Opening the Word: Simon Peter, the rock

The Gospel of Matthew is filled with numerous passages taken from the Old Testament, as well as references to concepts drawn from the same. This is because St. Matthew’s primary audience was Jews and his main focus, observed Father Karl Adam in “The Spirit of Catholicism” (Image, $24.95), was “to set forth Jesus as the Messiah foretold by the Old Testament, and in particular as the divine Law-giver and Teacher who reveals the deepest meaning of the Old Testament and brings it to fulfillment.” 

This brings to mind passages such as the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), in which Jesus is presented as the New Moses. Today’s Gospel reading focuses on Jesus as the Messiah, but it also reveals the unique role and office given to Simon Peter, the leader of the apostles. But in order to appreciate what is heard in the Gospel, some Old Testament background is necessary. 

The First Book of Kings describes the administration of King Solomon, including “twelve commissaries for all Israel” (1 Kgs 4:7), who helped the king govern. The master of the palace, or prime minister, had a unique position among those 12; it is this position that is described in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah. The disgraced master of the palace, Shebna, was being removed from office, to be replaced by Eliakim, who was given the authority proper to the office. The key symbol of this authority was, well, a key — “the key of the House of David.” But notice that this authority was in familial language: “He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem … ” He was, in Latin, to be a pope — a papa. 

When Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?,” it was the brash and bold Peter who replied with that great statement of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The implications of this declaration, of course, cannot be underestimated in the least. It wasn’t just that Peter, as a solitary man, understood who Jesus really was, but that Peter, the head of the Twelve, affirmed the identity of the Master. 

Jesus, in turn, made several transformative statements. First, he blessed Simon. Second, Jesus affirmed Simon by giving him a new name: “And so I say to you, you are Peter” — that is, “you are rock.” Just like Abram/Abraham, Peter was granted incredible faith, he received a new name, he was given a new mission and he was promised that the gates of his enemies wouldn’t overcome him (Gn 22:17). The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the ‘rock’ of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock” (No. 881; see 551-53). 

The concept of binding and loosing was drawn from rabbinic teaching. It referred to the ability to render binding decisions regarding the Law, to include or exclude people from a community, and to teach and administer. Peter demonstrated this divine authority many times, as with his binding declaration at the Council of Jerusalem regarding certain ordinances of the Law (Acts 15:7-11), when Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying to him and the Church (Acts 5:1-11) and when he preached at Pentecost and baptized the first converts (Acts 2:14-41). 

In the words of Pope Leo XIII, “Nothing was conferred on the apostles apart from Peter, but several things were conferred upon Peter apart from the apostles.” 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of