8 August. Thursday of the Eighteenth Week
Num 20:1ff. Grumbling at the lack of food, the people wished to be back in Egypt. For striking the rock twice, Moses will not see the Promised Land.
Matt 16:13ff. Simon recognises Jesus as the Son of God; his name is changed to “Peter,” for he will be the rock or foundation of the church.
First Reading: Numbers 20:1-13
The Israelites, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died there, and was buried there.
Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had died when our kindred died before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.” Then Moses and Aaron went away from the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting; they fell on their faces, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock.
So Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and by which he showed his holiness.
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.”
The Rock and the Flesh
Two words strike me in these readings: “rock” and “flesh.” A rock on a mountainside becomes the source of fresh water and vigorous life in the Book of Numbers. In Matthew, a “human rock” becomes the foundation of the church. 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 has led them.
Even Moses had his doubts, so he struck the rock twice. Yet God could patiently bear both the people’s 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.
God’s covenants are not with an individual, unless that individual, like a king, represents all the people. Such a one was Simon, son of John. He expressed the faith of the disciples, for all to rally round. Therefore Jesus changed his name to “Rock” (in Aramaic, Cephas; in Latin, Petrus; in English, Peter.) His role was to be unitive, practical and faithful, a guide to all Jesus’ disciples. He was the rock on which the wise can build , the living rock of devotion to Jesus, the rock of unity and faith. This, at least, was Matthew’s concept of Peter, developed over many years, when Peter’s ministry in Antioch and elsewhere had been so splendid.
To see the “Flesh”, the human weakness of Peter, we would have to search in the gospel of Mark, Peter’s own helper and secretary in Rome. It is a portrayal much less triumphalist, but very movingly real, of a man devoted to following Jesus.