Peter’s Successors

Look to the Future as well

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Pope Francis

History is a repository of knowledge. Embedded in historical events are lessons of perennial importance for the future. In today’s blog, I look to the biblical story of Judah vis-à-vis the Assyrian siege which took place around 701 B. C. to draw some lessons for then, now and for the future.

News of joy had broken. Sennacherib, king of Assyria had been pushed back from his attempt to conquer Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. Judah was in a jubilation mood. Then came Prophet Isaiah’s unsettling message calling for change of the status quo and pointing to future threats. Why the message during a period of jubilation? What happened?

Sennacherib seized Samaria the capital of Israel, the northern kingdom, around 721 B.C. and was bent on extending his reign to Judah (the southern kingdom). So around 701 B. C., he laid siege of Judah, but God gave victory to Hezekiah the king of Judah.

It was victory won on the knees. Hezekiah, the restorer of the faith of Judah at the time, was aware of the dispiriting impact of the onslaught of Sennacherib’s propaganda against the army of Judah. He was also not oblivious of the limitations of Judah’s military in comparison to the troops of Assyria. The Assyrian army was vast and well equipped. And before the huge army, Judah’s security, freedom and happiness were jeopardized. Hezekiah’s appeal to God in prayer for victory (cf. 2 Kings 19:14-19) was a wise decision. His prayers were answered, validating the efficacy of prayer.

When besieged by the enemy to true freedom as powerful and expansive as Sennacherib, a mere physical face-to-face combat is fatally naïve. Hezekiah discerned that spiritual strength through prayer was a better way to go. Prayer is the “Puntum Archimedis” (Archimedean Point) from where we can move the world. Hezekiah knew how to use this tactic for good and it worked for him.

In one night, as the Assyrian army laid an unjust siege of Jerusalem, the angel of the Lord slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand of them. How this happened was anyone’s guess. Whether it was through a fatal epidemic outbreak, as some scholars suggest, or through the surprise military intervention of Judah, the message is God’s reassurance of Judah’s freedom and security.

This unique event was a deathblow to the Assyrian camp. Sennacherib was forced to retreat to Nineveh where his two sons, Adram’melech and Share’zer, murdered him while he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god (cf. 2 Kings 19: 35-37; Isaiah 37:36-38). Horrible event and sad ending for a tyrannical, heartless king! But for Judah, the victory was won through divine intervention, not military valor, a reason for Judah to rejoice.

Though the news of Sennacherib’s defeat was a cause of great joy for Israel, there was still some house cleaning to be done. Some people like Shebna, the administrator of the household of King Hezekiah, benefitted greatly from the temporary security that ensued. His flamboyant lifestyle and excessive materialism showed off as he built a costly rock sepulcher for himself and his progenies, a way to immortalize his name. He focused on the gains of the moment to the detriment of good stewardship. This would cost him his elevated place. In the final analysis, behaviors of this kind cost many their exalted positions. Shebna’s conduct was not to be ignored by good, Godly people, and Isaiah being one, did not overlook it.

So, instead of brownnosing Shebna in order to be in his good book as many so-called prophets, religious leaders do nowadays for unethical economic or political benefits, Isaiah spoke of a two-fold threat to Judah – one directed against Jerusalem, and the other against Shebna.

Sounds like the prophet was out-of-touch with reality. To the contrary, he was denouncing the lifestyle of scandalous ostentation and flamboyancy, which the decadent members of Judah had chosen. He saw in it a bigger threat to their true freedom and security than Sennacherib. Isn’t it true that a good success strategy takes into account not only strengths and opportunities but also weaknesses and threats? The prophet, from a leadership point of view, was spot on.

On the other hand, Isaiah was extolling the moral standards of other members of Israel, exemplified in Eliakim, who the prophet proclaimed as the Lord’s choice to occupy the office of Shebna, to lead the house of Judah into the future. He will be the treasurer; the administrator of the royal court, upon whose shoulder will rest authority of access into the royal court. Here the prophet indicates strengths and opportunities for Judah.

“And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”

Over and above the present moment of victory, the prophet was looking into the future, a time when there will be lasting freedom and security for the new people of God. I suspect the prophet was calling for this lasting freedom, victory and success for Judah.

So, this is the key to understanding how to consolidate victory and success: Do not concentrate only on your present gains; look into and to the future as well. Victory or success is short-lived if only about the moment. Victory or success is consolidated if futuristic as well.

Without in any way undermining the full import of Isaiah’s message, the oracle draws attention to the messianic era, and the providence for access into the house of the king of the universe; a home of true success, victory, freedom, security, happiness and peace.

Hence, irrespective of the historical context in which Isaiah prophesied and the unique role of Eliakim, the core of the message finds significant resonance in the New Testament as well as in the our contemporary society. The Lord Jesus Christ, the Messiah, “the holy one, the true, who has the key of David” (Rev 3:7), is this hope, and he would want to keep the thread on earth as he goes back to the Father. Thus, he would say to the fisherman of Galilee, Peter, “I give you the keys of the kingdom” (Matthew 16:19). This was and is a moral, spiritual authority that guarantees security and success for our future, eternal life. This authority I find in Pope Francis, the Peter of today and his successors.