It is the middle of the summer. Most people are thinking about vacations, yet the readings would have us look at leadership. Isaiah reports on the transfer of leadership; Matthew recounts the initial bestowal of it. It is clear that Jesus is talking about religious leadership. At first glance, one might think that Isaiah is referring only to the political realm. But those in office in ancient Israel had political and religious responsibilities, so we can say that both readings address religious leadership.
Religious leadership is a sacred trust. Both ancient Israel and early Christianity insisted on this. Today’s readings indicate that the religious leader is appointed by God and is accountable to God. Because Shebna did not faithfully fulfill his charge, he was relieved of his responsibilities, and they were given to Eliakim. When Jesus appointed Peter the rock upon which the church would be built, he very clearly stated: “I will build my church.”
Though it is certainly a position of honor, religious leadership of the people of God is primarily a sacred trust. This is not primarily because of the leadership itself, but because the people are a sacred people. The biblical tradition maintains that good religious leaders are really servants of the people. They take their positions and responsibilities seriously, because the people of God deserve the best that they have to offer.
The symbolism in these readings should not be lost. In the first reading, the robe and the sash indicate that Eliakim has been invested with authority. The key symbolizes jurisdiction, and the tent peg is a sign of stability. The Gospel reading includes no account of an investiture, but we find other symbolism there. Stability is expressed by the familiar play on words: Peter (Pétros) is the rock (pétra) upon which Jesus builds the church. Peter is also endowed with the power of the keys. His responsibility, however, is not principally managerial, as was Eliakim’s, but juridical. In a sense, Peter has a special role in interpreting the Law for the rest of the community.
These readings exhibit an eschatological tone. Eliakim was the son of Hilkiah, the high priest who found the copy of the Law in the Temple at the time of Josiah (2 Kgs 22:8). This discovery launched Josiah’s reform. The founding of the church also launched a renewal. The church is more than the company of the “renewed people.” It is the agent of God’s renewal of the entire world.
Realization of this mystery caused Paul to break out into the praise we hear in the reading from Romans. He marvels at the unsearchable ways of God, who time and again has stepped into our lives with saving grace. It is God who initiates renewal, and it is God who calls some to lead God’s people in that renewal. Leadership is certainly a sacred trust, not to be taken lightly, either by those who lead or by those who are led.