Matthew 16: 13-20
The reading from the prophet Isaiah that we hear at mass today: “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open” is the lyrical muse for the beautiful antiphon “O Clavis David…” which the Church sings in the divine office every Advent, on December twentieth. This antiphon accompanies the Marian hymn known as the Magnificat and is intended to remind us—sung as it is in anticipation of the Nativity—that the promises of God whose fulfillment has been awaited since the time of King David are brought to completion in Jesus Christ.
The image of a key takes on a different yet compatible form in the famous passage of the gospel where Christ conveys to Peter the “power of the keys”: the key of David becomes the key to the Kingdom of Heaven.
In his gospel St. Matthew describes how Jesus reveals to Peter that he will be entrusted with “the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven” and that whatever Peter “the rock” judges will be upheld in the Kingdom. The Church has traditionally seen in these words the basis of the authority of Peter and his successors, the Popes, in the Church, just as Eliakim held authority in Jerusalem and Judah in the days of old.
Authority calls for obedience, which admittedly can be difficult. But obedience, properly understood, has nothing to do with weakness or lowliness, nor does authority, properly understood, have to do with superiority or domineering attitudes.
After all, our Lord himself as a young man was obedient to his parents (Luke 2:51). In the course of his ministry he instructed his disciples to their amazement: “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). And finally he proved his obedience definitively when “he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
Perhaps the Rule of St. Benedict, which I try to follow as a monk, can help us capture the essence of true authority and obedience.
In his chapter on obedience Benedict tells his readers that genuine obedience springs ultimately from love. One who loves naturally desires to give of himself or herself to the beloved in a fruitful relationship; thus the one who loves always respects and values the beloved as much as himself or herself: there is no room on either side of such a rapport for arrogant superiority or the false humility of self-abasement.
When authority and the obedience which responds to it both operate consciously on the basis of Christ-like love, then there is no place for the mistaken ideas of authority which often hold sway in our secular society and which suggest that a struggle to maintain power is necessarily part of the exercise of authority.
Jesus himself made this clear, telling his disciples: “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant…” (Matthew 20:25-26).
We go forth from mass this Sunday strengthened for our roles in the Christian mission of bringing all to newness of life in Jesus. This involves both the proper exercise of authority and the obedient acceptance of it.
Let it be our prayer that all the ministers who follow in the footsteps of Peter in holding the authority of the keys to the Kingdom, from Pope Francis to the parish priest in his confessional, will keep in mind St. Benedict’s wisdom and use the authority entrusted to them to unlock the gates of the Kingdom for all who believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of David.
Fr. Edward Mazich, O.S.B.