Readings for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul: Acts 12: 1-11; PS 34: 2-9; 2TM 4: 6-8, 17-18; MT 16: 13-19,
Pope Francis is at it again. He's throwing stones at the U.S. Empire. (Details to follow.) Today's liturgy of the word tells us that in doing so Francis is following in the footsteps of St. Peter, the" rock-thrower" of whom tradition tells us Pope Francis the successor.
Selections in today's lectionary promise that joining Francis and Peter in their resistance to empire, while accepting the mysterious keys to God's kingdom can release us from even the most impregnable imperial prison. This should give all of us encouragement as we struggle against the powerful "beast" whose policies would rather see behind bars people like Francis, Peter and many reading this homily.
To begin with, think about our prophet-pope. Three weeks ago, he reaffirmed what has become a theme of his papacy. Without mentioning the United States by name, he condemned the economic system "America" and its European partners champion.
Here are the pope's actual words:
"We discard a whole generation to maintain an economic system that no longer endures -- a system that to survive has to make war, as the big empires have always done. But since we cannot wage the Third World War, we make regional wars. And what does that mean? That we make and sell arms. And with that the balance sheets of the idolatrous economies -- the big world economies that sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money -- are obviously cleaned up."
As indicated earlier, those words can be understood as following the anti-imperial rock-throwing tradition of Simon the apostle. After all the nom de guerre of that particular insurgent was "Peter," a name some say meant "rock-thrower" -- probably a reference to his prowess at hurling stones at Roman soldiers who occupied his homeland of Galilee. Peter was an insurgent not unlike those who have plagued U.S. misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. In today's gospel, Matthew turns rock-throwing into an anti-imperial metaphor describing the foundation of the Jesus Movement.
The evangelist does so by having Jesus raise three Socratic questions about God's reign contrasted with Caesar's -- always the focus of Jesus' teaching.
Jesus' first question sets an "apocalyptic" tone for the other two. The question represents a marker telling us that what follows will be highly political -- a criticism of the imperial order Jesus and his friends found it so painful to live under. (The literary form "apocalypse" always entailed critique of empire.)
So the carpenter-rabbi asks, "Who do people say the 'Son of Man' is?" The question refers us, not to Jesus, but to a revolutionary character introduced in the Book of Daniel -- written during the occupation of Palestine under the Greek emperor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Daniel's character was "the Human One." The book's author sets that figure in sharp contrast to "the Beasts" (including a lion, a leopard and an iron-toothed dragon) who represent the imperial oppressors of Israel from the Egyptians through the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, and Greeks. In Jesus' context, the Roman occupiers were the latest bestial incarnation. Everyone knew that.
According to Daniel's author, the Human One would establish God's compassionate (humanistic) order destined to replace all savage imperial arrangements. The resulting Kingdom would be friendly not to the royalty, the generals, "our troops," or the 1%, but to those the biblical tradition identifies as God's favorites -- the widows, orphans, and undocumented foreigners. (This Sunday's responsorial psalm calls such people the poor, the lowly, fearful, ashamed and distressed. They are the ones, the responsorial says, whom God can be counted on to rescue.)
In answer to Jesus' question about the Son of Man's identity, his disciples answer, "Some say he was John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
Then Jesus asks, "what about me? Who do you think I am in the apocalyptic context I've just set.
Not surprisingly, Peter takes the bait. "You are the messiah," he responds, "the Son of God." With these words, the Jewish fisherman is not making a scholar's metaphysical statement about Jesus' "consubstantiality" with "the Father." Rather, he's distinguishing Jesus from the Roman emperor -- the most prominent claimant to the titles, "Messiah" and "Son of God." Yes, both "Messiah" and "Son of God" were imperial titles. Everyone knew that too.
This makes Peter's statement highly political. It identifies Jesus as the true head of the New Order which prophets like John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah painted as the Dream of God. In words more relevant to our own time, Peter's "confession of faith" is like saying "You, Jesus, are the real President, and your order has nothing to do with the United States or 'America.' In fact, it turns the values of empires -- be they Rome or the United States -- completely on their heads."