The passage from the prophet Isaiah begins with the firing of Shebna as Master of the Palace of the King of Israel. “I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station.”
Scripture describes that the King of Israel had a “Master of the Palace,” what historians have described as a prime minister of sorts, to whom all high governmental officials reported. The Master of the Palace held the “keys” which were a symbol of authority over the entire royal palace. This key symbolized his authority to open and close doors to whomever he wished.
Shebna was fired because as Master of the Palace, he decided to build a grand tomb for himself overlooking the city of Jerusalem. He used the power given to him for personal reasons, rather than for the service of the King and Kingdom of Israel.
As Shebna leaves, Eliakin is named Master of the Palace. Isaiah writes of Eliakin, “He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem… 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. I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot.”
Eliakin is given the keys to the kingdom, and his position is fixed like a peg – he is going nowhere.
Why is this structure in the Kingdom of Israel important for us to understand? The importance of the Master of the Palace? The authority given to him by the King? His power symbolized by the keys? And that his power strongly fixed like a peg?
Listen carefully again to the words of Jesus to Peter in the Gospel of Matthew, “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. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
These words of Jesus to Peter do not happen in a void – they have a historical context. Jesus, the descendent of King David who has come into the world to restore the Kingdom of Israel, appoints a Master of the Palace. This is what the apostles and early Christians would have understood by Jesus speaking of the key, and opening and closing.
Peter is given the keys of the kingdom, and told that he has the authority to open and close the doors of the kingdom. His name is changed from Simon to Peter, which means rock in Greek, to assure us that his position is sturdy and long lasting, like a peg in a sure spot.
Peter, the disciple whose faith wobbled when Jesus asked him to step out of the boat into the water, Peter, the disciple who denied Jesus three times, Peter, the disciple who oftentimes spoke out of turn, is chosen to be the first among the apostles.
The apostles went throughout the world preaching and teaching what they had learned, and as the apostles died, they appointed successors who would continue to lead the church. Saint Peter eventually made it to Rome, where he was martyred by the Vatican Hill, and his successors remained in Rome. The Pope today, as Bishop of Rome, is the direct successor of Saint Peter, and for this reason we still regard him as the keeper of the keys – the Master of the Palace for God’s Kingdom on earth – the Church.
The authority given to Peter was to be a custodian of the teachings of the Church and to shepherd God’s flock. To be a visible leader that would remind all the faithful that we are truly one in Christ – and to forge bonds of unity among all those who believe. To be a reconciler, a mediator, a gatherer of those who are scattered.
We have seen throughout history, that some successors of Saint Peter have been like Shebna from the first reading; they abused the power they received for personal benefit, but at the same time, other successors of Peter have been exemplary men, even saints.
Pope Francis is the 266th Successor of Peter. After 2,000 years, he continues to hold the keys of Peter. Eliakin’s mandate was fixed like a peg, Peter’s authority was built on a sturdy rock, and that mandate continues today. The Pope has the power to loosen or tie things here on earth as the Holy Spirit guides the church through history. The Pope provides a living link between us and the apostles, and of course to Christ.
We pray today for the health and intentions of Pope Francis. He holds the keys which lead us to Christ, and therefore we owe him our respect and obedience. We are 1.3 billion Catholics in the world, and he stands as witness to the oneness that we share in Christ. What a blessing that we not only have a Good Shepherd in heaven to whose flock we belong, but that he has given us one shepherd, Peter, so that we can physically be gathered into one flock on earth.
Saint Peter, pray for us.
Saint Andrew, pray for us.
Picture from the public domain.