Today’s passage from Matthew 16:13-20 is a passage the church has fought over for centuries. For the Roman Catholic Church, this text illustrates why Peter (and his spiritual descendants – the Popes) are central to church leadership. Martin Luther disagreed, seeing Peter’s confession (“You are the Messiah”) as the true cornerstone of all church leadership. There is also debate over what the “keys” actually are. Is this passage an invitation for the spiritual leaders of the church to decide who gets forgiveness and who doesn’t? Is this a passage letting us tell other people “I’ll pray for you” as a way to be passive aggressive with other people? Can priests, pastors, and Christians actually claim who are true Christians and who are not? It’s a powerful passage that has inspired debates and schisms for 2000 years. We should remember the history of interpretation because it shows how the interpretation of this passages changes depending on our cultural, historical, and political context. This passage invites us to remember why we need the Holy Spirit to open up God’s word for us because what the Holy Spirit gives us might not match, 100%, with what came before it.
When I look at scripture, I spend time putting it into context. Where does this passage appear in the wider story? What message is the author trying to get across? And what would the original hearers actually hear? A big part of my interpretation process also involves real estate. Location matters and location plays a big role in what Jesus is saying today.
The city of Caesarea Philippi was at the edge of northern Galilee, the tip of Israel’s ancient homeland. In Jesus’ day the city was new but the location wasn’t. For hundreds of years a temple located at the city site was dedicated to the Greek god Pan. The temple sat next to a large spring that provided water for the Jordan River. Over time, the temple complex grew. Images of Pan and other pagan gods were carved on the rocky hill behind the spring. When the city was finally established a few years after Jesus’ birth, the city became very Roman. Even it’s name, Caesarea Philippi honors the Roman Emperor – Caesar. This was a city that treated the Roman Emperors as gods.The rocky hill behind the spring was soon the Mt. Rushmore of the area, including images of Pan and the Roman Emperors as a sign of what was the rock, the foundation, of the wider world.
Today’s passage takes place with Jesus, Peter, and the other disciples overshadowed by images of the Roman emperor and Greek gods. It’s under the watchful eye of these rocks when Jesus calls Peter his rock. We can argue about the details of Jesus’ command to him mean but we shouldn’t ignore the impact such words would have made. Peter’s confession is a direct refutation of the government surrounding him. Jesus tells Peter that he will be a leader of a different kind of kingdom. These words are revolutionary words. They are powerful words. And they are words that remind us that no government on earth can be seen as the end all, be all, of the kingdom of God. Instead, Jesus’ followers are invited to see the world as it is, a place that struggles with sin, injustice, inequality, and power, but live as if Jesus makes the difference that we know he does.
Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 12th Sunday After Pentecost, 8/27/2017.