Keys to the Kingdom

By Christian Bergmann

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus does something very strange. He gives Peter, leader amongst the apostles, “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19). We have been following the Gospel of Matthew for some time now, encountering Jesus as the one who, as the Son of David, is fulfilling the promises made to David and inaugurating an everlasting kingdom. We’ve also been journeying through the parables, those strange stories that subvert our expectations of what this kingdom consists of, prompting us to re-imagine what God is doing, or was doing, beyond our set paradigms. Now, we reach a point where Peter, after confessing – after all of this – that Jesus is in fact “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (v.16), Jesus gives him “the keys” to this “kingdom of heaven” (v.19).

The Old Testament reading for today gives us a glimpse into his meaning: God promises to replace the master of the palace, Shebna, with Eliakim, saying, “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts no one shall open” (Isaiah 22:22). The keys symbolised authority and the delegation of kingly authority to the “master of the palace”, who acted roughly speaking as a kind of prime minister, or a steward in the king’s absence. Jesus echoes this giving of the keys in his conversation with Peter: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). This kingdom Jesus has spoken of, this fulfillment of the Davidic kingdom, is being fulfilled in a very specific way here: with the institution of a steward, like in the old kingdom.

Today, we call him a pope.

Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary, brings up an interesting question. In the Old Testament, the authority of the keys made sense: a key opens and shuts. But the power that Jesus associates with the keys is the power of binding and loosing. Why doesn’t the power given suit the symbol of the keys? Keys do not bind or loose.

Aquinas answers it like this: it is not within the power of Peter to open the kingdom of heaven. That was accomplished by Christ. What is necessary is that “a bound man who ought to enter heaven, should be loosed” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew).

The kingdom that Jesus established was not a political kingdom in the sense expected by the people of Israel. What Jesus did was deal with the root of the world’s problems: sin. The exodus Jesus came to inaugurate was an exodus from slavery to sin, not to any particular political power of the day. This was one of the subversions Jesus took his disciples through.

Thus, Aquinas associates Peter’s delegated authority of the keys with the sacramental life of the church. In the sacraments, which produce the grace they signify, we undergo this loosing from sin that Jesus accomplished with his life, death and resurrection. Our connection to the kingdom of Jesus is a sacramental one, because that is the only kind of connection possible on this side of the grave. It is through participation in the sacramental life of the Church that we enter into the mystery God’s salvation, that we are able to be loosed from sin and enter the kingdom.

G.K. Chesterton has a further observation: “The early Christian was very precisely a person carrying about a key, or what he said was a key” (The Everlasting Man). Christianity was not, he said, a “vague forward movement”, like modern social movements. Instead, the whole Christian movement “consisted in claiming to possess that key”. Furthermore, the early Christian Church acted as though there were no other key. The key they possessed was the only one like it. It just so happened that this was “the key that could unlock the prison of the whole world and let in the white daylight of liberty”.

If we were able to see with fresh eyes this relationship between the keys, the sacraments, and the mystery of redemption, then maybe this could revive in a rich and surprising way our whole spiritual life.