Why We Need Two Keys for Salvation

(Homily for Twenty-First Ordinary Sunday - Year A)

Bottom line: We need two keys for salvation: the golden key of God's forgiveness won by Christ and the silver key of repentance which includes sorrow for sin, confession, satisfaction and absolution.

Many works of art have depicted today’s Gospel: Jesus giving Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. If you look carefully at the paintings, you will notice that the keys are usually two different colors: gold and silver. If you examine the Vatican flag, you will observe that one key is shiny yellow while the other has a light gray hue.

Why is one key gold and the other silver? An English author named Dorothy L. Sayers explained the symbolism in her commentary on Dante’s Divine Comedy.* She summed up centuries of interpretation by Christian writers. Beginning with what is most important, she says that the golden key represents the power to forgive sins. Won by the Passion of Christ, it has by far the greatest worth.

Nevertheless, the silver key is also necessary for salvation. It unlocks the heart of the repentant sinner, disentangling the tentacles of sin. Using the silver key requires great patience, skill and hard work. It is not enough to say, “God will forgive me. Everything is OK.” Repentance includes something more: the effort to uproot the weeds, to counteract the effects of sin.

The Divine Comedy contains an instructive example of a man who thought the gold key was all he needed. A certain Guido da Montefeltro had practiced a life of deception, tricking many people in order to get the things he wanted. At a certain point he experienced a change of heart and gave up his fraudulent practices to become a Franciscan Friar. Unfortunately, he did not completely repent. Pope Boniface VIII (according to Dante, a very unsavory character) heard about the con artist turned friar and asked him to take a false message to one the papal adversaries. Guido at first hesitated, but the pope offered him absolution in advance.** Apparently thinking one could even deceive God, the friar accepted. When he died, since he was a Franciscan, St. Francis came to take his soul to heaven. The devil, however, intervened pointing out that no one can receive forgiveness without repentance:

“No one has absolution
Without repenting; nor can one will a sin
And repent at once, because the contradiction
Precludes it.” (Inferno, Canto XXVII, 119-121)

The devil knows elementary logic. Guido could not repents of deceiving others and at the same time continue doing it. When a defendant contradicts himself, the jury has no choice but to convict. Moreover, you do not need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that you cannot receive absolution for a future sin. It is like asking a bank to include next year’s loan in your current bankruptcy settlement.

It seems hard to imagine that Guido - who was so good at deceiving others - lets Pope Boniface deceive him. Still, when you think about it, it should not surprise us. How many people put off full repentance, assuming that in the future they will have no difficulty asking for forgiveness? Or worse, like Guido, believe that somehow their salvation is assured, even if they continue to commit certain sins? God of course will forgive any sin, but you or I could lose the capacity to repent, that is, to request forgiveness.

In recent years we have put much emphasis on the gratuity of God’s forgiveness. Rightly so – it is the golden key. Nevertheless, it alone cannot open the gates of heaven. The silver key is also required. And you know as well as I do that any door gets harder to open, the longer it remains closed. Nor is the arthritis in your hand going to improve. Best to ask the doorkeeper for the silver key so that you can open the door right now!

To sum up: We need two keys for salvation: the golden key of God's forgiveness won by Christ and the silver key of repentance which includes sorrow for sin, confession, satisfaction and absolution. Amen.


*"The Keys are two parts of absolution. The Golden Key is the Divine authority given the Church to remit sin; it is 'the costlier' because it was bought at the price of God's Passion and Death. The Silver Key is the unloosening of the hard entanglements of sin in the human heart: and this needs great skill on the part of the Church and her priesthood when administering the sacrament of Penance. Both keys must function smoothly for a valid absolution: the use of the golden key without the silver lands you exactly where it landed Guido da Monfeltro: the silver without the gold (i.e. remorse for sin without seeking reconciliation) leads only to despair and the Gorgon at the Gates of Dis." (Commentary on Canto IX of Purgatory)

**One of Seattle's daily newspapers featured a modern Boniface:

Vincent Lachina, a Baptist minister raised Southern and conservative...spends much of his time telling the staff (of Planned Parenthood) that God is a loving presence and that they are forgiven.

The article, basically a puff piece for Planned Parenthood, reveals more than it intends.

Spanish Version

From Archives (for Twenty-First Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2017: Spiritual Warfare Week 10: The Burden of Community
2014: Finding Your Place Week 3
2011: Why We Need Two Keys for Salvation
2008: Three Unavoidable Questions
2005: The Two Keys
2002: Jesus Establishes a Sacred Order
1999: I Will Build My Church

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