09 August. Thursday of Week Eighteen
(option: St Teresa Benedicta / Edith Stein)
Jer 31:31ff. The new covenant will not be inscribed on rock but on the flesh of the heart; all will know the Lord and be forgiven their sins.
Matthew 16:13ff. Simon honours and confesses Jesus as the Son of God; his name is changed to “Peter,” for he will be the rock or foundation of the church.
The Rock and the Flesh
(Today’s readings could even provide a good starting-point for a homily on St. Teresa Benedicta, who vividly experienced the New Covenant promised through Jeremiah, and who came to be such a devoted member of the Church led by St. Peter.)
Two contrasting words emerge from the readings, “rock” and “flesh.” In them we can recognize the rich diversity and development of the Scriptures. A literal rock is the source of fresh water and vigorous life in the Book of Numbers. In Matthew’s Gospel a human rock becomes the foundation of the church. In the prophecy of Jeremiah the significances of rock changes negatively to stubbornness and pride. A similar switch of meaning is involved in the word flesh. Jeremiah contrasts flesh with rock, so that it symbolizes a warm person, sensitive to the will of God and to the needs of the neighbour. Yet in the gospel “flesh” indicates the limitations of human nature, of itself unable to adequately answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that the Son of Man is?” The weakness of flesh shows up more clearly still in Numbers, when people complain about the wretched place where Moses and Aaron have led them. Such variety of meaning in the Scriptures need not dismay us. Instead, we are advised to reflect and pray over these terms, and not read them simplistically in search of for quick answers.
Even Moses had his doubts a times, and struck the rock twice. Yet God could patiently bear with both the people’s frequent murmuring and the hesitation of Moses. When his people wanted to exchange their liberty for the “grains, figs, vines and pomegranates” of the land of slavery, God provided sweet water for his wayward children from a rock in the desert. Centuries later, when Israel was enjoying “the land flowing with milk and honey,” they proved that they could not manage prosperity nearly as well as adversity. They had become stony-hearted and by legalistic cleverness defended their hard-as-rock insensitivity towards God and towards the poor. God would now strike this rock, not to bring out water, but to transform it to flesh. A law written on flesh was to be administered compassionately and promote the best instincts of everyone. No longer will one person lord it over others, says Jeremiah, for “All shall know me, from the least to the greatest.” They will approach the Lord as a single people of faith, for the covenant will be inscribed on the flesh of their hearts.
In the Scriptures God never makes a covenant with an individual, unless that individual, like a king, represents all the people. Such an individual representative of all was Simon son of John. He clearly expressed the faith of the disciples, for all to rally round. Jesus, therefore, changed his name to “Rock” (in Aramaic, Cephas; in Latin, Petrus; in English, Peter.) Just as the new covenant was unitive, practical and faithful, so also was Peter’s role among Jesus’ disciples. He was the foundational rock on which the wise person can build (Luke 6:48), the living rock of personal devotion to Jesus, the rock of compassion and forgiveness, the rock of unity and faith. He was not to be influenced by wealth, selfish concerns, power or ambition; this weak side of the flesh will be sustained by the overwhelming power of Jesus, the Son of the Living God.
First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Gospel: Matthew 16:13-23
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.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”