One thing that we human beings and especially Americans struggle with is authority – and sometimes for good reason. Our nation has always held liberty to be a hugely important value; it is one of the principles upon which our nation was founded. And freedom is truly a wonderful thing. Indeed, it is even a gift from God: God has given each one of us the gift of free will.
Furthermore, authority can be and often has been abused throughout human history, whether the authority of the Church or the State. This resistance to authority goes back to even the earliest years of childhood, with children seeking to assert their own will over their parents, teachers, and so on. “You’re not the boss of me!” – is the refrain of childhood. And who likes to take orders and be told what to do?
So freedom and authority or often perceived as being at odds with each other. But the value of freedom does not diminish the importance or even the necessity of authority. What happens, after all, when one person’s freedom comes into conflict with another person’s? Then we need someone or something to arbitrate the dispute. And we human beings never run out of things to dispute.
Jesus of course did not intend to remain on this earth forever until the end of time. Forty days after his death and resurrection, Scripture (and our Creed) teach us that he ascended into heaven, where he is now “seated at the right hand of the Father;” in other words, he shares in his Father’s divine authority. And while the Scriptures cover a lot of ground, there is a lot that they do not cover, especially with respect to all the various conundrums the human race has faced in the 2000 years since Jesus ascended into heaven. For example, Jesus did not say anything about the use of pesticides or nuclear energy or the internet or all kinds of things.
But even though he ascended into heaven, Jesus did not abandon us. First and foremost, He is still present with us in the Blessed Sacrament. And he is present when we gather in prayer. And in many other ways. But the one that I am going to focus on today, because our readings focus on it, is how God is present to us in the Church that Jesus Christ established, and specifically in the teaching authority of the Church.
Let me do that by first looking at our first reading from Isaiah. It mentions a couple names that I think almost no one is familiar with now. No doubt in Israel back then Shebna and Eliakim were household names, but nowadays I have to look in commentaries to know anything about them. Shebna was the “steward” or the “master of the palace” – in other words, he was the second in command after the king himself. One of the steward’s roles was to give people access to the king, by literally locking and unlocking the door to the palace. And the steward was also always a priest. But Shebna got a little big for his britches and decided that he was going to claim certain royal privileges reserved only for the kings, like having a tomb cut out in the graveyard reserved for royalty. So for his pride, the Lord decided to replace him with someone humbler and worthier, Eliakim the son of Hilkiah.
Isaiah says in reference to Eliakim: “When he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open.” Jesus rephrases it when he says to Peter, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” And Jesus promises to give Peter, who has just professed his faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the “keys to the kingdom of heaven.” In doing so, Jesus is appointing Peter as his steward. Jesus of course is the king, and so Peter is his steward.
“Binding” and “loosing” were also terms used in Judaism at the time of Christ to refer to the authority to apply the divine law. So in summary, Jesus is giving Peter, “the rock upon which he will build his Church,” the authority to bind and loose, or to adjudicate questions about how to apply the divine law. It is highly unlikely that Jesus would give Peter this authority but then let it die out with Peter’s death! No, Jesus established his Church here on earth as his instrument for the proclamation of the Gospel to all the nations, to every generation, until Jesus comes again. And the authority Jesus gave to Peter has been passed on to his successors – all the way down to our current Pope Francis. As the Catechism explains it: “In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. …the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, ‘unfailingly adheres to this faith (CCC #889).’” The Magisterium being the teaching authority of the Church – the pope and the bishops in union with the pope.
Jesus gave us the Church to serve as a guide for all generations until he comes again. Even though we often chafe against authority, and even though human beings can abuse authority, we need the Church. Otherwise it’s every man for himself, might makes right, survival of the fittest, etc. We need a guide to lead us through this life, as complicated, confusing, and as dangerous as life often is. We need a guide to lead us to the Truth, Jesus Christ Himself.
As flawed as the Church is in her human dimension, we need the Church. God gave us the teaching authority of the Church out of love for us, for our own good. It is one of His many gifts to us. And the Lord promised that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” We can take confidence in these words, and should remind ourselves of them, especially in times of uncertainty, confusion, and darkness. The Lord is with us in His Church, and He will never abandon us.