12th SUNDAY(A) June 21, 2020
Jeremiah 20: 10-13; Psalm 69; Romans 5: 12-15; Matthew 10: 26-33
by Jude Siciliano, OP
The first day of summer was yesterday...and hasnít the world changed a lot since last summer! Usually summer means that the water is warming up at ocean beaches, lakes and swimming pools. Many of us would take vacations during the summer as we look forward to a break from long hours of work, homework, commuting, taking the kids to music lessons and soccer games. Others in farming communities are not so lucky since summer means more daylight and longer hours of work. But we are at least happy to be outdoors without winter harshness. Itís pleasing to our eyes to see growing things, ripening fields and to hear the sounds of birds. That was then...this is now... when all of the usually signs and treats of summer are not whatís happening for us these days while many of us are still in lock down, businesses have closed, and our usual recreational haunts have greatly reduced the number of people who can enter. Add to this the recent riots, murders and destruction on our streets. This is not the summer we imagined in January as we began 2020.
Perhaps the scriptures for today match our moods. Initially, they have turned rather bleak on us! Jeremiah, Godís often-complaining, but nevertheless faithful prophet, laments what has befallen him for passing on Godís warning to Israel. His fidelity has resulted in, "Terror on every side," denunciations, traps set and vengeance planned against him. Jesusí message in the gospel is also stark as he advises his disciples that some will even face death for him, "And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul...." Easier said than done!
We will need to do a little background on the first reading. Jeremiah has spoken bitterly to God in past sections of this book and todayís passage is his fifth personal lament. Earlier he accused God of seducing him into being a prophet. He was called by God as a youth and preached for over 40 years. And the message he had to carry for God was a hard one to preach and a hard one for the people to hear. He warned the people of Judah that their infidelity to God would cause their ruin. He preached against Judahís idolatry; his message was strong, uncompromising and thus, unpopular. His fidelity to God and Godís message has put him in disfavor with the people and Pashur, the chief temple official, and so, Jeremiah is imprisoned and disgraced. But his warnings come true Ė the country falls, Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed and the leading citizens are taken to exile.
Jeremiah stays in the ruined Jerusalem, but eventually he is driven out and killed, probably by his own people. Although he sees the fruition of his prophetic utterances, the nation is destroyed, he still does not see Godís "vengeance" on the evildoers. He will not live to see Godís vindication and rescue of the people. But he will speak about it later in this book. And during the peopleís exile his words will bring comfort to those awaiting the transformation and rescue Jeremiah says God will perform for the people. He promises that God will raise them up and will do even more, he promises God will create a new heart in them, the heart of a faithful people (cf. chapter 31). What would that "new heart" look like for us after so much racial tension and violence? Can God create this "new heart" out all this mess, estrangement and conflict Ė not only for us individuals, but for our nation?
There is a parallel in this reading to those who hear a call from God, undertake it and, with trust, suffer trials in the fulfillment of their vocation. And Godís call can be so subtle that even nonbelievers might respond to it without knowing it is from God. Think of the peaceful protesters who never intended violence when they chose to speak out and demonstrate recently, but were injured in the mayhem caused by outside agitators. We never really know what we are getting into when we respond to Godís call. At first it may even have excitement and romance about it. But to fulfill a vocation and to remain faithful and trusting during the arduous moments Ė this is only possible with God You can tell that the prophet experiences this blessing, even at his lowest moments. Jeremiah doesnít just plod along, head down, struggling to get through. Rather, he knows that God is with him and so, the reading ends with a prayer of praise to the God who keeps faithful to the poor. Jeremiah has not yet seen the fulfillment of Godís promises and so he must live in the hope that someday Godís word to them will be fulfilled.
Today is Fatherís Day and maybe there is something of the prophet Jeremiah in a good father. Fatherhood is certainly a vocation and it requires long and consistent fidelity to the task. In the beginning there is great joy and rejoicing. That joy will continue, but fatherhood also entails sacrifice, constant love, courage, hard work and wisdom. There are times a father must speak the hard truths to his children. Times when he must hold to integrity even when it runs counter to the prevailing culture. His own children may not appreciate what he is doing at the time. He can feel unpopular in his own family. Being a good father is a task that takes many years to fulfill. Some fathers may never see their work completed, but doing their best, they must trust Godís presence, even when they are not sure how successful they have been in their vocation as fathers.
Matthewís community must have been going through a Jeremiah experience Ė living and speaking about their faith were causing pain and fear among them. Like Jeremiah, they may have even been quite vocal in their bewilderment and disappointment because things werenít turning out the way they had hoped. Otherwise, Matthew would never have recorded these frank and consoling words of Jesus. Jesus is reminding his followers that because of him, they will suffer persecution. The saying about the sparrows has ominous tones: God knows when even a minuscule sparrow "falls to the ground." There is a hint here of the disciples themselves having to face even death ("fall to the ground") as Jesusí followers. I donít know if I have to fear being killed, or imprisoned for my faith; but living that faith does have its costs and may even cause pain, or at least daily sacrifice and inconvenience
Usually a salesperson pitches a product in optimistic tones: the most comfortable car; the best-cleaning vacuum; the most powerful stain remover; the fastest computer, etc. Hasnít Jesus studied the course and read the books on how to put a product forward? Today he is talking to newly-chosen apostles, but instead of promising them a glory ride and pie-in-the-sky, he is talking about sufferings and fear-raising situations in their ministry. Throughout todayís gospel there are sprinkled words to the twelve about not being afraid. What might they fear?
They are not to be afraid because of the small, seeming insignificance of their project in the light of the world powers around them. Now Ė the good news is "concealed" and "secret," known by only a few. Now Ė Jesus speaks in "darkness" and his message is "whispered" to them. But someday all will be "revealed" and "known." In our modern world of high speed internet access, million dollar television commercials and "gliterrati," living out our faith in Christ can make us feel out-shouted, overridden and insignificant. Judging from the more dominant voices and forces around us, our Christian approach to life can seem diminutive and without influence as the world makes decisions that affect the destinies of present and future populations Ė and of the planet itself.
Jesus promises his message will be "proclaimed on the housetops." How? Some people in our history have been very forthright proclaimers, they have been like people standing on roof tops for all to see and hear. But most of us are afraid of such heights and our call might be less spectacular, but still requiring courage. I read this Brazilian proverb recently, "Your head thinks from the spot you plant your feet." We have planted our feet with Christ and he invites our heads to think and our hearts to feel from that spot. We must, if we are standing with Christ, acknowledge him by lives and words that are recognizable as having him as their source.
Jesus predicts a sign by which we will know we are being faithful to him. When we are standing on his side of honesty, concern, forgiveness, trust, community, etc, we will stir up opposition and strife. He is aware that, just as he found resistance to his teaching, so will his followers. So he tells them, "And do not be afraid of those who kill the body...," for they have power, but only over the body. Godís power is more sweeping and total, in fact, Jesus says, God "...can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna." But the disciples are not to fear, because God cares about each of us and every part of us, right down to the hairs on our heads. If even birds fall under Godís care, how much more do we?
This reminder about Godís care for us isnít a guarantee we will have an easy ride as Godís servants. Jeremiah has already voiced the feelings of abandonment, disappointment and dismay one might feel in the face of the rejection Godís witnesses often experience. Jesus uses the example of sparrows falling and dying, but also of Godís concern for them, to reassure us that in the face of trials and even death, God will care for us. Jesus is not going to leave us alone, and more Ė he will not exempt himself from our struggles. He says he will "acknowledge" us before God. This image suggests he stands with us and claims us as one of his own. When the going gets tough, he is right in the thick of things with us.
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