Updated: Sep 23
An open and shut case?
In the readings for the Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time, the image of keys comes up twice. In Isaiah 22:22, God says that he will remove Shebna from his role as al bayit (Hebrew: over the house) and replace him with Eliakim. God will give him the key of the House of David. In the Gospel reading, Jesus states that he will give Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 16:19). These parallel passages provide the traditional argument for the papacy.
In both narratives, the keys give the individual the power to both open and shut. This is a symbolic way of saying that the al bayit, as a kind of prime minister, had a lot of authority.
Through the keys, not only did the al bayit have access to rooms inside the palace, he also had the power to open and shut the city gate as a defense against possible invaders.
These keys, in Ancient Egypt, were wooden and quite large, perhaps two feet long or more. These were not the keys you stuck in your pocket or attached to a decorative chain. Rather, these keys had to be carried on an individual’s shoulders.
Clearly, this was a position of great privilege and trust. And even, a great weight!
In Isaiah 22:22, the keys are taken away from Shebna allegedly because he has violated or transgressed some royal prerogatives. He appears to be building his own tomb or monument inside the walls of the city. This act smacks of pride and selfish ambition.
Now, to be fair, some scholars also speculate that Shebna was conspiring with the kingdom of Assyria against Jerusalem. This means he could have been demoted because of the act of treason. Either way, he was not a good steward. So, I would say this was an open and shut case.
Bringing the idea of the keys and the al bayit into real time, my husband and I, from time to time, will hire a family friend to do handyman-type work around our house. Since we’ve known Roger [not his real name!] for a long time, we often give him an extra set of keys to our house. Sometimes, when I forget that we have given him the keys, I’m a little startled when I hear Roger open the gate or side door in the morning.
Another related example… last week our local electrical company sent out a crew of guys to our neighborhood to cut down the unruly branches that were encroaching on the wires above our back yard. We have some very large trees so I was logically concerned about the effects of a “bad haircut.” After they opened the gates to our back yard, I admit I did a bit of hovering and supervising as I watched the guys shimmy up our oaks.
Our neighbor next door has a much more manicured lawn than we do. Perennials and annuals of multiple colors grace the perimeter. You can bet that our neighbor was also monitoring the behavior of the guys for any rogue tree limbs that would fall on his precious flowers.
As branch after branch fell to the ground, a crew member would quickly pick it up, bundle the branches together, and carry them to our front yard for composting. After several hours, the job was finished. My neighbor and I assessed our yards and gardens.
We were utterly amazed! Not one flower, hosta, or bush had been stepped on or mangled. Our yards were not strewn with leaves and branches. The guys closed the gates and left the job site the way they had found it. In other words, they were good stewards of what they were entrusted to care for. Again, another open and shut case.
In some ways, each one of us is called to be a kind of al bayit or royal steward. In Laborem Exercens, St. John Paul II explains that work is a sharing in the activity of the Creator. Like the king giving the keys to the royal steward, God gives human beings dominion over his Creation, to be stewards. Whether we are entrusted with a lot or a little, whether we’re the executive of a corporation or we’re babysitting the kids, when we take good care of what has been given to us, we become “more of a human being.” (LE, 9)
Opening and shutting can be a metaphor too. Consider when someone came to seek the king’s help or counsel, the al bayit may have opened the door to the king’s house and assisted him in reaching the king. If this is so, then each of us acts a kind of al bayit when we help others encounter King Jesus. Maybe our role in evangelization is to open the gates so that others feel welcomed. Maybe we are called to shut the doors of skepticism and unbelief.
Work can also be transformative for the individual. As al bayit, Joseph used his position of authority and responsibility to develop his administrative and management skills. By opening the storehouses (Genesis 41:56), he generously provided for his family as well as the whole country. Eliakim uses his position to grow in diplomatic skills and faithfully relays information to king and prophet, resulting in the Assyrian king turning away from Jerusalem. Peter, as he recognizes the opening of the Kingdom to the Gentiles, becomes less impetuous and judgmental and is clearly recognized as the head of the apostles in the Book of Acts.
In Luke 14:15, Jesus praises the good works of the faithful steward or al bayit. May we too be found faithful to whatever authority and responsibility God gives us and use the keys we’ve been given to serve others. It’s a key path to holiness and bringing others to Christ.
Tamra Fromm, Ph.D., is an instructor in Old Testament for the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan, adjunct faculty member at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit), and associate academic in the Bachelor of Divinity program at Maryvale Institute (Birmingham, UK). She is married and enjoys traveling, running, and entertaining (all with appropriate social distancing). She is awaiting the publication of her first manuscript on pre-evangelization of American young adult “native nones” through Wipf and Stock.