Second Great Sermon

The readings for Sunday, June 25, 2017, Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are
Jeremiah 20:10-13; Romans 5:12-15; and Matthew 10:26-33.

The context of this Gospel selection is the second of five great sermons the author of Matthew’s Gospel constructed from traditions about Jesus. This sermon is called “Missionary Instructions.”

The headline: “The harvest is great, but the laborers are few. Pray, therefore, the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest.” Next Matthew lists the Twelve Apostles, and points out that Jesus “gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease….” The detailed instructions on how to conduct themselves in their first missionary work now follow. Although Matthew sets these instructions in the time of Jesus, the thirties of the first century, he is actually addressing the missionaries sent out by his Christian Community in the eighties of the first century. He warns them about rejection, opposition, persecution, even martyrdom. They are promised the help of the Holy Spirit during these trials. The opposition which Jesus encountered is a promise that they would encounter the same.

At this point our Gospel reading of the day begins. It is a series of sayings attributed to Jesus to encourage the Christian missionaries of Matthew’s day to persevere in their endeavors to proclaim the Good News. The sayings listed do not always seem to fit the context, but the author seems to want to include as many Jesus-sayings as he can crowd into this sermon. Speaking for Jesus, Matthew begins, “Have no fear of them.” Who are “they”? Those listed in the preceding instructions: Roman authorities, Jewish authorities, families betraying their Christian members, mobs pursuing them. The first reading of today fits in here — the trials of the 6th century B.C. prophet Jeremiah. The prophet seems paranoid about enemies. He hears whisperings from every direction. He is in terror because his former friends “are watching me for any misstep of mine.” Then he finds consolation, “The Lord is with me, my mighty champion.” The prophet’s thoughts are not always compatible with the sentiments of the Sermon on the Mount, but that sermon would not be written for another semi-millennium and more. So he says, “Let me witness the vengeance you take on them….”

Matthew continues: “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.” Does this even fit with “Have no fear of them”? What is Matthew’s intention? He seems to indicate the difference between the time of Jesus and his own time in the eighties of the first Christian century. Meaning: the instructions and training that Jesus gave his disciples privately is in the past. Now is the time for boldness. What Jesus taught then must now be shouted from the housetops. He expands on the statement, “Do not fear them,” with which this Gospel reading opened, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of those who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna (a symbol of hell).”

The next sayings are meant to encourage Christian missionaries or Christians in general by reminding them how dear they are to God. Matthew continues, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny, yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.” The meaning: if God concerns himself even with the little sparrows, Christians must realize how God values human lives. Then a reassurance: “Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.”

The Gospel reading closes with the following Jesus-saying, “Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” This saying should be understood as a consolation and also a warning to all Christians, not just Christian missionaries. Or we could say that every Christian is in some way a missionary — sent out through Baptism to proclaim the Good News to the world. This does not have to mean going to a foreign country to proclaim the Gospel. Christian parents and others who teach their children about God, especially teachers who act in place of parents, are “acknowledging Jesus before others.” The second part of this final saying, that Jesus would deny us before his Father, is difficult for us to accept. However, God respects the human will. It is left free to decide for or against Jesus.