Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- Sometimes one wonders at the selection made by the compilers of our lectionary. Are they in fact a deeply loyal lot, or rather remarkably subversive – or both? Today’s readings seem to suggest quite a scepticism against those placed in authority, and leave the message that they, and we placed under them, might want to sit in that position only with considerable caution.
The 1St Isaiah of our Old Testament reading, (Isa 22:19-23) wrote in the mid 8th century BC, at the time when Israel, the Northern kingdom was in turmoil, invaded both by the Syrian kingdoms close by, and later by the Assyrians. You can read more of this saga in 2 Kings 17-19 which speaks of a palace power struggle and the overthrow of Shebna, and of his replacement by Eliakim. It appears as though the latter was favoured by Isaiah at the time, who approved of the great authority given to Eliakim. The words of his institution were I suspect part of a formal ceremony of institution at the court of Ahaz and his successor Hezekiah. What we have to remember however is that the major prophets like Isaiah were no friend of the court, indeed were often persecuted by it, and whilst reflecting on the powers of ‘church and state’ of the time, they may in hindsight have appreciated that things were not what they seemed at all.
Indeed, neither the diffident young king Ahaz who reigned in Jerusalem, nor Hezekiah his successor, were ultimately well served by their officials. Hezekiah fatally went into alliance with Egypt and rebelled against Assyrian vassalage with disastrous consequences. Hindsight can be a remarkable and advantageous tool, warning us against certainty and complacency, and even the smugness that our decisions are the right ones. Isaiah’s message is one that we should be faithful to God and trust him, rather than the machinations of those in authority.
In our Gospel, (Matthew 16:13-20) a similar situation occurs. Peter has acclaimed Jesus as the Christ, and in return Our Lord has given him authority over the earthly kingdom, and in remarkably similar language to our passage from Isaiah. Whilst other Gospels record Peter’s acclaim of Christ, the others do not record this giving of special privilege to Peter with its quote from Isaiah 22, and in view of the subsequent severe put-down of Peter by Jesus one wonders at precisely what its role here amounts too. Its context in Matthew’s Gospel, during passage after passage of healing signs, amidst ever-increasing hostility from the Jewish authorities and specialists in the law, should serve at very least to suggest that the Early Church felt considerable unease over too tight a control from its own leaders. Peter, as we know, is presented as one of the leaders of the early church but one with clay feet too, and I suspect Matthew’s promotion of his champion – presumably over other candidates – was not without considerable provisos in view of the known history of all the apostles.
Perhaps the point being made here is something akin to ‘put not your trust in princes’, as we learn gradually of Peter’s objections to Jesus’ foretelling of his betrayal and death, and face the Gospel accounts of how all the apostles in some shape or form let Jesus down at the point of crisis. This is not to argue for a complete rejection of any hierarchy – man-made structures and organisation- of course they were and are absolutely necessary; but as recent events in the Church have shown in many different ways, they are built and conducted amidst the frailty of the human condition. People can and do make bad choices. Even some very well intentioned men can totally misjudge the situation just as poor Hezekiah did, with disastrous consequences for his nation. Some of the choices made by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in recent times were also misjudged, though no doubt no one at the time thought their consequences would be so terrible, as we have learnt from the child abuse scandals.
This is where St Paul seems so wise; not that he rejected structure and organisation; far from it, as we see in the structures he laid down for ministry on his mission. However, just as he bewails his own unsteadiness in Romans 7:15, he knows he can place all his reliance on God, as we see in today’s 2nd Reading. (Rom 11:33-36). “How rich are the depths of God- how deep his wisdom and knowledge…..Who could ever know the mind of the Lord? Who could ever be his counsellor? Who could ever give him anything or lend him anything?” The Greek makes rather clearer that God is in no relationship of dependence upon us and owes us nothing; the relationship is entirely the other way round and we remain what we always are, totally his dependents. It can only be when we have this degree of trust in God, placing ourselves entirely in his grace and care, that we can live as we are truly meant to, whether as leaders of the Church or laity. And when we are willing to do this we can ride out the storms caused by the miscalculations and even deceptions of our leaders, even in the church. After all, we worship God, not the reigning Pope or our local priest, and in the end their failings as their successes are not the thing that really matters. God must be all in all.