Sunday Sermon for August 27, 2023, the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Readings: Is 22:19-23; Rom 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20

In the second reading today, St. Paul marvels at the riches, wisdom, and knowledge of God and proclaims that His judgments are inscrutable and His ways are unsearchable.  We recall that God Himself stated that His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts.  This becomes very important for us in the context of St. Paul’s glorying in the ways of the Lord.

I say it is important because we tend to think our ways are the best and our thoughts are correct.  Sometimes we even seem to think we know better that God!  Of course, we will be quick to deny such a charge, but our actions betray us all too often.  Just look at what we see in the Gospel today.

First, we see Jesus asking the Apostles who people say He is; then He asks who they think He is.  We hear a variety of responses and realize that the people have diverse opinions which, in this case, were all false.  When St. Peter professes the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus pronounces Peter to be blessed because the heavenly Father has revealed this truth to him.

As we go further into the reading, we hear about our Lord changing Simon’s name to Peter (Rock), and stating that He will build His Church on this rock.  For 2000 years people have tried to find a way to deny that Peter is the rock on which the Church is built, some even going so far as to suggest that Jesus is referring to Himself as the rock and others saying that because the word petros is used as Peter’s name (the Greek word for rock is petra;it is used five words later when Jesus says “On this rock [petra] I will build my Church”) that Jesus is not saying that Peter is a rock, but just a pebble because the meaning of petros is pebble. 

Thankfully, God knew our human problems and clarified the issue in the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel (verse 42) where St. John tells us that Peter’s name was actually changed to the Aramaic word for rock, kephas, which St. John states is translated as Petros.  Kephas is the correct Aramaic word for rock, but Petros is not the normal Greek word.  Did Jesus make a mistake?  Do we know better than Jesus?  No, petra, the Greek word for rock, is a feminine noun and would not work when addressing a male, so Jesus put the word into the masculine form.

Moving on, we notice that Jesus states clearly that He is founding only one Church: “My Church.”  In what may be the clearest practical example of people thinking they know better than God, we now have more than 33,000 Christian denominations, each thinking, somehow, that they have the truth.  I am not sure how they get around the point of Jesus founding the Church when none of them can trace their origins back to our Lord, but somehow there is a way to rationalize this.

Jesus goes on to give Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, going so far as to say that whatever Peter holds bound on earth will be held bound in Heaven and whatever Peter looses on earth will also be loosed in Heaven.  As we can see from the first reading, the keys are the insignia of the Prime Minister in the kingdom.  They are a symbol of the authority of the Prime Minister who could speak and act with the authority of the king.

We also see in the first reading that the keys (the office) are being taken away from Shebna and being given to Eliakim.  In other words, the office of the Prime Minister is one of succession.  This is what we have seen in the Church from the death of St. Peter all the way until our time.  It is also important to note in the first reading that the keys were taken away from Shebna because he was unfaithful to the duties of his office.  In other words, although we know the Pope has authority and can even speak infallibly, this does not guarantee that he will be a good person, a good administrator, a good example, etc.

Throughout the history of the Church we have seen a number of instances when some very unfortunate individuals have become the Pope.  Their example was horrendous, but they never tried to change the teaching of the Church.  Perhaps God used these men to show the people their sins and call them to greater conversion.  Regardless, it is not ours to question God, but to trust Him and marvel at the depths of His wisdom and knowledge, His inscrutable judgments, and His unsearchable ways!

Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit