August 24, 2014
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isaiah 22:19-23
No one likes to get fired. And nobody with a heart likes to fire people. But when a person abuses his authority and uses his position of influence merely to promote his own interests instead of those of his employer, the axe might need to fall. In this Sunday’s first reading, we have an example of the Lord firing someone. He speaks through the prophet Isaiah to fire an irresponsible, self-serving official in King Hezekiah’s administration of ancient Judah.
The Lectionary often tries to make a connection between the first reading and the gospel. Usually, the tie between the two is a little weak or tenuous, perhaps just thematic, but this Sunday, the first reading is essential for understanding what is going on in the gospel. Jesus gives Peter the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew 16. This sounds like mere religious talk, a nice metaphor for a spiritual idea. However, if we look back to Isaiah 22 a much richer, deeper background emerges.
I mentioned that this passage was about firing and hiring. The man getting fired is Shebna and the man getting hired is Eliakim. Most of the firing section is omitted from the reading, such as the part about God whirling Shebna round and round and throwing him away like a baseball (22:18). Shebna has apparently built himself a royal tomb and publicly brought disgrace to his royal master. The signs of his official role, his ceremonial clothing, his keys, will be taken away and given to another. Notably, his firing is really a demotion, since we see him show up later as a scribe, under the authority of Eliakim (2 Kgs 18:18, 26, 37). Eliakim is promoted to Shebna’s role and receives the signs of his office.
“Over the House”
The first line in this reading is actually stolen from an earlier verse: “Thus says the Lord…[ to] Shebna, master of the palace,” is not a Scripture passage, but a combination of some words from Isaiah 22:15. However, this non-verse verse gives us the key to the whole passage. Shebna, mentioned only in Isaiah and in 2 Kings 18-19, has a special title, which the NAB renders “master of the palace.” The phrase, al-habbayit is simply a preposition, meaning “over,” and a noun, “the house.” It is a title that describes the man’s function. He is “over the house” of the king. It is hard to find perfect corollaries for this office in the modern world, but a prime minister, chief of staff, right-hand man, or the like, can fill in the picture. This person, who held the al-habbayit role, would be in charge of the kingdom, second only to the king. Other persons in the Old Testament held this role too: Ahishar, Azra, Obadiah, etc. Joseph had a similar role in Egypt (Gen 41:40).
One of the most significant signs of authority is a key. We instinctively know this from our own customs: you get a key to possess your house or drive your new car. We give a ceremonial “key to the city” to public heroes. Keys are perfect metaphors. In this passage, Eliakim receives a key on his shoulder. Putting your house key on your shoulder doesn’t make sense. It’s too small. But in the ancient world, keys were enormous by our standards. Archaeologists have not dug up too many ancient Israelite keys because they were usually made of wood, but some scholars have tried to reconstruct what they would have looked like based on primitive key styles in Egypt. They were big, long, wooden devices, more like baseball bats than our kinds of keys (I wrote a blog post about this sometime back.). You might have to carry such keys over your shoulder—they certainly would not fit in your pocket.
The Authority of Peter
It is worth it to connect the dots between the first reading and the gospel. Matthew 16, where Jesus hands the “keys of the kingdom” to Peter echoes Isaiah 22. Jesus is in the role of the son of David, the king who rules over God’s kingdom on earth and he appoints Peter as his al-habbayit, the one who is “over the house,” the prime minister of the kingdom. Jesus, as king, grants a kingdom to his followers (Luke 22:29). In his kingdom, he establishes authority, initially in Peter and the other apostles, who will sit on thrones (Matt 19:28). While Jesus does not mention firing anybody like Shebna, he does reference the scribes and Pharisees who “sit on Moses’ seat”—to do what they say, but not what they do (Matt 23:2-3). While Eliakim has the power to “open and shut,” Peter receives the power to “bind and loose” (Matt 16:19). The point is that Peter is like Eliakim, taking on the pre-eminent role in the new kingdom of God, the Church. The episode in Matthew 16, along with the essential Old Testament background, is the foundation for the Church’s theology of the papacy, in which the Bishop of Rome inherits the authority of Peter to become the Vicar of Christ on earth.
Prime ministers, popes, and ancient Judahite officials are one thing, but what about us? How does Isaiah 22 teach us how to live? To me, the passage shows us how God’s delegated authority works. When we have legitimate authority in a certain realm, we should use it for God’s glory, not to sweeten our own deal. If we use our authority—whether in the family, at Church, in the company we work for—merely for our own selfish ends, we will eventually lose that authority and the benefits that come with it. Shebna abused his God-given authority and it was taken from him. Jesus teaches, “to whom much is given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). Every ounce of power comes with an equally weighty responsibility to use our influence for good.