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The keys to the kingdom

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Gospel Commentary MT 16:13-20

It is a big moment in the life of a teenager when he is given the keys to the family car. It is a sign of trust. A parent knows that such a moment is necessary because he or she will not always be around, and a son or daughter must know how to drive and how to handle a car. Years ago, a relative taught me how to handle a car by having me drive very pointedly in the local cemetery.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gives to Peter the keys not to the family car but to the kingdom. This Gospel scene is captured powerfully in a painting by the Renaissance artist Pietro Perugino, found in the Sistine Chapel. It depicts Jesus handing on the keys to Peter as the other Apostles look on. Perugino sets it in a vast piazza as if to highlight the singular drama, majesty and universal reach of that moment that will fill the world, with the forgiveness of Christ as it does today in millions of confessions every week. In fact, St. Peter is commonly depicted holding the keys entrusted to him by Christ as his distinctive symbol. Popular culture has depicted St. Peter as the figure we will meet at the “pearly gates” who will determine our entry into heaven.

Several reflections flow from this scene.

First, the entrustment of the keys of the kingdom and the building of the church on Peter were not limited to Peter alone because Peter would be martyred eventually. Clearly, the Lord is giving the keys not only to Peter as an individual but to Peter as representing an office that will endure throughout history. This is part of what is called the Petrine ministry. 

Secondly, the keys are not intended primarily to shut people out but to give them entry into the kingdom. In the Acts of the Apostles, we see Peter inviting the Jewish people, the Samaritans and the Gentiles into the kingdom, all motivated and impelled by the power of the keys. The keys are, therefore, not a symbol of exclusion but a force for inclusion. This too is part of the Petrine ministry that we see exhibited so forcefully as recent popes have traveled all over the world gathering all peoples into the Kingdom of grace now and later to the kingdom of Heaven.

Lastly, the power of the keys will be used in different ways over the passage of time. One writer has compared the power of the keys to a precious diamond that has passed through many hands both soiled and clean, hard and soft, but the diamond always retains its beauty, its strength, its clarity and its wonder, whoever the holder may be. 

The power of the keys is not a museum piece for us to admire. 

Its power today reaches every nation and every parish. The power of the keys is at work in every confession; in every baptism, in every priestly ordination and in every episcopal ordination. The Lord gave Peter the power of the keys not to keep it secure in some symbolic safety deposit box. Rather the Lord handed over this power to be used widely, wisely and generously. 

Without the power of the keys, the church can be reduced to being simply an observer of human history. With the power of the keys, the church becomes an actor in human events transforming the world by her ministry deep within human minds and souls. It is the power of the keys that makes the church a carrier of hope and an agent of renewal in our world. 

With all the majestic cathedrals that have been built, with all the artistry that gives expression to our faith, with all the magnificent music that has been composed and powerful sermons delivered, nothing can compare to the power of the keys. Given to Peter and handed on to his successors, the power of the keys brings a liberation like no other because it sets the soul free, bringing an exodus from sin and reentry to the promised land of grace. 

The “keys to the kingdom” are one of the Lord’s great and monumental gifts to Peter and, therefore, to the church.

Fr. Krempa is pastor of St. Bridget of Ireland Church in Berryville.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017