Words on the Word
21. Sunday A
Isaiah 22:19-23: I place the key of the house of David on his shoulder.
Rm 11:33-36: Who could ever know the mind of the Lord?
Mt 16:13-20: Who do people say the Son of Man is?
About Shebna, the palace-master roundly condemned by Isaiah, the Scriptures do not tell us much.Our reading forms the conclusion to an oracle uttered on Shebna’s own turf, where the prophet ‘goes out to meet him’ in all his glory. For Shebna is a man with a clear sense of station. Isaiah ridicules the splendid funeral chamber he is having built as a monument to his greatness. He pours scorn on Shebna’s fine chariots. Why all this pomp, he asks, when the Lord is about to cast you out, just as a man rids himself of lice by vigorously shaking out his garment?
The invective is wonderfully graphic. Shebna is sacked from his job on the grounds that his employer, the Lord, is concerned with delousing. This is not the subtly forced, gilded retirement of a senior statesman. We are dealing with the elimination of vermin.
Shebna’s taste for luxury and privilege may sufficiently explain Isaiah’s wrath. There is, though, also the expansionist project of Assyria to consider. It dominated politics in the days of Isaiah. Was Shebna an sympathiser with the foreign power, indifferent to Israel’s intrinsic, supernatural calling? We cannot know for certain. In any case, Isaiah’s oracle is not just an order of dismissal. It is a brief of investiture. Shebna’s dismissal creates room for someone else to replace him. His marks of high office — robe, sash, and key — are taken from him to be consigned to another, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. Eliakim will use them for service, and his service will be his glory.
So far, so good. We have before us a chapter of ancient history that chimes in with a general sense of just retribution: out with the selfish show-off; in with the respectable substitute.
This particular passage, however, came to haunt the biblical imagination and the imagination of the Church. The promise, ‘Should he open, no one shall close, should he close, no one shall open’ seemed too immense to be locked in an 8th-century Judean power struggle. And so Eliakim, with time, came to be seen as a type of the final, definitive champion of justice, the Messiah, who at the end of history would manifest God’s care for his people. He would let the faithful remnant into the eternal mansion, then lock the door securely behind them. In the third chapter of the Apocalypse, the prophecy about Eliakim is applied word for word to Jesus Christ, ‘the Holy One and True’. From St John’s vision it made its way into the Church’s liturgy: we repeat it each year four days before Christmas, when we call upon the Key of David to ‘come and set the captive free’.
Today, however, the Church is presenting us with a different kind of association. The passage about Eliakim’s key introduces the Gospel in which the power of the keys is consigned to Peter. We have heard the story hundreds of times. There is no need to comment on its importance for our Catholic understanding of the Church. The points I should like to draw out of this Gospel arise from its relationship with Isaiah’s prophecy. The two accounts resonate together.
The first thing to notice is this: In neither text is the key identified with the person carrying it. Eliakim is master of the palace. He is a high official, but an official all the same. The key is entrusted to him by the master of the House of David, the king of Judah, heir to David’s line. Peter, too, wields the key to the kingdom as a trusted servant, not as lord. The ownership of the key he administers belongs to the kingdom’s Heir, the Son of David who is Son of God. It is an important distinction. It shows us both the dignity and the limit of Peter’s authority. We should never confuse the power of the keys with him who is the Key, Jesus Christ.
A second point to bear in mind arises from the description of Eliakim’s ministry. His predecessor Shebna used his position to magnify himself. Eliakim, by contrast, will show himself ‘a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem’. In the logic of the kingdom, this is how authority is exercised: through solicitude ensuring life and flourishing for others. The successors of St Peter adopt the title ‘servant of the servants of God’. In monastic vocabulary, we find the same insight present in St Benedict’s chapter on the bursar of the monastery. Whereas the abbot is referred to by Benedict as ‘holding the place of Christ in the community’, the bursar is described, we might say, in Petrine terms: ‘let him be a father to the community, let him look after everything.’ He is to ensure the welfare of the brethren, yet must do nothing except at the abbot’s bidding. We see a parallel to Peter’s call. When for a moment Peter presumed that his position entitled him to dictate Christ’s course of action, he was rebuked in the strongest possible terms.
In this we find principles of conduct valid for all. Considering our call, we share responsibility for the administration of the Father’s house. Together we attend to the needs of those who seek refuge in it. Whatever might be the particular key entrusted to us, we are to use it charitably, humbly. The example of Shebna reminds us that self-importance is not only ridiculous but destructive. The sole point of prominence is more effective service.
If we perform ours well, we shall have the joy of sitting eternally at table with him who is our model, who came not to be served but to serve. In the sacred banquet we are about to share, he gives us a pledge of his faithfulness and a foretaste of gifts to come.
The key to the confessional – an image of the Key given to Peter.
Photo from Mount Saint Bernard Abbey by Brother Martin Horwath.