One of the most moving passages in the Gospel is the tender assurance of Our Lord found in Luke 12:32 “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” From there we learn that there are only a few that make it through the narrow doors of salvation. Jesus does not need to fill the square with hundreds of army divisions marching in lockstep. Joseph Stalin once asked, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” We know the answer, seventy years later: “enough divisions to bury the Soviet Union.” The spiritual contest is not over yet but Stalin clearly lost that battle.
So those who inherit the Kingdom are meek, like a flock; they are also few, and we know that God delights in sharing with them the glory and peace of His kingdom. Humility comes first, then the great test of battle, and finally the reward for fierce undivided loyalty. Our first Pope confirmed it when he wrote:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 1Peter 5:8
We know from Scripture that Peter struggled with fear and anxiety. I am most fond of Peter because we struggle with the same things, like most Christians I do not have the clarity and strength of John, nor the enviable purity of heart of Nathaniel. Peter is like most of us, a pendulum that swings from the depths of human weakness to the heights of divine inspiration, back and forth. He is very human in his understanding of Jesus, loyal like a shepherd’s dog but not as smart. If we observe the story of Peter as it unfolds we see how Jesus trained him, step-by-step so one day Peter would be able to overcome his weakness. Having that in mind consider the following passage where Peter is present. Jesus is presumably on the west side of the lake and they are about to cross to go to Caesarea Philippi.
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed. Matthew 16:1-4.
Jesus adversaries are part of the two religious parties of the day. They want Him to show them a sign from God proving that He is the Messiah. Apparently the abundance of miracles and the depth of Jesus wisdom were not enough, in their conceit they wanted a personal confirmation. Notice that only a short time later Jesus is going to give Peter the sign his adversaries were seeking. Before doing that Jesus gives the disciples a lesson. Observe also the image reaching us through Matthew: they are crossing the lake, their destination is a region called Caesarea Philippi but more precisely a valley in the area called Panias, from Pan the Roman deity represented like a satyr, the ruler of the depths of Hell, the god who reigns over the basest instincts of man: fear, lust, anger, and deceit. The disciples forget to take the local bread, Jewish bread. Of course they can buy bread on the other side of the lake but it is not kosher because that is a pagan area. Jesus promptly uses that to teach them a lesson.
When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Matthew 16:5-12.
Peter; along with the other disciples associate the leaven with the bread they forgot to bring. They think that surely Jesus is talking about some kind of leaven contaminating the bread of the Pharisees and Sadducees. So in their defense they quickly remind Jesus that they bought no bread! Therefore they are free from that bad leaven! The rash simple-minded interpretation of Jesus’ words is typical of Peter, I imagine him being the first to jump and deny any contact with unclean bread. In typical rabbinical fashion Jesus then opens the lesson; He is not talking about bread. Can’t He make bread out of nothing? Didn’t He do that before when He fed the crowds? Now He unlocks the meaning: leaven is bad doctrine. The doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees on the “good bread shore” is contaminated. The doctrine of the pagans on the other shore is also impure to boot but traveling with the disciples is the source of good bread, safe to eat, satisfying and abundant. Never forget that, we travel with Divine Providence.
The mission for the disciples is rather strange but highly symbolic: they are moving like Joseph the son of Jacob, from the safety of Galilee to the pagan controlled shore, a sort of Egypt. There, just like Joseph revealed himself to his twelve brothers (Genesis 45) Jesus is going to reveal His secret identity to the twelve.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. Matthew 16:13-20.
There is enough information packed in these few verses to keep scholars busy for several centuries. Let us concentrate on the first layer. Jesus is the bread from Heaven, pure manna that will sustain the Church in her long pilgrimage through History just like manna sustained Israel through those long forty years in the wilderness. The Church moves towards her inexorable destiny: to face the infernal forces in an all-or-nothing confrontation at the end of time. During her pilgrimage the Church gets acquainted with Jesus like a bride is acquainted with her groom during courtship. This trip to the pagan valley is a parable, a small-scale model of the Church’s history. Peter’s fishing boat is a new ark of Noah. During that long trip, Peter (and his successors) will be in constant contact with Jesus, it is the fisherman’s wooden boat, shaped by the Carpenter to reach the place where evil resides and take their gates by assault, fulfilling the promise to Abraham: “indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies.” (Genesis 22:16-18.)
They reach the valley of Pania where the cave and the “gates of hell” are guarding the temple of Pan. There Jesus poses the final question “Who do you think I am?” and this time God uses Peter’s natural impulsiveness to make him exclaim first: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” and with that the secret identity of Jesus is revealed and also the mission of Peter and the twelve. They will start a pilgrimage of centuries that will lead them to another distant valley where the forces of evil will be waiting to give battle, they will engage them in mortal combat and they will prevail over their gates.
The blessing of Jesus connects Peter to the “sign” promised to the Pharisees and Sadducees on the other shore. Jesus calls Peter “Simon bar Jonah.” The Church will be born and sustained by the Resurrection of the Son of Man, represented in the Old Testament by the story of Jonah the prophet who spent three days in the depths of the sea before preaching and converting the great city of Nineveh.
Peter will have the keys to the Kingdom of the Heavens, that Church will hold within the “little flock” that will inherit that kingdom but the pusillus grex, the little flock will have to cross the sea of history guarding constantly from the leaven of the Pharisees on one shore, and the forces of darkness and chaos on the other shore.
To be continued …