Today's First Reading might seem a little odd at first glance. There are a couple strange names in there; the context is a somewhat unclear; and it is rather difficult to understand exactly what is going on. Let's look closely at the reading, clear up some of the confusion, and discuss why this little text is so important to our understanding of today's Gospel.
In our reading, God is speaking through the prophet Isaiah. He is addressing Shebna, who was the master or steward of the royal household. As a steward, Shebna would have had control over the household, its servants, and its material resources, especially when the king was away from home. Shebna would have kept the keys of the household and had the final say in whatever decisions needed to be made to keep the household running smoothly and securely.
Shebna, however, was not a good steward. He was abusing his position, and God was getting pretty tired of it. In fact, He was kicking him out of office. Firmly. A few verses before our reading we hear, “The Lord is about to hurl you away violently, my fellow. He will seize firm hold on you, whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball into the wide land; there you shall die, and there your splendid chariots shall lie, O you disgrace to your master's house!”
God has had quite enough of Shebna, and He already has chosen someone to replace him, namely, Eliakim. Eliakim is God's servant, which suggests that he was a good and holy man who put God first in his life and in his work. God will place the steward's robe and sash on Eliakim, who will take on the authority of the office.
Notice how important that office is. Eliakim will become a father to the people of Jerusalem and to the whole house of Judah, to the whole kingdom. One would think that the king would be a father to the people, and indeed he is, but he shares that role with his steward, who represents him and cares for the people in the king's name.
Eliakim will also receive the keys to the king's household. He will have access to everything and full control. What he opens, no one else had better shut, and what he shuts, no one else had better open. He is second only to the king in his authority.
What's more, God will make Eliakim firm, steady, and strong. He will be like a “peg in a sure spot.” He will not move or fall. God will support him and uphold him in a place of honor in his family.
Keeping all of this in mind, reread today's Gospel, Matthew 16:13-20. Simon has just identified Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. He may not know completely what that means at this point, but he realizes that Jesus is the Messiah, the One sent by God to save His people. Jesus, in return, calls Simon blessed and tells him that he didn't come to this conclusion on his own; the Father in Heaven has revealed Jesus' identity to him.
Jesus then goes on to change Simon's name. “You are Peter,” He says, “and upon this rock I will build my church.” Simon is Peter, the rock, and he will stand steady and strong. God will support him, and he will be a solid foundation for Jesus' Church.
Look at what else Jesus tells Simon: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This should sound familiar. Jesus is making Simon Peter His steward. Like Eliakim, Peter will hold the keys to the king's household. He will have access to everything and full control. What he looses, no one else had better bind, and what he binds no one else had better loose.
Peter, as the steward, the vicar of Jesus, will represent Christ the King and care for the people in Jesus' name. He will be a father to Jesus' family on earth, the Church, leading them and guiding them.
Jesus knows that He will soon go to the cross, rise from the dead, and ascend into Heaven. Even though He will always remain present to His Church in many ways, He leaves a visible steward behind, first Peter and then Peter's successors, for Peter himself will not live forever but the Church will always need guidance.
Who are these men, these stewards whom Jesus appoints beginning with Peter? They are, of course, the popes, the vicars of Christ, who can trace their lineage all the way from Peter to Pope Francis I. They are Jesus' visible representatives on earth, who hold the keys to the kingdom, the Church. They are fathers to the King's people, guiding, protecting, and leading them. They are upheld by God and made firm in their teaching and their judgments. They hold a place of honor in their family and are second only to the King in authority over the Church on earth.
This, indeed, is the will of God, Who appointed Eliakim over the House of David and Peter and his successors over the Kingdom of Heaven.