What is the Steward of the Kingdom?
A steward is appointed by the ruling king or queen to represent them and help them to govern. Another word we could use to describe the steward is “prime minister.” In the Old Testament, the chief steward of the king was able to rule with the authority of the king when the king was unavailable. He had a tremendous amount of power.
Keys are used to represent the steward because he had full access and authority. Remember, doors in the times of the Old Testament were enormous and bulky. These large doors and large locks were often made differently from one door to another. The steward of the kingdom, as chief administrator in the palace, would wear his keys over his shoulder or around his neck on a strip of fabric.
We get a glimpse into the role and authority of the steward in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah:
“In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of 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 (Is. 22:20-22).”
We see this servant Eliakim receiving the robe and girdle of the steward and receiving his authority. He will wear the keys of the house of David on his shoulder. He shall open and none shall shut. He shall shut and none shall open. Of course, this idea of opening and shutting is about more than just doors; it is an exercise of the king’s authority on many matters. The promotion of Eliakim is the immediate fulfillment of this prophecy, but is there another more distant fulfillment? It would seem that whoever is the new king in the line of David would likewise have a chief steward or prime minister.
Who is St. Peter?
As Dave Armstrong points out in his phenomenal article in the National Catholic Register on the symbolism of the keys, there is one time where the Bible records Jesus praying for one person by name: St. Peter. He says,
“Simon, Simon (i.e., Peter), behold Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren (Lk. 22:31-32).”
Of course, we know that St. Peter’s faith falters but does not ultimately fail. He denies Jesus three times, weeps bitterly, repents, and is reconciled. He is even given a threefold question by the Risen Jesus: “Do you love me?” And he answers that he does and is given the task to feed the sheep and lambs of the Lord.
St. Peter was born as Simon but renamed by Jesus [which certainly shows something special going on – more on that in the next section]. He was a fisherman by trade. He is one of the Twelve Apostles and would go on to become the first bishop of Rome and the first Pope. He was killed as a martyr for Christ sometime between 64 and 68 A.D. under the reign of Roman Emperor Nero. He also wrote two of the books of the New Testament.
Why is Peter the New Steward of the Kingdom?
There is much more to say on St. Peter, one of the greatest saints of the Church, but let us zoom in on why St. Peter is rightly called the new Steward of the Kingdom.
Jesus gave a new name to Simon, He gave him the name Peter (which in Greek and Aramaic means “rock”). Christ proclaimed that St. Peter would be the rock on which the Church would be built. St. Peter was the final authority within the community of believers. How do we know this?
Recall what Isaiah said of the chief steward of the kingdom: he will wear the keys and will have the authority to open and shut. Jesus Christ, the final fulfillment of King David, said to St. Peter:
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Mt 16:19).”
In this regard, the chief steward had the ability to decide who might see the king at a given time by opening or shutting doors in the palace. But now, we hear Jesus taking this authority another step. In Jewish tradition, the idea of binding and loosing was the authority to interpret Scripture and decide who may enter the People of God and remove some from communion as the need arises.
As the one with primacy in the Kingdom of Heaven, St. Peter and his successors have the authority of the King himself. This is why the Pope is called the Vicar of Christ (Vicarious, in Latin, means “in the person of”). The role of the papacy has evolved through the centuries as social and political circumstances changed. However, what remained constant is that the papacy is the Church’s highest moral and doctrinal authority. Thus, the figure of the Pope helps preserve the unity of the Church.