This is the fifth article of a series commenting on Matthew 15-16. Previous posts:
- Jesus defines defilement
- Persevere in humble prayer
- Bread to feed and liberate mankind
- They asked for a sign
In the previous post They asked for a sign, we left the disciples about to cross the Sea of Galilee after meeting with the Pharisees and Sadducees. The religious leaders were asking Jesus for a special sign that could reconcile their beliefs about the expected Messiah, and the reality of Jesus’ miracles giving witness to God’s power dwelling in him. Sadly, we all have gone through a “Pharisee phase” when we expect God to explain to us what is going on, when in reality we owe God an explanation for our own shortcomings and failures. Therefore, we should not marvel at the Pharisees and Sadducees pigheadedness, most of us have been there.
After the crossing, Our Lord addresses the issue for the benefit of his disciples.
When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not 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 could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:5-12)
Comparing teachings to yeast opens the meaning of Jesus’ words to many interpretations. The warning is severe because Jesus was always harsh with his religious critics. I think it could be useful to read these passages both as moral teaching and as a prophetic model. Yeast acts over time and it works better in darkness. The morning sunlight is specially bad for the leavening process — ask any baker — and that is why bread lumps in the process of being leavened are usually kept covered or in a dark place.
Jesus refers to himself as “the Bread that came from Heaven” in a clear allusion to the manna that fed Israel during their forty years in the desert. Bread appears in the Old Testament often. Abraham asks Sarah to bake cakes for the heavenly visitors, as we are told in Genesis 18. In prison, Joseph the son of Jacob predicts the execution of Pharaoh’s baker after interpreting a dream. Joseph is liberated and made governor of Egypt after the baker dies. The two simple elements of the Holy Mass thus make their gradual entrance in sacred history. Now, Jesus’ warning challenges the disciples to do some heavy thinking: “Yeast? We did not bring any bread, didn’t we? No one brought any provisions? What are we going to eat?“ etc. Again, let us not marvel at their confusion. The Church has been reading this passage for many years and we are still unpacking it!
The first allegory finally dawns in the minds of the disciples. Jesus is not talking about bread to eat but about the teachings of the Pharisees. There I wonder if the Lord is not pointing at a later time in the Church, when false novelties will contaminate the pure, unleavened bread of Jesus’ doctrine.
Some consider these chapters as a prophetic model. Each scene or phrase seems to have a prophetic meaning. Let us try to think this through in that fashion.
The Pharisees are left ashore as Peter’s boat crosses over to the other side. There we recognize a figure of the final Passover. In the original Passover, Israel leaves the shores of Egypt, crossing the Red Sea to the opposite side. The bread that Israel consumes during that specific time had to be unleavened, without yeast. In that sense, Christ may have been pointing at the new mission of the Church and the necessity to leave behind the Old Covenant that the religious authorities had allowed to grow stale. (See Mark 2:22-23) The original manna that Israel consumed in the desert lasted only for the day. It could not be saved except for the Sabbath. The lesson of the manna was a lesson of faith, to humble Israel and to teach them that one “does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3,16) The warning of the yeast was directed at the Church of all ages: the Word and the Bread from Heaven are one and the same thing. The doctrine received from Him must remain uncontaminated by the human ideas represented by the leaven or yeast. The short lesson reminding the disciples to recall the miraculous feeding of the crowds, contains a warning and a promise: for the Israelites in the desert and for the Church militant in this world, purity of conduct and doctrine guarantee the blessings of Divine Providence.
Peter’s Confession of Christ
The following passage is so fraught with meaning that I believe all the blogs on Earth could not contain a detailed explanation. I can only feel awe at the way Our Lord has inspired the Gospels, filling them with inexhaustible treasures!
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, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16:13-20)
The boat arrives at Caesarea Philippi, a gentile region. That points at the universal mission of the Church. The New Israel will conquer the world without armies or physical weapons but conquer it will, impulsed by the Logos, the very force that moves the Universe.
And there the all-knowing Logos, who could read the hearts and thoughts of everyone, asks the poor know-nothing disciples a series of questions. These are rhetorical questions organized in such a way to lead them to the heart of a lesson. Who is Jesus? A resurrected John the Baptist? Elijah, who is to come before the end of times? Jeremiah? Isaiah? Samuel? It is hard to tell because Jesus strangely reminds them of every prophet at one point or another. But Jesus soon ends the poll-taking and goes to the heart of the matter: “Who do you say I AM?” He asks. The answer is in the question. Jesus is the “I AM” Who revealed His Holy Name to Moses by the burning bush. (Exodus 3:13-14)
At the invocation of the Holy Name of God, Peter is moved to confess Who is that man; who is that Jesus he has been following from the beginning?
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
They all know that as men beget men, God begets God. In the mystery of His being God has become Jesus the man. They have Him there, teaching them “words of eternal life.”
Jesus immediately blesses Peter and reveals the origin of Peter’s confession. It is true: Jesus is the Christ. The Twelve must have felt like the sons of Jacob felt in Egypt when Joseph revealed them his true identity. (Genesis 45:1-3) The name Joseph means “May the LORD increase.” With Peter’s declaration, a long age of increase starts for the New Israel, the nation of the chosen destined to conquer the world as spiritual soldiers of God: the Church.
Peter’s pure doctrine does not come from “flesh and blood” but from God the Father. It is pristine and indestructible like its Divine Source. And here it gets really interesting: Simon is renamed twice in one sentence. Peter is called Son of John (Yohanan) in John 21:15-17 but here, Jesus calls him “Son of Jonah” and that involves a counterpoint. Peter reveals the true filiation of Jesus (Son of God) and His mission to be the Messiah or Christ. Jesus seems to respond symmetrically by revealing the destiny of Simon Peter: to inherit the mission and the peculiar and distinctive traits of the prophet that was sent to save the sinful city of Nineveh. (Please read this wonderful essay by Emmett O’Reagan: The Sign of Jonah and the Binding of Satan to get an idea of the eschatological charge contained in these words of Jesus.)
Jesus is in this world sent by the Father. His Divine Sonship entails a mission of salvation. (See Matthew 21:33-43 and specifically verses 37 and 43.) Peter is given a new filiation and a mission: he will reveal the divine judgment of this world in the same manner that Jonah revealed the judgment of Nineveh. In a mysterious way, he will retrace the actions of the ancient prophet by abandoning his Master during the Passion, escaping his mission and, just like Jonah, returning to it from the sea. (See John 21:7)
The meaning of Peter
Not far from the place where Jesus has gathered his disciples, in pagan territory, there is a sanctuary devoted to the Roman god Pan. The name of that god means “all of them” and he was believed to be the ruler of the underground. Not only of the physical infernus but also of the base passions to which the human condition is subject. While Eros personified the force of spring that renewed natural life every spring, Pan had a darker strength, the shameful impulses that could overcome human beings during the dark nights of winter. The sanctuary of Pan had iron gates, designed to protect the offerings from the voracity of thieves and animals. Those were perhaps the gates of Hell that Jesus refer to while being so close to that dreadful place.
The other name assigned to Simon Peter was the Aramaic word Kepha. Meaning a “protruding rock” or a “rocky promontory.” This is an interesting choice because the words that followed this renaming of Simon are taken from Isaiah 22:15-25. There God, as the eternal King of Israel, announces the replacement of Shebna, the Royal Steward of the House of Israel. In lieu of Shebna, God designates Eliakim, a faithful man: “to tie and untie,” to rule the royal household as a steward.
The name Kepha sounds very similar to Kaiaphas, (Caiaphas) who was serving as a High Priest in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. In reality, the legal High Priest was Annas, who happened to be Caiaphas’ father-in-law. The Romans occupying Judea thought that a High Priest should not occupy that post for life. Only the Roman Emperor could be a permanent Pontifex Maximus and no one else. So the Roman Governor appointed Caiaphas to serve as High Priest in the Temple, rotating every year with the real High Priest, his father-in-law Annas. (See John 11:49-50) But God had some slightly different plans for Caiaphas, Peter, the Roman Emperor, and Rome.
The similarity of the names Kepha and Kaiaphas contains a hidden message. We explained Kepha means “protruding rock” or a “rocky promontory.” That is a name that points up, a positive name. While Kaiaphas means “a dell” or “depression,” a word pointing down, with a negative connotation when seen in the context of Isaiah 22:15-25. From that moment on, the priesthood of the Old Covenant would wane and disappear. The priesthood of Peter will grow stronger and reach the ends of the world.
The Romans had the audacity to replace the High Priest in the Temple of God. Jesus was not going to leave that offense unpunished. In 70 A.D. thirty-seven years after Jesus died on the Cross, the Roman general Titus Flavius Vespasianus, sent by Rome to suffocate a rebellion, destroyed the Temple. God’s response was quite astonishing.
Peter was sent to Rome, and was the first Christian Bishop of that city. He died a martyr’s death in the Roman Circus that was built on a hill called the Mons Vaticanus, meaning “the hill of the vaticinii” (prophecies, oracles, or predictions.) In ancient times, when Rome was nothing more than a mere little kingdom, the Roman prophets, called augures, used to sacrifice a white doe and read its entrails there. In time, the followers of Peter and Christ gained control of Rome and built a Church in that exact spot where Peter was crucified upside down. Centuries have passed and the Roman Emperors are no more but the successor of Peter is still the Bishop of Rome. The purple of Emperors and Senators is now the purple of Bishops and Cardinals. The defeat of Caesar by Christ is complete. Our Lord symbolically “cut the tongue” of Caesar following the custom of the ancient oriental kings, who did that to humiliate a vanquished ruler. Today Latin is the language of the Vatican Curia and the Bishop of Rome is called the Roman Pontifex.
The battle of good and evil rages all over the world now. We do not know what the next mission will be for the successors of Peter but we know one thing: one day, when the war is won, one of his blessed successors will meet the King of Kings returning in glory, and that new Peter will hear the blessed words of his Master:
“Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your Master’s happiness!”