Sunday Sermon for August 21, 2011, the Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Readings: Is 22:19-23; Rom 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20

In the second reading today St. Paul extols the depth of the riches, the wisdom and the knowledge of God. He proclaims the Lord’s judgments to be inscrutable and His ways to be unsearchable. There are two reasons that can be given for this. First of all, God’s wisdom and His ways are perfect, without fault or deviation. Second, His wisdom is infinite and eternal so we can never grasp more than a small fraction of what He is doing or why.

We recall the statement St. Paul makes at the beginning of his First Letter to the Corinthians when he says that God’s wisdom is foolish in the eyes of man and human wisdom is foolish in the eyes of God. We can see these points played out so clearly in the other two readings today.

In the first reading we hear the story of Shebna, the Prime Minister of Israel. He was a crafty, intelligent man who was very much concerned with himself, his image, his power, his prestige, etc. One could say that everything he did was carefully calculated according to human wisdom so that he would reap the maximum benefit from every decision.

Because Shebna was serving his own needs instead of the needs of the people of Israel, The Lord sends Isaiah to tell Shebna that he is going to be removed from office and that the Prime Minister’s duties will be given to someone who will be a father to the people of Israel. In God’s wisdom, according to the teachings of our Lord, the one who sought to exalt himself was humbled and we see the foolishness of human wisdom when the light of divine wisdom shone upon it.

In the Gospel reading, on the other hand, we have a clear demonstration of divine wisdom which appears as foolishness in the eyes of men. Here Jesus goes to Caesarea Philippi, to the headwaters of the Jordan River and a place which was a virtual pantheon with niches carved out for each of the various gods of the ancient world. With all of this worldly wisdom on display, our Lord asks His disciples who people say He is. After a variety of answers reflecting the ignorance of human wisdom, He asks who they say He is. Simon Peter answers that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus tells Peter that this was not revealed by flesh and blood, but by His Father in Heaven. Once again we see the distinction between human wisdom and divine wisdom.

Then comes the ultimate in divine wisdom that, to this day, is considered utter and absolute foolishness in the eyes of men: Jesus gives Peter authority as His Prime Minister. This office is signified by the keys, as we see in the first reading, and it an office of succession. From a human point of view, where is the wisdom? Here we have God Himself starting a Church, and He puts a man in charge of it? Our Lord Himself told Peter on a couple of occasions that he would betray the Lord, and still He puts Peter at the head of His Church.

For centuries this has been rejected by those who want to believe in Jesus, but do not want to believe in the Pope or in the Church. These people cannot accept that God would put a weak, sinful, human person in charge of His Own Mystical Body. After all, Jesus is God, He knows everything and He is all powerful, so why does He not just run the Church Himself from Heaven? Perhaps, they say, we do not need a Church, all we need is the Bible and Jesus, I can do the rest myself.

The result of this wisdom is more than 33,000 Christian denominations, so the need for a visible head for the Mystical Body becomes self evident because the Pope is the point of unity: if you are in union with the Pope, you are in union with Jesus and His Church.

This, of course, requires a good dose of humility and obedience on our part. It means that I am not the arbiter of truth, I cannot claim sole possession of the Holy Spirit, and my word is not the last word. What is humorous is that these people want to deny that Jesus would set a man at the head of the Church and give the Holy Spirit to the Church to lead her into all truth, but then they apply all of this to themselves. The foolishness of human wisdom is demonstrated once again. One look at the Papacy and we, with St. Paul, will be able to exclaim our gratitude for the depth of the riches, the wisdom and the knowledge of God.

Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit