The first time my mother gave me the key to our house, she made it seem as if I was being handed the nuclear code. It happened on that particular day that I was to get home before everyone else, so she had to give me the keys to the house. I was about 8 years old. But she handed them to me as though she was giving me a priceless heirloom. Then came a bunch of instructions that sounded like the Ten Commandments of Key Responsibility. She asked me to hold my two earlobes with my hands, then started: “You must never give it to anyone else. You must never remove it from your inner pocket, except to open the door. You must not play football (soccer) with the key in your pocket. You must not lose it. Is that clear enough?” “Yes Mom!” was the only answer allowed. “Alright, bye and let me not hear any stories about the key,” she concluded.
This was just a key or a bunch of keys, you would say, yet, a great deal of responsibility went with it. The point is that to have access to the key implies having unfettered access to the entire house. You could never give the key to your house to a total stranger or someone you do not absolutely trust.
But keys mean much more. In biblical language, keys symbolize power and authority. When the first reading of today speaks about the transfer of the key of the House of David from Shebna to Eliakim (Isaiah 22:19-23), you cannot imagine that Isaiah was speaking about the kind of keys that my mother gave me. Would you? Shebna, who was the Prime Minister in the court of King Hezekiah of Judah, 700 years before Christ, was rather dethroned because of corruption while Eliakim was elevated to the office.
Keys also signify in biblical language a “perfect fit,” that is, one most suited for the position. Thus God says through Isaiah, “I will fix him like a peg into a firm place” (Isaiah 22:23), again signifying stability. (When I asked Bishop Slattery why he chose me to be the rector of Holy Family Cathedral, he said it was a perfect fit. I couldn’t believe that he would entertain such thoughts, so I wished him good luck).
These and much more are the expressions Jesus used in today’s Gospel as He spoke to Peter about keys. He starts off the conversation by asking: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” A fisherman brought up in the religious tradition of the Jews knew that God’s name was not pronounced out of fear of blasphemy. Yet he dares to say that this enquirer before him was the Son of the Living God. That’s something a pious Jew wouldn’t say. But it appeared like he caught straight into the core of Jesus’ being to reveal both His personality and mission. This person knew Him well, or rather must have got a hint from no other person than God Himself, and was well deserving of trust. He can have the keys. And Jesus concurs, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly father” (Matt 16:17). From here we draw the Church’s teaching on the pope’s infallibility; his knowledge is infused and his teaching carries divine import.
What does Jesus do? He changes this man’s name from Simon to Peter, like several biblical figures and personalities with divine mission had their names changed by God—Abram to Abraham (father of many nations), Jacob to Israel (image of God’s people), Simon to Peter (vicar of Christ, leader of the Universal Church); then, Karol Wojtyla to John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger to Benedict XVI, Jorge Bergoglio to Francis.
Jesus calls him cepha [rock or pebble], avoiding the use of “Sur” [Rock], reserved for God, and says that He would build His Church upon this rock. He further promises that death (the netherworld) would not be able to bring this rock to an end; meaning that this mission will continue in succession from Peter to Linus to Clement to John Paul to Benedict to Francis. The superior Keys of the Kingdom carry power and authority to bind and loose heaven’s gate to people. And so, if someone again snarkily cajoles that you worship the pope, remind him or her that Peter is listening and that she might risk being locked out. Okay, don’t say that; but pray for them.