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Victor Cancino, S.J.August 24, 2023
Photo from Unsplash.

In the Bible, leadership is always a vocation. It does not matter if the person is administering a palace or managing a far-flung community, leadership is only authentic if it is an act of grace. This Sunday’s readings reflect on the need for genuine “servants of the Lord” in positions of authority, and they warn inadequate leaders that their time will be short.

When I called, you answered me; you built up strength within me. (Ps 138:3)

Liturgical day
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Is 22:19-23, Ps 138, Rom 11:33-36, Mt 16:13-20

Do you identify with Peter of little faith or Peter the rock?

Can you hear God calling out to you as “my servant” at this time?

How are you called to build up the church in your community?


At St. Ignatius Mission in Montana, there are two sisters who serve as acolytes for the Sunday morning Mass. They attend to their duties with immaculate precision. Their exceptional attitude – week after week – should be the standard for all ministers in every church anywhere. The older sister is thirteen years old and the younger is ten. Recently, they trained a third, their seven-year-old youngest sister, to serve as an acolyte. The seven-year-old was so excited to serve at her first mass that she could not sleep the night before. The manner in which her two older sisters prepared her, watched over her and guided her as an altar server at her first Eucharistic service can only be described as an act of love. They were protective of their youngest family member and wanted her to flourish. She did.

This Sunday’s readings focus on God’s protectiveness, symbolized by servant-leaders under whom God’s people might flourish. For example, in this Sunday’s first reading, something is amiss in Jerusalem under the master-of-the-palace Shebna. He held this position during the reign of Hezekiah, king of Judah (c. 8th cent. B.C.E.). Hezekiah is remembered as a pious reformer who wanted his people to flourish. Shebna, by contrast, had succumbed to deadly pride and had been giving the king terrible advice. At a certain point, God inspired Hezekiah to throw Shebna out of office: “I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station” (Is 22:19). The name of his replacement, Eliakim, means in Hebrew, “God raised,” which gives credit to the act of grace by which Eliakim came into office. 

The building up of the church today requires mutual effort between God and us.

Perhaps the deeper meaning of the whole passage comes from Eliakim’s honorific title, “my servant” (Is 22:20). Servant, eved in Hebrew, is a rich polyvalent term. Used over eight hundred times in the Hebrew Bible, it can mean anything from a household slave to an anointed prophet to an exalted royal official. Eliakim is called “my servant” in the sense of holding a position of trust in relation to God. His office blends political and spiritual authority; although he serves King Hezekiah, Eliakim was lifted up by God.

Peter, too, in this Sunday’s Gospel, is lifted up and called to serve God’s people. A few chapters earlier, Jesus called Peter, “You of little faith” (Mt 14:31). In this Sunday’s passage, we hear Jesus utter the famous words, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18).

This passage speaks of “church” in its most basic sense, “a gathering of folks called together by a shared belief.” This “gathering of folks” built around Jesus and led by Peter will one day need administrators, ministers and servants. Even more, this community will need genuine believers and people with true vocations to leadership raised up by God to meet the demands of these times. 

The building up of the church today requires mutual effort between God and us. On the one hand, we can call out to God for help, “When I called, you answered me; you built up strength within me” (Ps 138:3). On the other hand, God calls out to each of us to be “my servant,” and this is the truest vocation needed to build up God’s church. Faithful “servants” lead to a flourishing church.

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