Scripture and the Liturgy

Fear No One: 12th Week of Ordinary Time

After the celebrations of Pentecost, Trinity, and Corpus Christi, this Sunday finds us transitioning back to Ordinary Time, and the transition is a bit painful.  The Readings for this Sunday shift right back into the reality of persecution in the Christian life, as we read about Jesus advising the apostles to be prepared for the opposition they will encounter as they do the work of evangelization.

You would think that following the Prince of Peace would lead to a peaceful life, but sadly that’s not how it usually works out.  Those who follow Jesus often find themselves hated, because they speak the truth and thus pose a threat to those who want to promote false ideologies.  The practice of virtue also makes the non-virtuous look bad by contrast, so virtuous people are often resented—just like that one nerd in your English class who always completed his assignments on time and made the rest of you look like slackers.  And finally, there is a spiritual warfare dimension: Satan and his demons will oppose everyone who chooses to follow Christ. 

In the Readings for this Sunday, we find the common theme of persecution, beginning with the prophet Jeremiah, then the ancient psalm writer, and finally Our Lord’s words to the apostles about mission.

1. Our First Reading is Jer 20:10-13:

Jeremiah said:
“I hear the whisperings of many:
‘Terror on every side!
Denounce! let us denounce him!’
All those who were my friends
are on the watch for any misstep of mine.
‘Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail,
and take our vengeance on him.’
But the LORD is with me, like a mighty champion:
my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph.
In their failure they will be put to utter shame,
to lasting, unforgettable confusion.
O LORD of hosts, you who test the just,
who probe mind and heart,
let me witness the vengeance you take on them,
for to you I have entrusted my cause.
Sing to the LORD,
praise the LORD,
for he has rescued the life of the poor
from the power of the wicked!”

Our First Reading is part of a short subsection of the book of Jeremiah (17:19-20:18) with its own recognizable themes and coherence, consisting of four units: the first (17:19-27) and last (20:1-18) set at the Benjamin Gate, and the two central ones marked by themes of pottery-making (18:1-23) and pottery-breaking (19:1-15).

         The LORD commissions Jeremiah to stand in the Benjamin Gate—the most prominent of the gates of Jerusalem, used by the king himself—and call Judah to repentance in the matter of Sabbath observance.  If they continue to violate the Sabbath by working and carrying burdens in and out of Jerusalem on the holy day, they will be destroyed; but if they repent, royalty and abundant commerce shall flow to the Temple through the Benjamin Gate in perpetuity (17:19-27).

         The LORD also commands the prophet to go to the “potter’s house” (a potter’s place of business) and observe a clay pot being formed on the wheel, spoiled accidentally, then reformed and remade.  The LORD claims the prerogative to do the same with his workmanship, the men of Judah and Jerusalem (18:1-11).  Yet Israel rejects this message from the LORD (18:12-17), and they even plot evil against the messenger, Jeremiah (v. 18), provoking the prophet to cry out for vindication against them, that the LORD will “deal with them in the time of [his] anger” (vv. 19-23).

         Next, Jeremiah is instructed to take a clay pot, gather some of the elders and priests, and go to the Potsherd Gate near the valley of Hinnom, and there decry the sin of the people, particularly their idolatry and detestable worship (including child sacrifice) of Baal and other foreign gods (19:1-9).  He shall smash the pot as a sign of the rejection and destruction of Judah and Jerusalem (19:10-13).

         Jeremiah takes this same message into the courts of the Temple (19:14-15), but is arrested, beaten, and placed in stocks by the Benjamin Gate by Pashhur, the chief priest (20:1-2).  For this, the LORD sends an oracle of exile and death through Jeremiah against Passhur and his household (20:3-6).

         In response to these experiences, Jeremiah cries out in complaint to the LORD, that the prophetic ministry to which he was called has meant nothing but suffering for him.  The people laugh, mock, reproach, and deride him whenever he speaks (20:7-8), yet if he remains silent he cannot contain the Word of God, which burns within him like fire.  He suffers persecution, like David describes in the psalms (20:10-13), leading him to despair of life, and to curse his birth like Job (20:14-18; cf. Job 3:1-26).

         We see similarity between the ministry of Jeremiah and contemporary voices that call for reform and repentance in the Church and society.  The sins of Judah in Jeremiah’s day are similar to the sins of Christians in our own society.  Although the command to keep the Sabbath holy is one of the Ten Commandments and applies to the Christian Lord’s Day, we see almost no attempt among most Catholics and Protestants to protect the sanctity of Sunday as a day of rest and worship.  Instead, it has become a day for sports and shopping.  Infanticide to the pagan gods was common among the Judeans, and infanticide in the form of abortion is common in our own culture, also among those who identify themselves as Catholics or some other form of Christian.  Yet those who raise a voice to oppose these social sins are mocked, marginalized, and derided in civil society and not infrequently within Church institutions as well.

P. Responsorial Psalm Ps 69:8-10, 14, 17, 33-35

R. (14c) Lord, in your great love, answer me.
For your sake I bear insult,
and shame covers my face.
I have become an outcast to my brothers,
a stranger to my children,
Because zeal for your house consumes me,
and the insults of those who blaspheme you fall upon me.
R. Lord, in your great love, answer me.
I pray to you, O LORD,
for the time of your favor, O God!
In your great kindness answer me
with your constant help.
Answer me, O LORD, for bounteous is your kindness;
in your great mercy turn toward me.
R. Lord, in your great love, answer me.
“See, you lowly ones, and be glad;
you who seek God, may your hearts revive!
For the LORD hears the poor,
and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.
Let the heavens and the earth praise him,
the seas and whatever moves in them!”
R. Lord, in your great love, answer me.

This powerful psalm is, in many ways, similar to Psalm 22, the famous prophecy of the crucifixion.  Psalm 69 also has poignant prophetic lines, like verse 21: “For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”  This psalm and the two following (Ps 70-71) seem to represent David late in his life, praying to God to continue to defend him from his enemies and establish his kingdom.  These psalms are followed by Psalm 72, which describes the glorious reign of Solomon as an answer to David’s prayers to be delivered and to have his throne established.

         Psalm 69 gives voice and articulation to the pain of heart that believers throughout the ages experience as they suffer persecution for following the God of Israel.  Particularly painful is the betrayal by close friends and family members: “I have become an outcast to my brothers,” the psalmist says.  In the modern West, most Christian believers have had close family members reject their childhood faith, and many practicing Catholics are the only ones remaining from their nuclear family who continue to observe the faith.  Psalm 69 gives divinely-authorized voice to this cry of pain, of being rejected or disdained even by one’s own family.

2. Our Second Reading is Rom 5:12-15:

Brothers and sisters:
Through one man sin entered the world,
and through sin, death,
and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned—
for up to the time of the law, sin was in the world,
though sin is not accounted when there is no law.
But death reigned from Adam to Moses,
even over those who did not sin
after the pattern of the trespass of Adam,
who is the type of the one who was to come.

But the gift is not like the transgression.
For if by the transgression of the one the many died,
how much more did the grace of God
and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ
overflow for the many.

Our Second Reading is working through Paul’s letter to the Romans at this time in the Church Year.  In this passage, St. Paul is going back to the Old Testament to show how the salvation in Christ was foreshadowed or typified in characters of human and Israelite history.  Here, he focuses on Adam.  Adam fell into sin, and lost the presence of the Holy Spirit which he enjoyed in the state of creation.  This lack or void, which we call original sin, was transmitted to his descendants apart from any action on their part, just by the fact of their birth.  This, St. Paul says, is a kind of inverse image of Christ, the Second Adam.  Christ restores to us salvation and the Holy Spirit in a passive way, merely by the fact of our spiritual rebirth in Baptism.  Baptism is not our action, it is God’s action in our lives, through which God infuses into us once more the Holy Spirit, lost by our first parents.

G. Our Gospel is Mt 10:26-33:

Jesus said to the Twelve:
“Fear no one.
Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed,
nor secret that will not be known.
What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light;
what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.
And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul;
rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy
both soul and body in Gehenna.
Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?
Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.
Even all the hairs of your head are counted.
So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Everyone who acknowledges me before others
I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father.
But whoever denies me before others,
I will deny before my heavenly Father.”

“Fear no one,” is the message of Jesus to us today.  The truth will come out in the end.  Those who are maligned and falsely accused, but struggle for the truth, will be vindicated.

The worst that can happen to any believer in Jesus in this life is to die, and yet even death, for the follower of Christ, has been transformed to the entrance into eternal life.  “All the hairs of your head are counted,” Jesus says, which does not mean that we will never be subject to harm and abuse.  Rather, it means nothing happens to us that is not part of God’s ultimately loving plan for our lives.  How can suffering be part of a loving plan?  There are some truths about God and about love that can only be learned through suffering, and involuntary suffering at that.  Accepted as from God, suffering can expand our heart and enable us to love more, to love like God.

“Whoever acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father.”  It’s sad when Christians are so afraid of publicly being identified with Christ, they won’t pray before meals in a restaurant.  Do our coworkers, friends, acquaintances know we are followers of Christ, and are we setting a good example of what it means to be a Christian?  Or do we imitate the manners and patterns of thought and speech of everyone around us in order to avoid conflict?  Remember that the Sermon on the Mount calls us to be a visible witness: “Let your light so shine before men that they see your good deeds and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). Let’s pray for the strength this week to be publicly identified as disciples of Christ.

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