First reading: Jeremiah 20:10-13
Psalm: Psalm 68(69)
Second reading: Romans 5:12-15
Gospel: Matthew 10:26-33
Link to readings
Any lingering joy of Eastertide seems to have receded this Sunday. The readings focus rather relentlessly upon the phenomenon of evil in the world and the fate that appears to await those who would seek to confront it in fidelity to the Gospel.
The tone is set in the First Reading, from Jer 20:10-13. From this most auto-biographical of the prophetic books, we have a passage where Jeremiah reflects at length upon the difficulty of his vocation and, above all, of the message of woe he has to deliver to his fellow-citizens. Though this brings down upon himself hostility from every side, he remains confident that the Lord, to whom he has “committed his cause”, will vindicate him in the end.
The prophetic vocation seen so poignantly in the figure of Jeremiah sets the pattern for the instruction Jesus gives in the Gospel, Matt 10:26-33. Part of a much longer discourse (10:1-42) that begins simply as an instruction addressed to the Twelve (10:1-16), the extract set down for today speaks to a wider audience of believers in respect to the challenges they will face in attempting to live and give witness to the Gospel.
The text is governed by the recurring refrain, “Do not fear”, “Do not be afraid ...”. Jesus recognizes that there will be much that will cause his disciples to be afraid but tries to get them to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate fear. There is a false fear and a true fear. Disciples need not fear those (human persecutors) who can kill the body, because their entire physical existence is held within the hands of God and is precious in God’s sight: if God values the life of sparrows sold two for a penny, marking when they fall to the ground, how much more does the heavenly Father value and protect the lives of believers, worth more than hundreds of sparrows! Those who stand firm in witness to the Gospel and the values it enshrines, even to the point of death, can be confident that their ultimate fate lies in the hand of God and will one day be vindicated.
The only valid fear for disciples should be that of falling out of God’s favour and so of losing, not one’s body, but one’s soul. The object of the fear in the injunction, “Fear him, rather, who can destroy both body and soul in hell”, can be understood in a number of ways. The “him” could refer to a human persecutor or adversary, but it could also be a reference to God. Preachers may want to shy away from the latter interpretation and the image of God it suggests. It has, nonetheless, a good claim to originality and ought not be easily set aside. This is a Gospel which readily illustrates the adage that the Christianity is comforting but not comfortable. The evangelist (Matthew) presents Jesus as insisting that the Gospel is not something to be talked about and lived behind closed doors. It—and the values it enshrines—demands public witness and proclamation.
This is the point of the opening sentences about “proclaiming from housetops, what you hear in whispers”. To simply “whisper” the gospel among themselves will perhaps preserve believers from public hostility and threat. But it will do so only for a time since “all that is now covered, will one day come to light”. Moreover, it will amount to “disowning” Jesus in the presence of human beings in a way that will cause him to disown such followers in the presence of his Father.
The challenge of today’s Gospel may seem remote from the experience of Christians in Western societies today. It will have a far greater immediacy for the growing number of believers who have to live out their commitment as a minority in a surrounding sea of fundamentalism and intolerance. Like the prophet Jeremiah they can only say to the Lord, “My cause is with you”. The challenge for Christians not currently living in such situations will be to question a far too easy symbiosis between discipleship and surrounding cultural mores.
The short extract from Romans 5 in the Second Reading (5:12-15) can form an appropriate background to this sense of Christian witness confronting the world’s evil. Paul describes the universal spread of evil throughout the world. Though cast as something that happened “back there” through Adam, it is really not about “back there” at all. It bears upon the present situation in the world and about the way in which God has addressed and continues to address it in the person of Jesus Christ. God addresses it victoriously because the gift of grace that comes in Christ abundantly “outweighs” the negative, death-dealing legacy symbolized in Adam.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media