21st Sunday A
Sunday 27th August 2023
The Gospel Paraphrased
There are many fine translations of the Gospels readily available. This paraphrase is not meant to replace them. Rather the intention here is to offer a more contemporary rendering so that you can imaginatively translate the Gospel in your own situation.
This Sunday's Gospel Paraphrased
After having discussed his criticism of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, an area filled with pagan places. Here he questioned the disciples:
‘What are the people saying about me and who the Son of Man is?’
They said: ‘Some say he was John the Baptist, others say Elijah. Other people say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’
‘And you, who do you say I am’, he asked.
Peter answered: ‘You are the Christ, the anointed one, the Son of the Living God.’
Jesus said to him: ‘Simon, son of Jonah, you are truly blessed. That knowledge hasn’t come to you from human understanding, rather my Father in heaven, has revealed it to you. Now I am saying to you: You are Peter and, on this rock, I will build my church and the powers of evil and death will never overcome it. In giving you the keys of the kingdom of heaven I am making you my steward. You are to interpret the Law of God for the people. What you allow, God will allow. What you don’t allow, God will not allow.’
Jesus then strictly ordered the disciples to tell no-one that he was the Christ.
The Psalms are the ancient prayers of the Jewish people, here paraphrased into contemporary language.
This Sunday's Psalm
With all my heart I acclaim you, O God,
before all, I sing to you.
I worship in your holy temple,
praising your kindness and faithfulness.
Your name is beyond all imagining.
When I called, you answered.
You made me brave,
strengthening my spirit
Even though exalted, God looks after the lowly,
The proud, God recognises even at a distance.
God’s kindness is with me always.
O God, never let go of your creation!
Words cannot contain our desire for God but they help direct our minds and hearts towards God's love and express our needs.
This Sunday's Prayer
Loving God, you have given us the gift of your Son, Jesus. Send us the wisdom of your Spirit that we may truly allow Jesus to be Saviour in our lives. May we listen to his words of love to us and accept the gift that he gives to us. We ask this in his name confident that you will hear us.
The Commentaries Summarised
As a Church we are in a web of wisdom that comes to us both from tradition and contemporary writers. This section offers a summary of some commentaries on the Gospel. Also below is a list of the books and articles that have been consulted in compiling this Sunday's "Pray As You Can" and which could be used for further reading.
This Sunday's Commentary
This section marks a turning point in Matthew’s Gospel. Up till now Jesus has been teaching the crowds the mystery of the Kingdom in the face of growing hostility from the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus now withdraws with the disciples to begin forming them into his ‘church’.
The first issue Jesus raises is his identity. His initial question, as it is written in the Greek, seems to be two questions rolled into one. “Who do people say I am, who do people say the Son of Man is?” The ‘Son of Man’ was a concept that had come into Jewish thinking relatively recently. This figure was seen as a heavenly deliverer who could accomplish what ordinary humans could not. The understanding of this person was nebulous but there was a sense that the ‘Son of Man’ would bring extraordinary change, even salvation. The disciples say that the people have been suggesting he was John the Baptist or one of the prophets. Just what they meant by this is unclear: were these to be ‘reincarnated’, was Jesus the carrier of their spirit? The answer has all the hallmarks of religious confusion.
Then comes the second question – directed straight to them: “Who do you say I am?” Peter’s reply is clear, succinct and full of mystery. While he and the disciples had previously understood elements of Jesus’ identity, now through the wisdom given him by the Father, Peter recognises Jesus’ role as Messiah and who he is in relation to the Father. The hopes of the people are joined to the extraordinary gift of the living God – his Son. Jesus’ response stresses that this understanding is a divine-given gift that marks Peter as truly blessed. Now Jesus gives Peter a new identity that is integral in his ‘church’. This identity is based on his faith.
The term ‘gates of the underworld’ was another idea new to Jewish thinking and can be interpreted as death, or even evil. The terms ‘binding’ and ‘loosening’ need to be seen in contrast to what the scribes and Pharisees had been doing. They had had the role of interpreting the Law for the people but had effectively been cutting people off from God. Peter now is given this role of interpretation and it is to be used at the service of the people. Matthew wrote probably 20 years after Peter’s death and this text witnesses to a clear tradition of Peter’s role in the early church. The book of Acts also portrays him as the leader of the Church, interpreting the signs of God’s salvation, especially in relation to the Gentiles (see Acts 2:14; 10:34ff, Acts 15: 7ff).
Jesus closes this exchange between himself and Peter with the clear injunction to silence. Neither Peter nor the disciples really understood the revelation they had just received. They would need far more teaching from Jesus and indeed the gift of the Spirit before they would be ready to witness to the mystery revealed to them.
Christian conversion is promoted by conversation. This section is a response to and a development on the knowledge gained from the commentary section.
This Sunday's Exposition
This Sunday’s Gospel has had a profound influence on the development of the Catholic church of the West, providing a scriptural basis for its style of church structure. (It would be interesting to explore how the Orthodox Churches interpret this text.) Across all four Gospels, there is a consistent primacy given to Peter, and the centralised system of the Catholic Church bases its justification for the papacy primarily on this text. Therefore, it is important for us to look at the dynamic of Jesus’ choice of Peter.
Here, Jesus takes the nickname of Simon, son of Jonah, that is ‘Peter’ and says that is the role Simon Peter will play in the Church he is founding. This name we would translate as ‘Rocky’. So far in this Gospel we have nothing to show that Peter was rock-like in personality: impetuous, passionate, curious, yes, but nothing solid and dependable. In fact, he sank like a stone when his faith failed as he tried to walk to Jesus across the water. Yet Jesus says he will build his church on this man. Later in the Gospels and Acts, we see that Peter continues to struggle with the weaknesses of his personality but Jesus’ choice of him as leader remains constant. When Jesus chose to build his Church on the weak, and great, Peter, he revealed how deeply God was committed to our humanity.
Down the centuries, the Church, and its leaders, has often shown this mixture of weaknesses and greatness. No matter how low we may have sunk, and one has only to look at the history of the Papacy in the 11th century to be appalled at the depths to which people can go, God has remained faithful and has continued to work through our weak and broken humanity. In Jesus’ choice of Peter, I see a sign of hope for each of us individually, and all of us, together as Church. God knows our weakness but in love remains ever faithful.
Reflection is an essential element of our growth in Christ. As we reflect over what we have learnt and ponder it in our hearts, we come to recognise the presence of God in our lives.
This Sunday's Reflection
The question that Jesus asked of his disciples, ‘Who do you say I am?’ is an important question for each of us. Faith is a close personal relationship with Jesus. When Jesus asked the question, ‘Who do people say I am?’, the disciples had a variety of ready answers, but when he has asked, ‘Who do you say I am?’, they had to look deep within their hearts to find the answer. It was right that one alone answered, for even though we are immersed in the community of the Church, our response in faith is personal and intimate, heart speaking to heart. The Father gave to Peter recognition of who Jesus was so that he might respond in love.
Each of us has to hear Jesus ask this question. At first, it can be a difficult one to face as it is so personal and intimate. It is easier to think of ‘faith’ in terms of ritual or doctrine, but essentially it is a relationship and the role of ritual and doctrine is to help that relationship grow. We may struggle to find the words or images with which to express our personal recognition of who Jesus is to us, but it bears rich insight.
The conversation is not only one way. As we answer Jesus’ question, we will find him responding to us with who he says we are. It is in relationship with him that we come to our truest and best selves. Peter well knew he was no “rock” but with the love of Jesus he was able to deal beyond his personal liabilities and witness to God’s love beyond his wildest dreams. We each have our own weakness and failure but that is no impediment to the love of Jesus shining within our lives.
Looking at art works or movies is a great way to open ourselves to the meaning of the Gospels. Seeing can bypass our preconceived notions, giving us new vistas of enlightenment. With painting or sculpture one needs to sit quietly and absorb the dynamics of the piece. The drama of movies more easily engages us and offers a way to conversation about the Gospel with other members of your family.
This Sunday's Visual Meditation
– Twelfth Century Plaque Peter’s confession
– St Peter’s Altar (1437-1442), Tempura on wood by Bernat Martorell, shows scenes from the life of St Peter. The giving of the keys is in the centre on the left hand side.
– The imagery in this painting by Raphael draws together a number of Gospel scenes. Peter, the only one kneeling amongst the disciples, is holding the keys entrusted to him. It is the risen Jesus he worships, one who points to the sheep being entrusted to Peter’s care.
– This painting by Vasiliy Polenvov has an interesting interplay between light and dark. The three disciples are sitting in darkness while light radiates off Jesus.
– Salvador Dali, You are Peter .
The purpose of mulling meditations is to offer a few ideas that one can mull about while doing other occupations. There are many things we do in our day that do not require our full attention - some things which are largely done on automatic pilot - like driving a car or peeling the potatoes. While we give these our attention, part of our mind is still at work mulling on other things and unless it is given something positive to feed on, we easily feed on negative thoughts. Personally I find mulling time the most likely time for God to get through to me. Because I am not so conscious of myself, God gets through the cracks and opens my heart to look at life differently.
Two practical times for mulling can be when exercising and when driving. Some small preparations for integrating such prayer into these exercises can be helpful.
As you do your preparatory stretches, pray the line of the Psalm "I praise you God for I am wonderfully made!"
Similarly when doing your concluding stretches use the prayer of St Clare "Praised be you, my God, for creating me!"
Have some music that you find helps you turn you mind and heart to God and play that for the first 10 minutes or so of your trip.
This Sunday's Mulling Meditation
Over this coming week mull over the question that Jesus put to his disciples: ‘Who do you say I am?’
– Mull on is Jesus for you?
– What stories from the Gospel specially resonate with you?
– Mull on what Jesus means for your family and other people that you love.
In the Letter of James, we are told that the Scriptures are like a mirror in which we can see ourselves. In this type of meditation we take a piece of Scripture, hold it before us and consider what echoes within our heart. These echoes help us to see who we are before God and how we are loved. What usually echoes in us are situations that we are dealing with in our lives. When something strikes us, we do not actively try to solve the situation or work it through. Rather we sit holding it in God's love. The point of such a meditation is to make space within the situation for God's love to be. In 'sitting with' such a situation, painful or sad, we come to recognise the love of God that is at work on our lives. The suggestions for Mirror reflections can also be used for Exercise reflections but wouldn't be advised for Driving Prayer as often some degree of emotion or distraction might rise in such prayer.
This Sunday's Mirror Meditation
The question Jesus asked his disciples can be quite confronting.
Rest in the love of your God.
As you rest there, ask Jesus to come to you. Tell him who he is to you.
Ask him is if there is anything more that he wants to be for you.
Sit with his response.
When you are at rest in his love, listen to who says you are.
His words will be words of love. Open your hands and heart and receive his gift.
Rest in the love of your God.