We are moving back to ‘Ordinary Time’ picking it up from the Sunday before Lent started, followed by the Easter season and the special feasts. It may feel like a jolt, as we jump into the sequence of the readings going through Matthew of Year A in a chronological way and this means the Gospel selection comes without any context. The liturgy also is continuing a series of second readings from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
As often, the first reading from the Old Testament seems chosen to match the theme of the Gospel with its warnings of persecution and call to trust in God. Jeremiah is a complicated book to follow as it covers forty years of the prophet’s ministry. In his introduction to the book in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Guy P. Couturier, CSC says, ‘Jeremiah lived through one of the most troubled periods of the Near East.’ After the fall of one great oppressive empire, Assyria, came the rise of Babylon which battled with Egypt to control the areas around Judah. Eventually the small Jewish kingdom ended in downfall and exile.
Jeremiah was concerned with counselling kings in the dangerous political situation, but he also had to face up to rulers who had fallen from the observation of the Jewish Law. Ignoring the moral code had even led to infant sacrifice. The result as the prophet saw it, was that the wayward kingdom would be punished by the loss of their country and status. In the process of understanding what God was doing, Jeremiah came to a deep understanding of God’s love for the people expressed in a covenant which also called for the corresponding response of the people to their God.
Because his words were usually not wanted by the corrupt in power, the prophet faced a great deal of persecution, and that forms the background of the short selection we hear today. First comes Jeremiah’s cry of pain, then his confidence that despite all the dangers, the opponents will ultimately fail and God will support him through the trial. At the end he expresses a desire for revenge, a common human sentiment much in evidence in our own troubled times. There were warnings in other parts of the Bible against vengeful thoughts. ‘Vengeance is mine, says the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 32:35) was quoted by Paul in Romans 12:179-19. Jesus will take it a step further telling his followers to pray for their enemies and do good to them. This remains as hard for many Christians today as Jeremiah found it hard to foresee any solution but punishment of the wrong-doers.
When Jeremiah saw the failures of the people in living up to their part of the Covenant, he prophesied that God would in the future create a New Covenant, and that echoed in the words used by Jesus at the Last Supper: ‘This is my blood of the New Covenant, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins.’ (Matthew 26:28) Our name for our scripture means much the same with the word New ‘Testament.’
Psalm 68/69:8-10, 14, 17, 33-35
The Psalmist has experienced the same sense of suffering for his ‘zeal’ for God, but stresses his confidence in God’s intervention and ends on the theme of praise.
In this Letter to a community he did not know (unlike most of his letters to churches he had founded) Paul takes the opportunity to expand his theology of God’s salvation through faith in Christ rather than ‘the Law’. The arguments are not always easy for the modern mind to follow, though the overall theme is clear. That is true of the section today which is based on the theme of human community based on the Genesis story of Adam as the source of all humanity. While not accepting the timetable of the old story, we can still understand the idea of human solidarity, as the actions of one person have an effect for good or bad over a wide range of life. We can still experience the common human sinfulness we share and pass on. This fall or failure is met by the life-giving action of Jesus Christ, given us not a ‘reward’ for good behaviour, but as a free gift of love.
This is what might now be called a ‘sound-bite’ from a longer speech of Jesus about how his disciples are to work as missionaries. It began in Chapter 10 and the opening words would have been read if we had come straight from the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Jesus named his 12 Apostles and sent them out to preach and heal as he has been doing himself. After giving them instructions for their mission at that time, Matthew adds more directions that are clearly related to the preaching that will follow after the Resurrection. He is concerned especially with the Church of his own times, when persecutions of various kinds were going on around them. He is so focused on the later period that he never mentions the return of the disciples from their first journey, as Mark (6:30) and Luke (9:10) do. There is a renewal of such dangers in our times, and the encouragement is still timely for those facing choices that can result in martyrdom.
Our selection picks up after Jesus has warned the disciples to expect the opposition, persecution and even death – just as he himself had done. Despite the warning of troubles, he now tells then not to be afraid – which he repeats several times in this short section. He gives them some reasons for trust, first that death is not final, and what is more to be feared is losing one’s ‘soul’ by denying Christ. This too is repeated, a warning that was apparently needed in the difficult times of martyrdom – as it may be again.
The second reason is that no matter how dire things seem, God is truly watching over the disciples – with the comparison that God has care for even the small birds not held of much account at the time. There is also a touch of humour with the numbering of our hairs. These are not promises that nothing bad will ever happen to Christians, but that God has eternally taken everything into his plan and Jesus calls for us to have a deeper hope in what will happen in the future for those who stand by Jesus.
Some of Jesus’ warnings may sound harsh in our ears, but keeping the Biblical message that God’s mercy never fails echoes with the description of God’s care for his disciples. The results of turning away from Jesus are a reminder still needed that our decisions about God are not idle or casual but have real and lasting consequences.