24th August 2014
During the time of the prophet Isaiah, the kingdom of Judah was threatened by the Assyrian empire from the east. Isaiah had recommended trusting in God to save the people and God would be with them. But the king and leaders didn’t see it this way, they felt they would loose, and forfeit their privileged positions, if not their lives. They made some sort of a pact with the emperor of Assyria so that Jerusalem was spared, although the rest of the country was invaded. So Isaiah, as we read today, reprimand Shebna the royal steward, and announced a replacement, who will be the leader to make decisions in the future; he will have the symbols of office, the sash, the robe, the key to the ordering of the country’s affairs, and will keep them safe like the peg for a tent. This passage seems to be in the mind of Matthew when he writes of Peter receiving the leadership office in our gospel reading. But the historical events behind it challenge us severely in our relationship with our world and with God, just as the sermon on the mount in the New Testament does: if anyone wants your shirt give them your coat as well, if anyone strikes you turn the other cheek, love you enemies… (see Matthew 5:38-48).
Paul in this letter to the Romans has been expressing his struggle with the way things are going. The chosen people, the race he belongs to, the Jews, have by and large rejected Jesus and his following. Paul has seen that in fact this has enabled, or at least eased, the presentation of Christ to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, and many of them becoming the chosen ones of God. This is especially difficult for Paul as his calling is to preach to the Gentiles and he has had success in this. So God, as only He can, has brought some good out of the rejection of Jesus by the Jews, just as God will bring the creation, His work of art, to a beautiful fulfillment through all the disasters and human failings which are still going on. Catching a glimpse of this mystery, and being able to entertain this hope with confidence, Paul can only praise God for His wonders in creation. And this expression of amazed joy is what we have today in our reading.
Our reading today from Matthew is an account in Mark’s gospel which Matthew has before him. It is when Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. It is a turning point in the story of Jesus’ public life; after this His life’s journey moves towards its end. Peter says he believes that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, but it is most likely that his idea of what this means is not what it will turn out to be. For the Jews thought Jesus, the anointed one (the Christ or Messiah) was the one from God who would bring the Jewish people into their own – the climax of the national ambition, the nation above all nations, worldly success. Matthew adds to this story from Mark Jesus’ confirmation that Peter is to be leader of His followers, with what he says goes and what he rules out is ruled out. It is after this central event that Jesus’ begins to tell the disciples that He will suffer and die; a message which they cannot really believe for it is so opposite to what they expect of the Messiah. The appointment of Peter, who in Matthew’s time was a significant leader of the Christian communities, has the same pattern of being unexpected, for Peter was a rash person, a Galilean fisherman, the one who denied he even knew Christ at the time of His trial; when it is such an unlikely person that leads, it is quite obvious that if there is any success, it comes from God’s work not from this human leader. This is as mysterious as the issue that we have seen Paul had struggled with in his letter to the Romans and the challenge of Isaiah to just trust in God. We might say, God moves in mysterious ways, and wonder about the saying, God helps those who help themselves.