Daniel J. Harrington
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time (A), Aug. 24, 2008
“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18)

For many years the Prudential Insurance Company of America has used as its logo a sketch of the Rock of Gibraltar. The image conveys stability, strength and permanence. It suggests that the company will be around for a long time and that its clients can rely on its promises.

Today’s reading from Matthew 16 identifies Simon Peter as the rock upon which Christ’s church is to be built. The image appears in a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples. When Jesus asks, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” the disciples give various answers. When he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In turn Jesus declares Peter to be “blessed” for having recognized his true identity and attributes this recognition to a divine revelation.

Then Jesus addresses Simon by what seems to have been the nickname “Peter” (Cepha in Aramaic and Petros in Greek, meaning “Rocky”) and promises to build his church on this “rock” (also cepha in Aramaic and petra in Greek), which will overcome all the evil forces arrayed against it. The idea is that the church built on Peter will be a place of stability, strength and permanence.

In many respects Peter was an unlikely symbol of stability. While he was one of the first disciples called and served as the spokesman for the group, Peter is also the exemplar of “little faith” in Matthew 14, will soon be called “Satan” by Jesus and will eventually deny Jesus three times. What apparently would transform “Rocky” into “the Rock” was his encounter with the risen Jesus. That encounter made Peter into a fearless preacher of the Gospel and a martyr willing to die for his faith in Jesus. In light of the Easter event, then, Peter became an exemplar of the forgiven sinner and the rock on which Christ’s church will stand.

If God could make the impulsive, wavering Simon into Peter the rock of stability, then surely God can transform any of us. Peter’s startling transformation reminds us that the crucified and risen Jesus is the ultimate source of Christian hope, and that therefore there is hope for us all.

Today’s excerpt from Romans 11 is a joyous and celebratory prayer in its own right. In its New Testament context, it concludes Paul’s lengthy meditation on the mystery of Israel. It was Paul’s way of saying, “Now I understand it!” Paul had come to see that the acceptance of the Gospel about Jesus by Jews like himself fulfilled God’s promises about the remnant, and that its acceptance by Gentiles was evidence of God’s mercy. Paul was also convinced that in God’s own time and way non-Christian Israel still has a role in salvation history. Paul expressed his “eureka” experience in Rom 11:25-26: “a hardening has come upon Israel in part, until the full number of Gentiles comes in, and thus all Israel will be saved.” This was the insight that moved Paul to his exuberant affirmation of God’s mercy.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry (formerly Weston Jesuit School of Theology) in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Readings: 
Readings: Is 22:19-23; Ps 138:1-3, 6, 8; Rom 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20
Prayer: 

• What ironies are involved in Jesus’ calling Simon the “rock”?

• When and how did Peter become the rock on which the church is built?

• Read Paul’s allegory of the olive tree in Rom 11:17-24. How does it express Paul’s great discovery about God’s plan?