TWELFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB links to all three readings
Jesus said to the Twelve:
"Fear no one.
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.
And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul;
rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy
both soul and body in Gehenna.
Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?
Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father's knowledge.
Even all the hairs of your head are counted.
So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Everyone who acknowledges me before others
I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father.
But whoever denies me before others,
I will deny before my heavenly Father."
One of the inherent problems with the present Lectionary of Biblical Readings for Mass is the huge chasm in the Gospel narrative of the year; in our 2017 case this would be the Gospel of St. Matthew. It has been early March since we stopped hearing the Matthean Gospel narrative in sequence, in order to observe the appropriate Gospels for the special seasons of Lent and Easter. Consequently, when I sat down this morning to do my prep work, I had to strain to remember where we left St. Matthew’s narrative way back before St. Patrick’s Day.
The good news is that the three synoptic Gospels-Matthew, Mark, and Luke—do parallel each other in their narratives in many places. Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew is preceded by the mission of the Twelve into the local towns to preach and work signs, a venture recorded in Mark and Luke as well. Sunday’s Gospel is a continuing reaction to the just-completed mission. It is interesting that the response to this mission is somewhat different in the Gospels. In Mark, for example, the disciples return, ecstatic over what they believe to be their own accomplishments. The reaction of the Twelve in Matthew, it would seem, is different, for Jesus proceeds into a lengthy lesson on the cost of discipleship. He tells the Apostles to “fear no one.” Perhaps some of their missionary ventures had been “scary.” Our Sunday text is thus focused on the courage and fear factors of discipleship.
In the immediate paragraph preceding Sunday’s text, Jesus begins with the logical observation that if he himself had been called Beelzebub or the prince of devils, as Jesus indeed had been insulted previously in this Gospel, then it would make sense that the men speaking in his name would suffer the same fate. Matthew implies that such attacks on the character of the Twelve had occurred when they preached without Jesus. Thus, the Master’s response to fear no one. Our house commentator R.T. France (see home page) observes that “fear of God” is balanced by “trust in God.” The true disciple’s trust in the Father puts him in good stead with the one being worthy of fear, “who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” Gehenna was an actual historical site mentioned in the Old Testament as a place of previous infant sacrifice; in later Judaic parlance—certainly by Jesus’ day, the term was applied to an other-worldly place of fire and consumption by worms.
Scholars are divided on the precise meaning of Gehenna. Is Jesus’ use of the phrase “soul and body” in terms of ultimate punishment a reference to the secular Greek philosophical anthropology of, say, Aristotle? As a devout Jew Jesus probably adhered to the more traditional Jewish understanding of man as one entity. Thus, his phrasing of punishment of “body and soul” might be better understood as total annihilation. Given that the Gospel preaching was not limited to Palestine but expanded to the Greek world (Paul) and the Roman world (Peter) over time, it would not be surprising to see traces of Greek or Hellenized thinking appearing in the later New Testament writing. In any event, Matthew make clear that Jesus’ enemies can only cause pain to the outer man but cannot destroy the inner core of a human being.
France takes note of the element of secrecy surrounding the message of the Kingdom. For example, Jesus states that “What I say to you in darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops,” literally, from the roof of your own house. There is a level of secrecy and intimacy between Jesus and the Twelve which explains why his instruction to them is “whispered.” What is all the more remarkable about this secrecy is that Sunday’s Gospel text comes just two chapters after the revelatory “Sermon on the Mount.” (Matthew 5-8) The Sermon on the Mount has long been understood as a master plan of the converted life. In our Sunday text, however, Jesus is emphasizing that his disciples are not just converts; they are the ones making converts, the true evangelizers. One might say that Matthew is introducing the first concepts of hierarchy for his kingdom after his death. We will see this again later in the Gospel when Matthew singles out Peter for a unique position of authority and later when he describes a procedure for leaders to bring errant converts back into the true fold. (Matthew 16:18ff and 18:15ff)
When driving north and back earlier this month, Margaret and I were disheartened by the large number of deer killed along the interstate. We have gotten used to dead opossums, squirrels, raccoons. A dead sparrow would not merit a comment in the car. The same zoological pecking order must have been true in Jesus’ day, for he holds the rather commonplace sparrow as an example of God’s reach of protection and compassion. This is Matthew’s version of St. Luke’s Lilies of the Field; if God created and admired common plants and local birds with limited and unremarkable lifespans, how much more is his interest and solitude with his human creation?
That God knows the comings and goings of common sparrows leads to the final section of Sunday’s reading, judgment. There are two factors to consider here. First, Matthew’s Gospel is directed toward a persecuted Church whose allegiance to Jesus and his Father is the subject of life-and-death decisions. Second, those who actively preach the Kingdom anywhere or at any time will be subject to life-and-death decision making. This is consistent with Mark’s analogy of the disciple’s taking up a (genuine) cross. In all cases, the faithful who acknowledges Christ before others will participate in Christ’s reward, advocacy before the Father, who will refuse his son nothing. Those who publicly deny Christ…suffice to say that they will find themselves in position to explain the true circumstances of Gehenna.