Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (27 August 2023)

Gospel for the Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (27 August 2023)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM

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).

Introductory notes


Matthew draws on Mark 8:27-30. Luke’s account – 9:18-21 – also draws on Mark.

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 of Peter: “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. Thus “the rock” finds a counterpoint in “the stumbling block” and the words from “my Father in heaven” find a counterpoint in “not God’s way but man’s”.


Caesarea-Philippi: A region north of Jerusalem, near the sources of the Jordan River.

the Son of Man: Neither Mark nor Luke use this expression. They move straight to the “say who I am”. The term, ‘Son of Man’, has currency beyond any references to Jesus: “(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.) Daniel Harrington notes: “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.)

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 Matthew 15:22. One of the great ironies of the Gospels is that so many unlikely folk – and even demons – recognize Jesus as the Christ but those who should recognize him – namely the scholars and teachers – do not. The religious authorities either do not recognize the 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 ekklēsia. 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. We find such a usage in the account of St Paul’s dispute with the silversmith Demetrius in Ephesus – see Acts 19:23-41. In verses 32 and 39 there is a reference to the ekklēsia – that is the public gathering or assembly that was called to deal with the dispute. So, when Paul addresses the community in Corinth, urging them to maintain some decorum in their worship, he speaks of the times “when you come together as ekklēsia” (1 Corinthians 11:18). Paul seems to be adapting the word ekklēsia here, drawing on the common usage with which the Corinthians would have been very familiar, and pointing to the emergence of a new usage to match the new reason for gathering.

In the Old Testament, however, the Septuagint uses the word ekklēsia in a distinctively religious way to translate the Hebrew qāhāl Yahweh: “(In the Septuagint) the word describes an assembly convened for a religious act, often of worship (vg Dt 23; 1Kings 8; Psalm 22:26). It corresponds to the Hebrew qāhāl which is used especially by the Deuteronomic school to describe the assembly at Horeb (vg Dt 4:10), on the steppes of Moab (Deuteronomy 31:30), or in the promised land (vg Joshua 8:35 and Judges 20:2). It is also used by the Chronicler (vg 1 Chronicles 21:8 and Nehemiah 8:2) to describe the liturgical assembly of Israel during the time of the Kings or after the Exile. But if ekklēsia always translates qāhāl, this latter word is at times rendered by other words, particularly by synagoôgē (vg Numbers 16:3, 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:22), which more often translates the sacerdotal word ēdāh. Church and synagogue are two almost synonymous terms (cf James 2:2); they will not be opposed in meaning until the Christians will appropriate the first for themselves and reserve the second for the obstinate Jews. The choice of ekklēsia by the Septuagint was doubtless influenced by the assonance qāhāl ekklēsia, but also by the etymological influences. Ekklēsia comes from ekkaleô (“I call from”, “I convoke”; of itself, it indicates that Israel, the people of God, was the assembly convoked by divine initiative. And it recalled a sacerdotal express in which the idea of call was expressed: klētē hagia, the literal translation of miqra qodes, “religious assembly” (Exodus 12:16, Leviticus 23:3 and Numbers 29:1).” (“Church” in Xavier Léon-Dufour SJ, editor, Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Geoffrey Chapman, 1972, 58-59.)

The Greek word ekklēsia is used on one other occasion in Matthew – see 18:17.

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.)

In Acts 2:27 and 31, Peter is quoting Psalm 16:8-11(LXX). Joseph Fitzmyer writes: “What appears in v 27 is crucial. Psalm 16 is a lament, actually a psalm of personal trust in God; it expresses the psalmist’s faith in God’s power to deliver from evil and personal troubles, as he calls upon God to recall his constant seeking of refuge in divine help and makes renewed recognition of that help. As Peter makes use of it in his speech, it is applied to the risen Christ’s exaltation” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: a new translation with introduction and commentary, New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 256). Fitzmyer continues, commenting specifically on v 27: “The important words are ‘the netherworld’ (hadēs), ‘your holy one’ (ton hosion sou), and ‘decay’ (diaphthora), which Peter applies from the Davidic psalm to the risen Christ, who is the preeminent ‘holy One’, whose status is not in the netherworld, and who has not experienced decay” (Ibid).

Who am I? 

In today’s Gospel – Matthew 16:13-20 – Jesus asks his disciples some leading questions about his identity. First of all: What do the people say? Then: What do you say? There is a threefold movement evident here. The first movement is the basic process of self-realization that Jesus himself is going through – and presumably has reached some level of maturity. The second movement is that which takes place within the consciousness of the disciples – and presumably is still in its very early stages. The third movement is that which takes place in all human growth to maturity, from seeming to being. 

Consider the first movement. We probably find it difficult to maintain our belief in both the divinity and, at the same time, the humanity of Jesus. Central to being human, is a developing consciousness of who I am. It is heresy to hold that Jesus, as a baby, knows exactly who he is. This developing consciousness – in all of us – typically goes hand in hand with a growing sense of vocation. My vocation is simply – but with much trial and error, commitment and grace – the emergence of who I am. Herein lies the greatest of our triumphs as a human being, to become who and what we are, even if it means going where we would rather not go. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). 

Consider the second movement. The disciples are slowly – very slowly! – awakening to the true identity of Jesus. For all of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus, the discovery of who he is leads to the discovery of who I am. But this is not a one-off event. Disciples are always beginning to become disciples. Discipleship is lifelong learning, discovery, surprise, freedom and ever-expanding horizons. It is a work of facilitation rather than mastery. Our deepest longing is to become who and what God has made us to be. This comes to fruition in the life of the Community of Love we call God. In this, both living and dying find their full meaning. 

Consider the third movement. Living is graced emergence. Slowly, by our cooperation with the grace of God, we leave behind the seeming that society can promote and our fears can prompt us to embrace. There is a Hasidic saying that captures the challenge of this well: “The Hasidic master, Rebbe Mendel of Kotzk said: ‘If I am I because I am I and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you’” (Cited by Abraham Twerski, Successful Relationships at Home, at Work and with Friends: Bringing Issues Under Control, Shaar Press, 2003, 89). Becoming who and what I am is a journey through the peaks and valleys, deserts and meadows of human existence. Do I want it?

Fr Michael Whelan SM – Homily for the Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) 27 August 2023