one, both symbolically and literally, who can open and shut the cabin, giving access or denying entrance as he sees fit.
While there’s often a close connection between the first reading and gospel during the Sundays of Ordinary Time, this weekend the connection is even closer than usual. When Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven in our gospel, and gives him the authority to bind and loose, there is only one Old Testament passage to which He could possibly be alluding. That passage is Isaiah 22, which is where our first reading is taken from. And so, to understand exactly what Jesus is doing in our gospel we have to first unpack the contents of this passage.
In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah is speaking on behalf of God to this person named Shebna. God tells Shebna that he will take his office from him and give it to another person by the name of Eliakim. The office that Shebna holds, but which now will be taken from him, is that of prime minister. This is an office second only to the king in terms of authority and responsibility. When Solomon was the king, he picked eleven individuals to serve in his cabinet. These were the individuals who had the highest authority in the kingdom, and the highest among them was the prime minister. We read about this in 1 Kings 4. Solomon’s prime minister was a man by the name of Ahishar.
By the time Isaiah is speaking this prophetic word in our first reading, Solomon has died. A couple hundred years have passed, in fact, since he sat on the throne of his father, David. Hezekiah, also from the line of David, is now king. He is a righteous king, but his prime minister, Shebna, is wicked. He will therefore suffer an untimely death and his office will be taken from him, passed on to Eliakim, a more worthy successor. Hezekiah is of the house of David, and so Eliakim, his new prime minister, will be entrusted with the key of that house. This will be both a literal key, since Eliakim will literally be in charge of who comes and goes within the palace of the king, and a symbolic key, since Eliakim will have the authority and responsibility to make decisions on behalf of the king. He will have the power of opening and shutting, both literally and figuratively.
Fast-forward seven hundred years to the time of Jesus. Like Hezekiah before Him, Jesus is also from the line and house of David. Jesus is the new Davidic king. St. Matthew makes that abundantly clear from the very beginning of his gospel. In fact, the very first words of his gospel are, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David” (Mt. 1:1). As the new Davidic king, and following in the footsteps of David’s son Solomon, Jesus also establishes a cabinet of (in this case) twelve, not eleven, of his closest followers. And in Matthew 16, in our gospel today, Jesus establishes one of them—Simon whom he renames Peter—as the prime minister of his kingdom. Just as Eliakim was entrusted with the key of the house of David, and given the authority to make decisions on behalf of the king, so Peter was entrusted with the key of the kingdom of heaven, and given the authority to make decisions on behalf of Jesus. The language of “binding and loosing” to describe Peter’s authority mirrors the language of “opening and shutting” used to describe Eliakim’s authority. And, in both instances, it refers to a power to make authoritative decisions on behalf of the king and his kingdom.
Just like the prime ministers in the old Davidic kingdom, the prime ministers—or popes, we call them—in the new Davidic kingdom, which is the kingdom of Christ and His Church, have an authority which is passed down. It’s an authority which resides in the office itself, not something which dies when the one who holds the office dies. The key to the Davidic kingdom was passed down from Shebna to Eliakim; the key to the kingdom of heaven was passed down from Peter to Linus, the second pope. That key, or rather the authority and responsibility which it symbolizes, is now possessed by Pope Francis, the two-hundred and sixty-fifth successor of St. Peter.
This authority that the pope has does not guarantee his holiness. Eighty-three out of the two-hundred and sixty-five popes who are deceased have been canonized saints. That makes for a total of thirty percent who have been recognized for their heroic sanctity. That’s a pretty decent track record. But while it must be acknowledged that many of our popes have been saints, and most have been good, there have been a few rotten apples. Even Peter himself denied Jesus and did so three times. The authority that Jesus gave Peter and his successors, then, the authority He placed in the office of the papacy, is a gift. It’s a gift that does not depend on the holiness of the one who holds that office. When Peter confesses Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus says that this confession of faith is a gift from God: your “[f]lesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Peter, “but my heavenly Father.”
What does this mean for us today? On the one hand, it’s helpful to understand where the papacy can be found in the Bible—its foundation in the Old Testament and its establishment by Christ in the New Testament. This can be helpful for explaining, or defending, our Catholic faith when in dialogue with our separated brothers and sisters in Christ. The papacy is often a significant stumbling block for Orthodox or Protestants who are considering joining the Catholic Church. A proper interpretation of our gospel today in light of our first reading can often be helpful in overcoming that hurdle.
But for those who are already Catholic, an important takeaway is this: I think both in the secular world, and in the Church, we need to rediscover a respect for the office that someone holds, even if we disagree with, or have a hard time understanding, the person who holds that office. In our increasingly divided world, and in our eagerness to criticize the office-holder, we often end up disrespecting the office itself. This happens on both sides of the political aisle; it happens as well among those who unfortunately adopt the political language of our day and age and identify as either conservative or liberal Catholics. We should refer to our political leaders as President Trump or President Biden, and our religious leaders as Pope Benedict or Pope Francis. The title is a sign of respect for the office, not a sign that we like every aspect of the human individual who holds that office.
The good news for us as Catholics, is while the office of President of the United States has an authority which comes from “We the People,” and can therefore be altered or even abolished by the consent of “We the People,” the office of the papacy has an authority which comes directly from God. It is not something that can be altered or abolished—not by the pope who happens to be holding the office, nor by we, the members of the Church, whom he governs and shepherds. It’s a divine institution, not merely a human one, and it certainly deserves our respect, even if not every pope is as perfect or as holy as we might wish him to be. Amen.