Sunday Homily: Pope Francis & St. Peter – Throwing Rocks at Empire Then and Now

Stone thrower

Readings for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul: Acts 12: 1-11; PS 34: 2-9; 2TM 4: 6-8, 17-18; MT 16: 13-19,

Pope Francis is at it again. He’s throwing stones at the U.S. Empire. (Details to follow.) Today’s liturgy of the word tells us that in doing so Francis is following in the footsteps of St. Peter, the” rock-thrower” of whom tradition tells us Pope Francis the successor.

The liturgy promises that joining Francis and Peter in their resistance to empire, while accepting the mysterious keys to God’s kingdom can release us from even the most impregnable imperial prison. This should give all of us encouragement as we struggle against the powerful “beast” whose policies would rather see behind bars people like Francis, Peter and many reading this homily.

To begin with, think about our prophet-pope. Three weeks ago, he reaffirmed what has become a theme of his papacy. Without mentioning the United States by name, he condemned the economic system “America” and its European partners champion.

He also condemned the wars the U.S. prosecutes and weaponizes. According to the pope, far from advancing freedom or democracy, the purpose of such war is to maintain a system of greed based on the worship of money. As such, that system is the cause of scandalous inequalities and unemployment across the globe – even as exposed by French economist, Thomas Picketty in his best-selling Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century.

Here are the pope’s actual words:

“We discard a whole generation to maintain an economic system that no longer endures – a system that to survive has to make war, as the big empires have always done. But since we cannot wage the Third World War, we make regional wars. And what does that mean? That we make and sell arms. And with that the balance sheets of the idolatrous economies — the big world economies that sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money — are obviously cleaned up.”

As indicated earlier, those words can be understood as following the anti-imperial rock-throwing tradition of Simon the apostle. After all the nom de guerre of that particular insurgent was “Peter,” a name some say meant “rock-thrower” – probably a reference to his prowess at hurling stones at Roman soldiers who occupied his homeland of Galilee. Peter was an insurgent not unlike those who have plagued U.S. misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. In today’s gospel, Matthew turns rock-throwing into an anti-imperial metaphor describing the foundation of the Jesus Movement.

The evangelist does so by having Jesus raise three Socratic questions about God’s reign contrasted with Caesar’s – always the focus of Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus’ first question sets an “apocalyptic” tone for the other two. The question represents a marker telling us that what follows will be highly political – a criticism of the imperial order Jesus and his friends found it so painful to live under. (The literary form “apocalypse” always entailed critique of empire.)

So seemingly out of the blue, the carpenter-rabbi asks, “Who do people say the ‘Son of Man’ is?” The question refers us, not to Jesus, but to a revolutionary character introduced in the Book of Daniel – written during the occupation of Palestine under the Greek emperor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Daniel’s character was “the Human One.” The book’s author sets that figure in sharp contrast to “the Beasts” (including a lion, a leopard and an iron-toothed dragon) who represent the imperial oppressors of Israel from the Egyptians through the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, and Greeks. In Jesus’ context, the Roman occupiers were the latest bestial incarnation. Everyone knew that.

According to Daniel’s author, the Human One would establish God’s compassionate (humanistic) order destined to replace all savage imperial arrangements. The resulting Kingdom would be friendly not to the royalty, the generals, “our troops,” or the 1%, but to those the biblical tradition identifies as God’s favorites – the widows, orphans, and undocumented foreigners. (This Sunday’s responsorial psalm calls such people the poor, the lowly, fearful, ashamed and distressed. They are the ones, the responsorial says, whom God can be counted on to rescue.)

In answer to Jesus’ question about the Son of Man’s identity, his disciples answer, “Some say he was John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

Then Jesus asks, “what about me? Who do you think I am in the apocalyptic context I’ve just set – at this particularly pregnant moment when all of us are breathlessly expecting a change in World Order? That’s Jesus’ second question this morning.

Not surprisingly, Peter takes the bait. “You are the messiah,” he responds, “the Son of God.” With these words, the Jewish fisherman is not making a scholar’s metaphysical statement about Jesus’ “consubstantiality” with “the Father.” Rather, he’s distinguishing Jesus from the Roman emperor – the most prominent claimant to the titles, “Messiah” and “Son of God.” Yes, both “Messiah” and “Son of God” were imperial titles. Everyone knew that too.

This makes Peter’s statement highly political. It identifies Jesus as the true head of the New Order which prophets like John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah painted as the Dream of God. In words more relevant to our own time, Peter’s “confession of faith” is like saying “You, Jesus, are the real President, and your order has nothing to do with the United States or ‘America.’ In fact, it turns the values of empires – be they Rome or the United States – completely on their heads.”

Jesus’ response? (And this is the implied third question raised by Jesus – about Peter’s identity.) “You’re right, Simon. They don’t call you ‘Rock Thrower’ for nothing. And you’ve just thrown the most devastating rock of your life – this time at the Roman Empire itself. God’s kingdom puts the last first, the poor above the rich, and prostitutes and tax collectors ahead of priests and rabbis.

Jesus’ further comment shows that Peter has not merely thrown a rock; his understanding of God’s “preferential option for the poor” has moved a mountain. Recognizing Jesus and his priorities as the alternative to empire’s bestial order provides the foundation for the entire Jesus Movement.

It provides the KEY to the very kingdom of heaven. And the key is this: all human acts, whether they bind others (as empires always do) or free them (as Jesus’ followers are called to do) have cosmic significance. “What you bind on earth,” Jesus says, is bound in heaven. What you loose upon earth is loosed in heaven.” To repeat: empire’s nature is to bind the poor. In contrast, Jesus’ followers are called to loosen the bonds of those the empire identifies as “the least.” No effort on behalf of human liberation is insignificant. Despite appearances, they are stronger than those of empire.

As if to illustrate the overwhelming power of God’s loosening over imperial bondage, today’s opening reading from the Acts of the Apostles recounts the miraculous release of Peter from prison. (Prisoners, of course, are also prominent among God’s favorites.) Like our situation today as we attempt to oppose the beast of empire, Peter’s seemed particularly hopeless to say the least. Rome’s puppet, Herod, was waging a major persecution of Jesus’ followers – for their Christ-like opposition to his patron, Caesar. In the process, prominent community leaders have been killed.

Peter himself has been arrested and is awaiting trial. He’s guarded by 16 heavily armed soldiers. He’s restrained by twice as many chains as normal. As he sleeps, one guard stands vigilant to Peter’s right, another to his left. Guards are also posted outside the prison door. The entire city is locked by an iron gate.

And yet Peter escapes. An “angel” (a representative of the cosmic power Jesus referred to) comes to Peter’s rescue. Almost as in a dream, he passes through one obstacle after another. And suddenly the “powers of heaven” set him free.

Joseph Stalin once famously belittled papal power by asking, “And how many divisions does the pope have?” The answer in today’s gospel –“innumerable.” Pope Francis’ words will have their effect, because their point is to loosen the bonds restraining the world’s poor. In the long run, empire’s power is doomed.

Be like Francis then. Resist neo-liberalism and the wars that force its policies on the world. Speak the truth. Work for justice.

History, the cosmos – God is on our side!

That’s the message of today’s liturgy of the word.