A. 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time #1 Is22: 15, 19-23
Background In this section, vv. 15-25, the prophet deals with the transfer of power from Shebna to Eliakin. These two names are also mentioned in 2Kgs18: 18 and Is36: 3. There Eliakin is called the “master of the palace (Hb `alhabbayit)” and Shebna is called the “secretary (Hb sopher),” presumably the secretary of state. There is some confusion about these two references which need not concern us here. What is important here is that the office of “master of the palace” was second only to the king. Like many public offices this one evolved from being the royal doorkeeper, the keeper of the keys, opening and locking the doors, in charge of security to an ever-broadening one. Over time he would determine who got in to see the king, since he was in charge of security. Eventually, he would become the king’s most trusted advisor, able to speak in the king’s name, knowing his mind and will intimately, even without consulting the king. In a word, he was the number two man in the realm.
In this text Shebna is demoted and the authority of his office is transferred to Eliakin. Shebna had misused his office for personal gain and is removed because of it. Eliakin will follow suit, as we later learn. He will also misuse the office.
Text v. 15 Sbebna, master of the palace: The king held his office by inheritance and divine right. His vicar, “the master of the palace,” was appointed by the king and so could be removed at the king’s discretion.
vv. 16-18: (Not in the liturgical text) Shebna was a leading force in advising King Hezekiah to become an ally of Egypt against Assyria, a disastrous policy condemned by Isaiah. Isaiah prophesies that Shebna will die as an exile in a foreign land as a result of his abuse of power. Despite the economic hardships imposed upon the people because of the war with Assyria, Shebna spent a lot of money on building a mausoleum for himself, using public funds. He also used the public chariots for his own personal use. The prophet mocks Shebna for his cynical attitude and promises that he will be dragged on foot, no fancy chariot ride for him, into a foreign land where he will definitely not be buried in the style he had become accustomed to live. In a word, Shebna was a corrupt official and was about to be replaced by Eliakin.
v. 19 I will thrust you from your office: Even though the king himself would have to issue the order to divest Shebna of authority, the prophet makes clear that it is first God’s decision to do so and, hence, nonnegotiable, irrevocable and inevitable.
v. 21 robe…sash: Every culture has vestments, which are emblems of authority. The more vestments and more ornate they are, the more authority is symbolized by them. The vestments mentioned here may well have been part of the actual ceremony of installation and investiture. God has no problem with the insignia and what they symbolize. It is Shebna’s arrogance in wearing them and in abusing his authority that caused his demotion.
He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem: This means that his authority would be fully accepted and respected inside as well as outside the royal court. “Father” also implies a close relationship of love and influence as opposed to that of Shebna’s enforcement and arrogance. It is the same imagery used of the king himself in his role toward his people and it reminds of the position of Joseph at the royal palace of the Egyptian Pharaoh. In a word, Eliakin was to be servant to the Lord but father to the people.
v. 22 I will place the key of the house of David on his shoulder: In the early days of this office this would be a literal key worn around the person’s neck. He was primarily the security guard, the king’s body guard. Over time the office expanded to that of vicar or shadow king. Here it symbolizes all authority over the realm, short of the king himself. It bestows full authority over the royal family and palace, over all the king’s affairs, royal appointments and, to some extent at least, over foreign affairs. Only the king could overrule the “master of the palace.”
When he opens no one shall shut: The imagery here would go all the way back to the early days of this office when the now vicar general mainly kept guard over the door or doors to the king’s person. The meaning is now expanded to match the scope of his power. It means that when he says “yes” or “no” it is as if the king himself were saying it. (Jesus uses this imagery and these verbs in Mt16: 16-19 when he confers an equivalent rank upon Peter vis-a-vis his kingdom.)
v. 23 I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family: The simile is that of a hook or peg securely fastened to a wall for hanging objects like pots, pans and dishes.. (Jesus will use an even stronger simile when referring Peter as “rock” in Mt16: 18.) It signifies the saving benefit that would come to Judah during his tenure.
v. 24 on him shall hang all the glory of his family…all the little dishes, from bowls to jugs: The people, members of Shebna’s family, natural and national, are compared to the dishes, jugs and bowls that will hang , receive support, from Shebna’s firm hold on the solid wall.
v. 25 on that day…the peg…shall give way, break off and fall: The prophet also predicts that Eliakin will go the way of all flesh, the way of Shebna, and be unfaithful to his office. Appointment to high office is no guarantee of fidelity to its ideals, no matter how high sounding the words spoken at the investiture ceremony.
This text really gets its importance from the use Jesus makes of it in the NT. Otherwise it would be but another story of high hopes dashed by human infidelity, another corrupt official being removed from office only to be replaced by yet another corrupt or at least corruptible one. There is even some indication that these two men, Shebna and Eliakin, were simply part of an administrative shuffle, each one exchanging office to give the appearance of reform, when really it was just a face-saving gesture.
In any event, Jesus clearly thought about this text a lot. He uses it as the background to interpret what he is appointing Peter to. Peter will be his vicar as Shebna and Eliakin, each in their time, were vicars to their king. Jesus will use the same language of shutting and opening to describe his functions. “Binding” and “loosing” are translations of the same verbs in both Hebrew and Aramaic used here to translate “shutting” and “opening.” They symbolize full power, except over the king himself.
We know that Jesus had an insight into human nature second to none. Even though he knew that those who would hold this office he was establishing first in Peter and then in his successors, would go on to abuse its powers, use them for their own selfish purposes. Even though he knew, he did it anyway. The sacred text told him that the unfaithful arrogant, corrupt Shebna would be succeeded by another, Eliakin, who would also go on to be the same way as Shebna. Yet, that knowledge did not stop him from making Peter (and his successors) his vicar on earth. Now, we can safely presume that Jesus knows what we know, namely that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We can also safely presume that Jesus knew what we do not know. For knowing that about humans, he deliberately proceeded to establish an office that would bring so much shame on his church and do so much harm. While Jesus has not told us why, he has given us some clues. His kingdom is not of this world, so in the long run it really doesn’t matter what comparatively little and temporary harm any of us do. It won’t thwart God’s plans for any significant period of time. This includes kings and popes and their minions. Admittedly, when we are on the receiving end of their arrogance and (worse) their blindness and coldness to injustice, it feels like it’s a big thing and great harm is being done. However, in the bigger picture, from the eternal perspective, these fellows are only pinching us at best. Jesus knew that he, Jesus, would always remain the “king.” Popes are only prime ministers.
Jesus does not want us to give too much weight to any human being or any human event. It is a fact of human nature that we tend to worship people and things. Jesus doesn’t want that. The Church’s officials, from the pope on down the line, are necessary to effect the Church’s work. They can do this in positive ways, but also in negative ways. Yet, just because church officials are as corrupt as the rest of us is no reason to do away with the office. Jesus established the office of what we now call the papacy (and all that involves). If there are or have been abuses, they are to be lamented, confessed and reformed. History has made clear that this is an ongoing process. History has also made clear that those Christian communities (today we call them “Protestants”) who disavowed the papacy did not thereby eradicate sin from their midst, not even official corruption. They kept the same “form.” It just was called by a different title and wore different sashes and robes, but there are titles and vesture in every community. Papacy, episcopacy, priesthood, religious life, lay life, etc., etc. must all be constantly reformed. We should accept that with the same equanimity as Jesus accepts our humanity, and the same confident hope that we can all reform. It is one of the great ironies of Christian history that the Protestant Reformation gave too much importance to hierarchy and appeared to abolish it. History has shown that they merely changed the accidentals and also suffer from the same abuses of authority that the Catholic church does and always has. It is human nature, not religious structure, which is the root cause. Jesus knew this, reforming humanity rather than abolishing it.
Some form of hierarchy is necessary in any society, be it secular or religious.
No human being is immune from the corruption that being in authority can bring.
The higher one is in any hierarchy the greater the chance of corruption and abuse of power.
Food For Thought
Authority: When there is a scandal in the political sphere, when an official or officials are caught in some corrupt action or scheme, it shakes some people’s faith/confidence in government as a whole. People cannot help wondering whether this scandal is small and limited or if it is large-scale and pervasive, a singular example of a much more common practice. Most people, however, make an uneasy peace with the fact that human beings bring their corruptibility with them to public office and scandals do not warrant the abolition of the office, but the expulsion of the officer and, where warranted, the reform of the office, putting in safeguards to minimize the chances of corrupt or merely corruptible human beings from abusing the trust placed in them. Most people recognize there is no people-proof political structure or governance. The best we can do is to keep vigilance over those who are to keep vigilance over us.
Religious Authority: When there is a scandal in the religious sphere, it shakes some people’s faith/confidence in that particular religion that some people leave the denomination. Some of those folks go on to join other denominations (often, leaving them for the same reason) and others go on to form their own denomination. The history of Protestantism is replete with this phenomenon. In Catholicism there is something similar to this in the foundation of different religious communities, often formed as “protests” against the corruption in an existing religious order. Catholicism is replete with religious orders, congregations, foundations and communities that began as protests against this, that or the other “laxity.” It is a fact of life that religious authorities can be as unresponsive to the needs of the “governed” as are political authorities. They can also be as corrupt or, at least, as morally/spiritually bankrupt. There is an old saying in Catholicism that once a man becomes a bishop he will never again eat a bad meal or receive the truth. There is a conspiracy of evil that thrives in institutions, institutional evil, if you will, that is not limited to the actual person in authority, but pervades those behind authority, the lesser “officials.” These coteries see to it that this clique’s self-interest eventually corrupts even the most integral authority figure. This is a very subtle process that occurs over time. It is a well-known axiom that a leader is only as good as his/her advisers. (This is really true of everyone, not just people in authority or leadership positions.) All of this “conspires” to produce corruption and/or bankruptcy. Institutions need to be continuously reformed, need to be watched carefully and held accountable or they dwindle inevitably into abusing their legitimately constituted authority. This story about one corrupt official being succeeded by another who becomes just as corrupt is not limited to the government of ancient Israel. It is really paradigmatic. Knowing this, most people are able to make an uneasy peace with corruption in the hierarchy of either church or state. We know that we must have people in authority. The daily business of the organization, the safety of the members, the good order necessary to live in common, the passing on of the patrimony to future generations, the identity of the group, all these require authority figures to see to it that the needs of the group are met, even at times at the expense of the individual. We simply cannot live without authority figures. However, we must not give them more importance than they really have. We must be cautious that the insignia, paraphernalia, perks and privileges of office do not blind us to the humanity of the office holder. They are human beings, too, and we must love them enough to tell them the truth and to require of them the same standards of behavior toward their fellow human beings as we require of everyone. Reducing the symbols of authority will help, but not prevent the arrogance that can come with people in office. Increasing accountability and providing checks and balances both for the official and his coterie offer the best chances and environment for humble service.