Authority figures command a lot of our attention. TV, radio, social media, and many of our own conversations revolve around politicians, business leaders, and even church leaders. Closer to home are the authority figures in our immediate lives: in our communities, workplaces, and homes. And most of us exercise authority of some sort, as parents, teachers, supervisors, trusted friends, and so forth.
It’s worth pondering how we think about and exercise authority. Are you eager to have more authority? If so, what do you hope to get out of having it? Admiration? Power to accomplish something? What is true authority? The two outsized authority figures in today’s gospel, Jesus and Simon Peter, reveal something profound about the exercise of true authority – including our own.
At first glance, it seems that the authority of both Jesus and Simon are on the upswing. And that is what the world usually admires. Get more power; command more attention. Jesus seems to do this in this gospel. He asks his disciples: Who do people say is “the Son of Man?” The disciples offer up the names of several prophets, such as John the Baptist and Jeremiah.
Jesus then pivots and asks, but who do you say that I am? Notably, Simon speaks up before the other disciples. He says to Jesus, you are the “Son of the living God,” a title that seems to go further than “Son of Man” because it underlines the intrinsic connection between Jesus and the living God. And Simon also calls Jesus “the Christ,” that is, the Messiah. Now, the Messiah is more than one of the great prophets; indeed, he is the one about whom the prophets prophesied. By calling Jesus the Messiah and the son of the living God, Simon acknowledges that Jesus has authority over all the prophets and, indeed, all humankind.
And in return for having correctly identified the authority of Jesus, Simon seems to get a quid pro quo. And isn’t that how authority often works in our world? You do something for someone powerful above you, and they in turn give you a leg up on the ladder of success. Jesus gives Simon two things. First, he gives him a new name – Peter – which means Rock. It’s worth noting that Rock, unlike the nickname Rocky today, was not a personal name at this time in history; it simply meant “rock.” Why would Jesus think this was a good new name for Simon? Well, it recalls a parable earlier in the gospel that contrasts the foolish person who builds a house on sand, which storms can destroy, with the wise person who builds a house on rock, which is thus able to withstand calamities. For Jesus, Peter is the Rock on which Jesus will build the church, a church against which, Jesus says, even “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail.” The second thing that Jesus gives Peter is the keys to the very kingdom of heaven. What Peter binds on earth will be bound in heaven; what he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Peter and Jesus both appear to be uber authority figures with tremendous power over other people. If we probe their authority further, however, it upends many of our conventional notions. In the very next passage in the gospel-- after this one in today’s reading--Jesus announces that he will suffer and be put to death. In the world’s eyes, this positions Jesus with the weak – the “losers” some might say – and Peter, astonished to hear this, tells Jesus that this can’t be. But Jesus rebukes him.
We have to recall that Peter repeatedly throughout his relationship with Jesus often didn’t get what Jesus meant; he didn’t understand Jesus' mission. Jesus was teaching Peter that the true way of authority is not exercising power over others, but giving of oneself so that others may flourish. Again: The true way of authority is not exercising power over others, but giving of oneself so that others may flourish. At the Last Supper, when Jesus tries to wash Peter’s feet, Peter protests. Jesus was showing Peter – to whom he’d given so much authority – that lording power over others, like the earthly kings and religious leaders whom Jesus critiques, was not true leadership. Service and self-giving love were. Jesus drives home lessons that confound conventional logic, such as: "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”
Jesus doesn’t suffer and die because suffering and death are good in and of themselves, a false thread that has sometimes marred the tapestry of Christian history. No, he suffers and dies because he wants all to have life. Out of a sense of justice, he stands up to the powers-that-be that lord themselves over the powerless, and they turn on him and kill him. The kingdom whose keys he grants to Peter, will not be a kingdom of alpha authoritarians having their way with everyone under them. He is grooming Peter and the rest of the disciples for a new kind of kingdom, a kingdom of doing justice out of love for others.
Today's gospel still speaks today. So consider again the authority figures who populate the world and national stage – civic, church, and media personalities – and consider those you meet in your communities and workplaces. Most importantly, consider your own attitude toward gaining and exercising authority. How, like Jesus, can we – even at great risk to ourselves -- stand up to today’s kings and Pharisees ready to oppress others? And how, like Jesus, can we let love and life-giving service be the hallmarks of our own exercise of authority?
Catherine Mooney, Ph.D.
Catherine Mooney teaches church history and the history of Christian spirituality at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. She has a Master’s in Theological Studies (M.T.S.) from Harvard Divinity School, and an M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. in medieval history from Yale University. She has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, MA. She is an international lecturer at both scholarly and religious venues. She has served on boards for the Society for Medieval Feminist Studies, Monastic Matrix, and the Franciscan Friars, and has received research awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Harvard Divinity School, and the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University, NY.
Besides her scholarly work, Mooney has engaged in a variety of human rights activities. While living in rural Argentina during its military dictatorship and “Dirty War” during which thousands of Argentines were “disappeared” in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, she advocated for an exploited indigenous group and continues involved in their struggle today. For twenty-seven years she has been a board member on the Ignacio Martin-Baro Fund for Mental Health and Human Rights, a fund named for one of the Jesuits assassinated in El Salvador in 1989. The Fund has distributed well over a million dollars to grassroots-led groups around the world working to counter the psychological harm that institutionalized violence inflicts on vulnerable communities.
Mooney’s publications include Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters (1999), a book in which she and other scholars discuss the ways in which the portrayals of medieval holy women were variously embellished, recast, or distorted by later writers. Her book Philippine Duchesne: A Woman with the Poor (1990; 2007) chronicles the life of a woman, canonized in 1988, who did pioneering work in education and justice on the American frontier. Now translated into Japanese, Korean, and Bahasa Indonesia, the book will soon appear in Spanish. Mooney’s most recent book, Clare of Assisi and the Thirteenth-Century Church: Religious Women, Rules, and Resistance (2016), explores how Clare and her allies variously negotiated and resisted a papal program bent on regimenting, enriching, and enclosing religious women. Mooney is currently writing a book about how the historical Clare of Assisi’s image was refashioned after her death to suit the differing agendas of popes, Franciscans, and others. Mooney has also published many essays about saints, spirituality, and social justice efforts.