The lectionary text today is Matthew 16: 13-20. Just seven short verses, yet this tiny passage has been taken as foundational for Christianity over the centuries. The author of the gospel records a conversation between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus wanted to know what people thought of him. The disciples give a variety of answers that they have heard, but that does not suffice. The question is subtly changed. No longer is it who do people say I am? But the more direct, who do you say I am?
Even before taking a closer look at the passage I think that change of question is worthy of note. It is not about hearsay, it is not about others’ opinions. It is about an individual’s thought and belief. That can be quite a challenge in all aspects of life. It is always much easier to say or think what the crowd is saying. It is much harder to take the direct challenge of “what do I think?”.
Sometimes the answer to that question can set one apart. It can be a difficult road to walk, especially if one is the first person to voice that opinion. Peter certainly stepped out. He moved from hiding behind the “everyone says” to the “I say”. In this story, that bold step worked out, Peter’s words were received and acclaimed.
The next part of the story is the response to Peter’s answer. The words the gospel records in the version I am reading are, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (ecclesia).” This phrase has caused much discussion over the centuries. Various interpretations of this passage have been offered.
I enjoy interpretation. I like looking at how Biblical passages have been understood in history. Perhaps the only thing I am sure of, is that I would never want to say that one interpretation of a passage is right and another is wrong. So, the interpretation of this passage that I offer is one that grips me. Do I think it is the only interpretation? Absolutely no. That would be really arrogant. Each person must think and study for themselves.
When I look at this passage I want to view it in the context of the previous chapters. I do not think the gospels are written as chronological documents. Of course, two of the gospels start with a birth and end with a death — the beginning and end of human life. Other than that, I think the authors of the gospels carefully placed the stories to give the nuances they wanted to bring. They are telling a story that would impact and bring hope to their audience.
I think to understand this story, the parable at the beginning of chapter 13 should be considered. It is the familiar story of the sower. It was a tale to say what happens to seed sown in various locations. Some fell on rocky ground where it was not deeply rooted so in time of trial it could fall away. This is a wordplay. The word here translated as rocky/stony is the same word used for Peter when his name was changed from Simon.
This description of the rocky ground so fits Peter. After the parable, is the story of Peter walking on water (14). Peter boldly steps out but then starts to sink. Then there is the story of the denial. Peter who has acclaimed Jesus as the Christ in time of trial denies him.
(For a full discussion of this interpretation see Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective. Fortress Press, 1996)
The reason I like this interpretation is that it gives me hope. Peter was portrayed as very human. Peter wasn’t perfect. Peter made mistakes . . . lots of them. Peter was stony ground. Yet, he found a purpose and made a difference.
(Photo: Holy Island, 2015)