Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading: Jeremiah 20:10-13; Response: Psalm 69:8-10, 14, 17, 33-35; Second Reading: Romans 5:12-15; Gospel: Matthew 10:26-33

The prophet Jeremiah is an example of someone unhappy with his call to be a prophet or spokesperson for the Lord God. Though it was not unusual for Old Testament prophets to object when called, Jeremiah’s objection was unusual: “I do not know how to speak because I am only a youth.” The Lord’s reply: “Don’t tell me what you are. Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Like a divine hound, God pursues his target. As to the objection of Jeremiah not knowing how to talk, the Lord said, “I have put my words in your mouth.” The Lord knows how to flatter a teenager: “I have set you this day over nations and kingdoms, to pluck up, to break down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant. I will make you a fortified city, an iron pillar, bronze walls, etc.” What could a kid do after hearing this except flex his biceps, toughen his abs, and get to work?

Jeremiah’s ministry began in 626 B.C. He had a long way to go before he disappeared into Egypt about the year 582 B.C. Regrets came later; perhaps even a bit of paranoia; or a struggle with depression, as we see in today’s first reading. He says to himself, “I hear the whisperings of many. Terror on every side! ‘Let’s denounce him, and take our revenge on him!’” At one point, though not in today’s reading, he confronts God, “You deceived me because you are stronger than I am.” When he inwardly decided to quit his ministry, which he never accomplished, he complained, “There is a burning fire in my heart, encased in my bones. I am tired of holding it in, and I can’t!” Fortunately, he also had good days and good thoughts about his ministry. For example, in Jeremiah 15:16, he speaks to the Lord: “I found your words. I consumed them. They became the joy of my heart.” The excerpt from Jeremiah was chosen to accompany today’s gospel reading because of the words of encouragement the Lord spoke to the prophet. Similar words of encouragement were spoken by the Lord Jesus to his disciples when he sent them on their first mission in today’s gospel.

Psalm 69, like Psalm 22, was used by Christian interpreters, including our New Testament authors, as a foundation to describe the sufferings and the vindication of Jesus. We see this especially in our four Passion Narratives. It was selected as a response to the first reading because of its similarity to the complaints and, eventually, the expressions of trust in the Lord by Jeremiah. Readers and hearers will find sentiments not-at-all attractive to Christians in Jeremiah and in Psalm 69. In Jeremiah: “Let me witness the vengeance you take on them.” In Psalm 69, in verses not included in today’s liturgy: “Vent your fury on them. Let your burning anger overtake them. Blot them out of the book of life ….” Admired perhaps by our baser instincts, but not to be imitated.

In the Letter to the Romans, our second reading, Paul compares the first man, Adam, to Jesus as a kind of second Adam, a new head of humanity. Through the action of the first Adam, sin entered the world and brought death with it. As the sin of Adam affected all, so the death that comes from that sin also affects all. A strange statement follows: “Up to the time of the Law, (the Torah, revelation through Moses), sin was in the world but was not accounted because there was no law.” Some might say, “O happy times!” Not so happy because death was in charge, affecting even those who did not sin. The gift, God’s grace that comes to us through faith in Jesus Christ’s redemptive work, is not like the sin of Adam - even though both affected all. Why? because life is superior to death. As Adam’s sin brought only the lesser, which is death, Christ’s work brought life, which is superior to death. Difficult? Certainly! It’s St. Paul!

In his gospel, Matthew arranged five major sermons or discourses of Jesus. One theme of Matthew’s gospel is presenting Jesus as a new and improved Moses. The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, are attributed to Moses. It is possible that this claim affected Matthew’s choice of presenting Jesus’ teaching in five discourses. As Moses received the Torah from God on a mountain, so Jesus’ first discourse in Matthew is on a mountain — the Sermon on the Mount. This Sunday’s gospel takes us into the second discourse — the Missionary Instructions. As the Lord God told Jeremiah not to be afraid of his enemies, so Jesus tells his disciples: “Fear no one.” What he told them in private instruction they must shout from the housetops. What he told them in darkness, they must speak in the light. They need not fear those who kill the body — a warning of future martyrdom — because they cannot kill the soul. Fear only those who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna. Say what?! Gehenna is a Hebrew word meaning the “valley of Hinnom.” It was a ravine southwest of Jerusalem. During the days of the monarchy, 1,000-587 B.C., it was the location of an idolatrous cult involving the burning of children to the fake god Moloch. It was also called Topheth, which means “firepit.” In the first century B.C., the name Gehenna came to be used as a symbol of a blazing lake of fire reserved for the wicked after death.

To assure disciples that God their Father protects them, Jesus (or Matthew) indulges in a bit of humor. Two sparrows are sold for a penny, though not one of them falls to the ground without God’s knowledge. Since Jesus’ disciples are worth more than many sparrows, “Do not be afraid.”

Author’s note: According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, sparrows were used as food.

The gospels give us competitive pricing. In Matthew, sparrows sell two for a penny; in Luke, five for two pennies. Our gospel closes with good news and bad news. Good news first: “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father.” The bad news: “Everyone who denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.” What about forgiveness? Does Jesus condemn? John 3:17-18: “God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. The one who does not believe is condemned already because he does not believe.” The non-believer condemns himself.