Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Jeremiah 20:10-13; Psalm 69:8-10, 14, 17, 33-35; Romans 5:12-15; Matthew 10:26-33
The prophet Jeremiah was active in Jerusalem from about 626-587 B.C. God called him to this ministry when he was probably no more than a teenager. He objected to God’s call, “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” God informs him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Before you were born I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations. You will go to whomever I send you, and whatever I command you, you shall speak!” That should have left all doubts about Jeremiah’s vocation. Troubles followed. Jeremiah goes to his hometown Anathoth. They reject him, “If you speak the word of the Lord, we will kill you.” The Lord did not allow him to marry, so he was deprived of family life. The message he had to deliver to the Lord was mostly a message of doom. Like most prophets of any ear, he suffered rejection. He was arrested, put on trial for his life, barely escaped capital punishment as a traitor to his nation. He endured a confrontation with the high priests. He was arrested a second time but again barely escaped death. Instead he was lowered into a cistern and Jeremiah sank into deep mud. Is it any wonder that Jeremiah has bouts of depression as in today’s first reading?
He seems paranoid. “I hear whisperings of many. Terror on every side.” The voices are saying, “Denounce him! Let’s denounce him!” He lost friends because of his ministry. These former friends, he says, are just watching for him to make a mistake, trap him, overwhelm him.” Our reading omitted worse. When Jeremiah began this stream of self-pity, he confronts God, “You deceived me, because you are mightier than I.” When he delivers the Lord’s message, he becomes an object of mockery. When he inwardly decides to quit his ministry, “There is a burning fire in my heart, encased in my bones. I am tired of holding it in, and I can’t.” Dreadfully depressing tirade. Fortunately, he also had good days and good thoughts of his ministry of the word. Then he would say in Jeremiah 15:16, “I found your words. I consumed them. They became the joy of my heart!” Jeremiah’s lament was selected as our first reading because it echoes Jesus’ warnings to his disciples of the dangers that lie in wait for them when they carry on his work in their mission.
Psalm 69 is sometimes called a Messianic Psalm because, like Psalm 22, Christian interpreters used it as one of the foundations for describing the sufferings of Jesus in the Passion Narratives of our four gospels. It was selected for today’s liturgy because of its similarity to the lamentation of Jeremiah in the first reading. The Psalmist chants of bearing insult and shame, being an outcast from his own family. Like it did for Jeremiah, so his work for the Lord brought only grief. Jeremiah eventually turned from depression to joy in these words of the first reading, “Sing to the Lord, Praise the Lord! For he has rescued the life of the poor.” Similarly, the Psalmist, “See you humble ones. May your hearts revive, for the Lord hears the poor.”
The second reading is an excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Jesus in the new Adam. As sin and death entered the world through one man, so sin and death were overcome through one man. This passage became a foundation of the centuries-later development of the doctrine of original sin especially through the theology of St. Augustine (died 430 A.D.). Augustine gave up a dissolute life and became a Christian by the sheer unmerited, free gift (grace) of God. This convinced him of the total corruption of human nature, which can only be overcome by grace. No matter how great (vile) the sin, the free gift (grace) of God is even greater.
The gospel is part of the second of five great discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. This discourse or sermon is known as “The Missionary Instructions.” In Matthew’s arrangement of his material this discourse immediately follows Jesus’ bestowal of authority to carry his work to the Jewish people. “Do not go to the Gentiles . . ., but only to the house of Israel.” Matthew’s intention however is to give Christian missionaries of his time a guide manual for their work. Prior to our gospel reading Jesus assured his disciple of persecution from their own fellow Jews, and betrayal by family members. This is not just a prediction of Jesus. Matthew is writing in the 80s of the first century. He knows well, as we know even from pagan authors close to the time, how even family members betrayed their own relatives to persecuting authorities. Why should missionaries expect persecution and betrayal? “The disciple is not superior to his teacher. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” At this point in the discourse this Sunday’s reading begins, “Do not be afraid of them.”
Jesus tells them that what he taught them privately they must proclaim from housetops. Like Jeremiah internally burned to reveal the word of the Lord God, so Christian missionaries burn with zeal to reveal the words of the Lord Jesus. Thus Matthew justifies the Christian mission of his time and all times. They must not fear martyrdom because God watches over them. God even watches over the sparrows that are sold for a penny in the market place. Therefore, he most closely watches over Christian missionaries, “for you are worth more than many sparrows.” Strange as it seems to us, sparrows were commonly used for food. Our gospels don’t agree on the price. Matthew notes that sparrows were sold two for a penny. Luke writes, “five for two pennies.” A sparrow war? Our reading closes with good news and bad news. “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my Father in heaven.” What about forgiveness? Does Jesus condemn? Perhaps a valid answer is found in 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. He who does not believe is condemned already because he does not believe.” Self-condemnation!