The Astonishing Manifestation of God’s Rich Wisdom in the Papacy, 21st Sunday (A), August 24, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 24, 2014
Is 22:19-23, Ps 138, Rom 11:33-36, Mt 16:13-20

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following text guided the homily: 

Remaining Astonished at God’s Wisdom and Ways 

Last Sunday St. Paul in the second reading revealed to us that God’s plans for our salvation were linked to the Jews and in some sense to their disobedience, and that their salvation is linked us and to our obedience in manifesting God’s mercy. That whole complicated mystery led St. Paul to exclaim what we have at the beginning of today’s second reading: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”

God’s ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts, God tells us through the prophet Isaiah. We are called to admire and follow God’s ways even though we cannot fathom them. “As high as the heavens are above the earth,” God tells us, “so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9).

God has shown us repeatedly how he surpasses all our expectations. There were great longings for coming of the Messiah, but God shocked us by sending us as the Messiah his own incarnate Son. There were hopes for redemption, but no one could have ever imagined that God would love us so much as to allow his Son to be crucified so that we might live redeemed. In salvation history, God so often chose not the most sensible path according to our human standards but a path that far surpassed human logic. He chose the least likely people to be his prophets and leaders, from Gideon who was the least of his family, which was the least of his tribe, which was the least of his people, to Amos, a dresser of Sycamore Trees, to Isaiah, whose lips were too unclean to announce God’s words, to David the King, the least in his family, to so many of the apostles, who would have never popped up on a head-hunters’ list for worthy people to change the world, to St. Paul himself, who was the worst persecutor of Christians who became the greatest evangelist. St. Paul would write in his first letter to the Corinthians that this truth about the unsearchable ways of God’s vocational summons pertains to almost every single Christian: “For the foolishness of God,” he wrote, “is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God (1 Cor 1:25-29). All of this leads us to exclaim with St. Paul, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”

Today in the Gospel, we see God’s wisdom, his inscrutable ways, and his unsearchable judgments from three different angles.

God makes us sharers in his wisdom so that we can confess him

The first is in Peter’s confession of Jesus’ real identity. Jesus began by taking a poll of who the crowds thought that he was. They replied by saying the people were numbering Jesus among the greatest figures, past and present, in Jewish history. Some, like the murderous Herod Antipas who had decapitated the Lord’s precursor, were saying Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead. Others were claiming he was Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets, the one whose return they believed would set the stage for the Messianic age. Others said he was Jeremiah, the one whom they believe had hidden the ark and the altar of sacrifice before the destruction of the Temple and the one they anticipated would return to reinstitute true worship. At the time Jesus asked the question, many of the Jews were accustomed to say that there had not been prophets for 400 years, and therefore, whoever Jesus was, they crowds believed that he was likely the greatest figure in four centuries. But as high as those estimations of Jesus’ reputation were, who he truly was was much greater still. The people were not able to grasp on their own the depth of the riches, wisdom and knowledge of God, how much higher his ways were than their greatest expectations.

So Jesus asked his closest followers, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s clear that most of the apostles would have been grappling with the question as they heard Jesus preach, watched him heal the sick, cleanse lepers, exorcise demons, multiply food, walk on water and calm storms, but eleven of the 12 apostles stayed silent. They probably feared going on record even if every ounce of their being recognized that Jesus was someone beyond what the mob was murmuring. Peter, however, took that risk. He stood up and boldly replied that Jesus was far more than a great prophet, far more than the greatest figure in centuries, far more even than Moses. He wasn’t just the Messiah, the long-awaited Savior for whom the Jews had been waiting for a millennium. He was the Son of the Living God.

Peter’s was a great act of faith, a bold profession holding nothing back, one that Jesus noted he couldn’t have said all on his own. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” God’s wisdom so far surpasses our intellects that there’s no way we can know some of the great mysteries of faith on our own, but God can give us a share in his wisdom. He can reveal it to us. He revealed it to Simon Peter and he has revealed it to us. The only way we can confess Jesus to be Messiah, Son of God, Savior of the world, and Lord is by a special grace of God the Father. He reveals this wisdom to us by the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart-to-heart conversation that is prayer, in the Sacred Scriptures, in the writings of the popes and saints whom God has inspired. God may not reveal to us everything we want to know, but he has revealed to us, or will reveal to us over time, everything we really need, but we need to be as open to it, and as hungry for it, as Simon Peter.

And like Simon Peter we need to respond to God’s grace to confess Jesus in this way, to go out and courageously give witness that Jesus is the Savior and the long-desired of the nations, that Jesus is not the Son of a God understood as a vague life force somewhere out in the universe, but of the God is who Living and with us seeking to bring us to full life. At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus strictly ordered the apostles not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah because he feared that they would classify Jesus according to their own political Messianic expectations instead of learn to accept Jesus on his own terms of mission. But Jesus, after the fulfillment of his mission with his passion, death and resurrection, has commanded and commissioned us to do the exact opposite, to go to the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature (Mt 28:16-20). This proclamation we make of Jesus’ true identity is not supposed to be some dry, “Joe Friday” factual declaration, like a monotone, apathetic recitation of what we say in the Creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and raised on the third day, and now sits at the right hand of the Father where he will come to judge the living and the dead.” It’s a proclamation, rather, meant to be done with joyful words and witness. As Pope Francis wrote in his apostolic exhortation The Gospel of Joy last November, in our public confession of Jesus, we are giving testimony from personal experience of the joy that comes by accepting, living in accordance with and following faithfully God’s wisdom enfleshed in the person of Jesus. The successor of St. Peter gave us in that exhortation his own confession of the difference Jesus makes in life, words that he hopes all of us in the Church will echo: “It is not the same thing,” he said, “to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. … With Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything.” Like he did with St. Peter and continues to do with St. Peter’s living successor, God the Father will give us the grace that exceeds what flesh and blood reveals so that we, too, may proclaim Jesus’ identity in the midst of the world and how who he is grounds who we are.

God’s inscrutable establishment of Simon as the Rock 

The second way we see God’s wisdom at work is what Jesus does after Simon Peter’s confession. Jesus gives his own confession of where Simon will fit into God’s inscrutable ways: “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.” Jesus made Simon the foundation of the Church he had come from heaven to earth to build. We’ve heard the words of this Gospel so many times that we can miss their true shock value. Jesus was changing the name of Simon to “Rock” (Peter) and saying that he was going to be building the continuance of his entire saving mission on him. That would be astonishing to have happened to any man, but this is the same Simon whose first words to the Lord were, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man!,” the same Simon whom next week he will call “Satan!” for trying to prevent his suffering and death in Jerusalem, the same Simon who would betray the Lord three times just to stay warm by a fire. To grasp the magnitude of the shock, it would be as if Robert Kraft, the owner the Patriots, decided to let Bill Belichick go and turn over their Super Bowl hopes to a fisherman who never played, or coached or barely even watched a football game. There must have been many others seemingly more qualified at the time, not just among the apostles, but among the disciples and especially among the scholars of the Law and Pharisees. But God chose Simon Peter. Likewise throughout the centuries down to Peter’s 265th successor, Pope Francis, God has continued to choose men to take his place, to construct his Church on the papacy, on particular human beings, even when those particular men chosen didn’t come close to living up to God’s expectations. It’s important that we confront what our reaction to this determined choice was on God’s part. Do we look at it with wonder and admiration and confess with St. Paul “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Or do we stand in judgment of the Lord and conclude that this was a really silly move and foolish investment?

This is an ever-present question for us in the Church, because it affects totally the way we relate to the Pope and to the One who has chosen the pope and made him his earthly vicar. There are a couple of applications I’d like to make, both to the way Jesus wants to teach us through the pope. The first is what our reaction is when the Pope writes or says something very important to us applying God’s revelation to the nitty-gritty situation of today’s world, do we listen to what he is saying, especially when he is teaching definitively about something on faith and morals, and cling to it as something that God in his inscrutable knowledge wanted us to learn? The vast majority of Catholics, including Catholics who come to Mass each Sunday, don’t use the ability God has given us to read to read things like Pope Francis’ exhortation on the Gospel of Joy, or his encyclical on the Light of Faith, or even regularly read his Angelus meditations or homilies. At a practical level, we’re not living in union with what Jesus has established and building our lives on what Jesus wants to teach us through his earthly vicar. I hate to say this but in my work with priests and religious, very often many of them don’t read what the Pope is saying either. We ignore to a large degree the impact of what Jesus has chosen to do is meant to have on us.

But sometimes we even go a step further. Many Catholics stand in judgment of the pope, evaluating what he says on the basis of their consumerist principles and personal preferences, of whether they “like” his teaching or not, and often weigh what the Pope teaches as less valuable than their own opinions about the way things ought to be. Sometimes we behave as if we believe we have a better grasp of God’s ways and wisdom than the Successor of St. Peter on things that we need to believe or do to please God and enter fully into his life. When the Pope, for example, talks about the need to prioritize the care for the poor and needy, to bring the Gospel to those on the outskirts including in prisons, to defend every innocent human life in the womb and on a death bed, to confess Jesus’ understanding of marriage as the union of one man and one woman until death, to condemn war as evil except in the rare circumstances of preventing a worse harm, to proclaim that contraceptive use and recourse to in-vitro fertilization among married couples is wrong, and to affirm that according to Jesus’ wisdom that while women are absolutely equal in dignity to men only baptized men can be ordained priests, do we humbly and docilely assent to God’s wisdom expressed through the Rock on whom he built his Church or do we reject Christ’s wisdom in establishing the papacy to communicate his teaching to us in every age, including in those areas we might struggle for whatever reason to accept?

Pope Francis asked all of us to make this examination today, saying to us in his Angelus meditation, “Today’s Gospel challenges each and every one of us. … Each one of us must answer in his or her heart: how is your faith? What does the Lord find in our hearts? A steadfast heart like a rock or a sand-like heart, that is, doubtful, wary, incredulous. It would do us well to think about this.” The more we confess with Peter the teaching of Christ given through Peter’s teaching office, the more we become rocks, living stones, on which others, including future generations, can build a solid life of faith. The more we admire and acknowledge God’s perhaps inscrutable but nevertheless eternal wisdom in establishing the papacy and sending the Holy Spirit to guide the Church led by the Pope to all the truth, the more we will be able to become living witnesses of the joy that a truly Christian life gives. If we remain and others remain “cafeteria Catholics,” however, those who pick and choose the teachings they like as if the truth is like food on a buffet line, then we and the Church will not be able consistently to give the confession of Jesus Christ that God wants and the world needs. That’s the second instance of God’s wisdom in today’s Gospel.

The power of the keys and the binding and loosing of the Sacrament of Confession

The final example of the riches of God’s unsearchable judgments is in the power of the keys. Yesterday morning I was at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and I pointed out to the group with me the huge marble bas relief sculpture over the main entrance of the Basilica, depicting what Jesus says to St. Peter in today’s Gospel, “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.” The Church shows Jesus giving the keys to a kneeling Peter along with a blessing because this Gospel is not only the foundation of the papacy but also in some ways the founding architectural element of the Church as a whole built, like St. Peter’s Basilica was, literally right on top of Peter’s mortal remains. This whole reference to the keys and to binding and loosing was a fulfillment of what God had prophesied through Isaiah in the first reading. Isaiah says that God will summon his servant Eliakim to be the master of the king’s palace, to a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the house of Judah, that he will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder, and that whatever he opens no one shall shut and whatever he shuts no one shall open. He stressed that he will fix Eliakim firmly like a peg in a sure spot. This is what Jesus did with Peter, making him the major domo of Christ’s house, the vicarious holy father of Christ’s family, who with the keys of the palace will open and shut doors on earth and in heaven and who will not merely be a firm peg, but a living Rock on which his whole family can be secure. That God would allow a human being to have this type of vicarious authority is mind-blowing, but it is, in fact, what God did in Israel and what he did all the more in Christianity.

The power of the keys has been traditionally interpreted in terms of the application of God’s mercy, in binding and remitting sins as well as in awarding indulgences from the temporal punishment we merit by our sins. Later in St. Matthew’s Gospel Jesus bestows this power to bind and loose on all the apostles (Mt 18:18) who at the Last Supper would become his first priests. With regard to the Sacrament of Penance, we need to admit that for many Catholics God’s ways are not our ways. Our way might be to do as the Protestants try to do and confess our sins to God directly, but that’s not the way God established. As we see after he rose from the dead, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his apostles and sent them forth to forgive sins just as the Father had sent Him, telling them whatever sins they forgive are forgiven and whatever sins they retain are retained (Jn 20:19-23). The only way they’d be able to know the difference would be if people told them, since they were not given the power to read minds and souls. I like to stress that God did not tell us the reason why he was setting up this sacrament in the way he did, why he wanted us to be reconciled to him through his priests. All we know is that this is what he did. This leaves us with one of two reactions: to praise him for his wisdom that surpasses our own and take advantage of this great gift he founded because we’d need it; or to think our wisdom surpasses God’s and with a type of spiritual arrogance keep avoiding this sacrament. Those who come regularly and well to the Sacrament of Penance begin to see from the inside — as their sins are forgiven, their intellects unclouded and their wills unshackled — how wise God indeed is. St. John Paul II, at whose tomb I had the privilege to celebrate Mass yesterday morning, used to say that frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance is the greatest way to grow in spiritual maturity, because the more we prayerfully examine our conscience, the more we see our need for God’s help and the more we come to ask for it, in prayer, at Mass, and especially in confession where God gives us the grace to keep fighting together with him to conform ourselves more and more to him. It’s the Sacrament of Confession that helps us to make wise with the wisdom of God.

We finish with perhaps the greatest leap of God’s wisdom of all, the gift of the Holy Eucharist. To help us become more like him, to enter into full communion with him, Jesus wanted to communicate to us his Body, blood, soul and divinity, telling us in the synagogue of Capernaum that unless we gnaw on his flesh and drink his blood we would have no life in us, and then at the Last Supper giving us his body to eat and his blood to drink. Because he who created us knew that eating what looked like someone’s body parts and drinking what appeared to be someone’s blood would gross us out, he, by his own divine power, decided to take two staples — bread and wine — and change them into himself. To the world, the Catholic belief in the Eucharist looks crazy, that we confess what looks like unleavened bread and wine after the words of consecration are not bread and wine at all, but truly God, really Jesus Christ in his totality. “Flesh and blood,” human reason, cannot grasp this truth. But God can help us to grasp it and to plumb the depths of divine logic that becomes so small so that we can become great. Before this gift, as well as the gift of the papacy that makes the sacraments possible, the gift of the Sacrament of Penance that cleans us so that we might receive the Lord worthily, the gift of Sacred Scripture and papal teaching that helps us to know and follow God’s ways, we repeat with St. Paul, with St. Bernadette and with all the saints, ““O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!”

This morning at St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis concluded his Angelus by asking the tens of thousands of Catholics present to say with him three times aloud the words of St. Peter from today’s Gospel, “Tu sei il Messia, il Figlio del Dio Vivente!” Today as I lift Jesus up at the consecration, I will hold him aloft longer than I normally do, and I would encourage you adoringly to say to him then, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” And then in your thanksgiving after receiving Holy Communion, I’d encourage you to ask the Lord Jesus who will be abiding within you to help you make with Him the confession with regard to Peter and his successors the Pope, and to help you to build your whole life on the gift of the papacy that Jesus made the rock on which he wanted to build each of us as living stones.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
IS 22:19-23

Thus says the LORD to Shebna, master of the palace:
“I will thrust you from your office
and pull you down from your station.
On that day I will summon my servant
Eliakim, son of Hilkiah;
I will clothe him with your robe,
and gird him with your sash,
and give over to him your authority.
He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem,
and to the house of Judah.
I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder;
when he opens, no one shall shut
when he shuts, no one shall open.
I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot,
to be a place of honor for his family.”

Responsorial Psalm
PS 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8

R/ (8bc) Lord, your love is eternal; do not forsake the work of your hands.
I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with all my heart,
for you have heard the words of my mouth;
in the presence of the angels I will sing your praise;
I will worship at your holy temple.
R/ Lord, your love is eternal; do not forsake the work of your hands.
I will give thanks to your name,
because of your kindness and your truth:
When I called, you answered me;
you built up strength within me.
R/ Lord, your love is eternal; do not forsake the work of your hands.
The LORD is exalted, yet the lowly he sees,
and the proud he knows from afar.
Your kindness, O LORD, endures forever;
forsake not the work of your hands.
R/ Lord, your love is eternal; do not forsake the work of your hands.

Reading 2
ROM 11:33-36

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord
or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given the Lord anything
that he may be repaid?

For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be glory forever. Amen.

MT 16:13-20

Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and
he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter said in reply,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Then he strictly ordered his disciples
to tell no one that he was the Christ.