Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Twenty First Sunday (27 August 2017)

Gospel for the Twenty First Sunday (27 August 2017)

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13-20 – NRSV)

Introductory notes


Matthew and Luke 9:18-21 depend on Mark 8:27-30.

Matthew makes some minor changes to Mark’s account – “Most of Matthew’s changes in his Markan source are minor editorial touches.” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 249.) For example he adds the Prophet Jeremiah to the popular guesses about Jesus’ identity.

Both Luke and Matthew keep Mark’s affirmation by Peter – “You are the Christ” – on behalf of the other disciples.

Matthew does however expand on the role Peter has: “The major change is the expansion of Peter’s confession in 16:16b–19. This material has no parallel in Mark or in any other Gospel source. By inserting it into his Markan source Matthew has altered the flow of the story. Whereas in Mark Peter’s confession is rejected or at least corrected, in Matthew it serves as the basis for Jesus’ blessing of Peter. The focus on Peter as the one who gets involved when problems emerge is typically Matthean (see Matt 15:15; 17:24–27; 18:21–22). In this text Peter is praised as the recipient of a divine revelation (16:17), called the foundation of the Church (16:18), and given special authority (16:19).” (Daniel J Harington, op cit, 249-250.) This expanded role affirmed in Peter also makes the following verses – in which Jesus rebukes Peter – particularly significant.


Caesarea-Philippi: A region north of Jerusalem, near the sources of the Jordan River. Click here for map of Palestine.

the Son of Man: Neither Mark nor Luke use this expression. They move straight to the “say who I am”. “Here Matthew uses ‘Son of Man’ as a way of talking about Jesus. It functions as a title connected with the many other instances of ‘Son of Man’ in the Gospel, not as a generic term or simply as a personal pronoun.” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 247.) “(Son of Man) is a Semitic expression that typically individualizes a noun for humanity in general by prefacing it with ‘son of’, thus designating a specific human being, a single member of the human species. Its meaning can be as indefinite as ‘someone’ or ‘a certain person’. Used in Dan 7:13–14 to describe a cloud-borne humanlike figure, the expression—or at least the figure so designated in Daniel—became traditional in some forms of Jewish and early Christian speculation which anticipated a transcendent eschatological agent of divine judgment and deliverance. In the NT that agent is almost universally identified with the risen Jesus.” (G W E Nickelsburg, “Son of Man” in D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 6), New York: Doubleday, 1992, 137.)

Messiah: Peter names Jesus quite explicitly as the “Messiah”. The Greek word is Christos. The title has already been used on three occasions in Matthew – see 1:1 & 16-18 and 11:2. But this is the first time that one of the disciples uses the term of Jesus. Recall a similar naming of Jesus by the Canaanite woman in last Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 15:22). The religious authorities either do not recognize this truth about Jesus or are unwilling to acknowledge it if they do.

Simon son of Jonah: Scholars cannot agree on the origin of the naming of Simon Bar-Jonah as “Peter”. The naming is also found in John 1:42, Luke 6:14 and Mark 3:16. “Peter” is the English translation of the Greek Petros which is a pun on the word for “rock”, petra. It seems that this was not used as a name for a person before this.

church: The English word “church” here translates the Greek ekklesia. It was a commonly used word at the time to designate a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly. The word is used on one other occasion in Matthew – see 18:17. This usage by the first (Jewish) Christians continues today to name that gathering or assembling of people, drawn together through Word and Sacrament.

the gates of Hades: “Hades was a Greek god whose name means ‘the unseen one’. The Greek word was used to translate Hebrew terms for the underworld or Sheol. In Acts 2:27, 31 it refers to the abode of the dead; for the gates of Sheol see Isa 38:10. The idea in Matt 16:18 is that death and other powers opposed to God will not triumph over the Church (= assembly) of Jesus’ disciples.” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 248.)


We are made in the image and likeness of God – see Genesis 1:27. And God is “revealed” to Moses as “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). Thus we can say that the “I AM” is potentially manifest in each of us. There is more. Something else is “revealed” in that encounter between Moses and God: “You shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’”. Can we not say that of ourselves? Our very existence is a “being sent”, and it is “I AM” who sends us. “I am” is a unique expression of the “I AM”!

When any of us says “I am”, we are actually pointing to a profound truth – whether we realize it or not. It is the deepest truth of who we are and why we are here. Sadly, we are all prone – especially in our contemporary individualistic culture – to appropriate the “I am” in a self-centered way. “I am” points, not to me, but to God.

A healthy human environment should enable me to become aware of the profound truth about myself. Every explicit or implicit statement of “You are” by other people, ideally should, in some small way at least, affirm who and what “I am”. Every encounter with people, events and things, is ideally an opportunity for me, in some small way at least, to hear at greater depth the “I AM” echoing in my “I am”. In this way I become who “I am”. In this way I gradually become aware of the truth that “I AM has sent me”.

Jesus gradually discovered what it meant to say “I am”. We glimpse this in the incident described in today’s Gospel. He asks the disciples: “Who do you say I am?” Peter responds on behalf of the disciples: “You are the Messiah (The Christ)”. This is not a definition or a job description or just another name. This is rather an acclamation. Jesus is recognized as the Anointed One, the Presence of the “I AM” promised from of old.

Jesus then turns to Peter and draws him further into a deepening awareness of his own “I am” and how that manifests the mystery of the “I AM”: “You are Peter”. The Greek word translated as “Peter” is Petros meaning “rock”. No one was ever called “rock” in the Jewish world. Jesus is using the metaphor to open for Peter a new and much deeper awareness of who he is and why he has been sent. It is only much later, in the face of the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus after his death, that Peter begins to comprehend it all. And so he comes alive!

Take some time this week to imagine yourself in that group of disciples. See Jesus look you in the eye and hear him ask you the question: “Who do you say I am?” Then hear him speak your name: “You are …. ” Sit in silence and listen with the ear of your heart.