Gospel for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time (21 June 2020)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:26-33 – NRSV).
“Do you know what the most frequent command in the Bible turns out to be? What instruction, what order, is given, again and again, by God, by angels, by Jesus, by prophets and apostles? What do you think—‘Be good’? ‘Be holy, for I am holy’? Or, negatively, ‘Don’t sin’? ‘Don’t be immoral’? No. The most frequent command in the Bible is: ‘Don’t be afraid.’” (N T Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, SPCK, 1994, 56.)
The command “Don’t be afraid” comes up in today’s Gospel. Afraid of what?
The Greek word, akolouthein, meaning “to walk behind, to follow” is frequently used in the Christian Scriptures to speak of discipleship. It gives a specific Christian meaning to the common Greek word mathētēs, meaning “disciple”. That word, mathētēs – in different forms – is used 261 times in the Gospels and Acts. It is rooted in the verb manthanō, meaning “to learn”. Put them together and you have the rich concept of Christian discipleship: Those who follow Jesus in order to learn what it means to be a human being. The following and the learning never cease. This is both the promise and the challenge of discipleship.
It is in the context of Jesus’ call to those eleven disciples to be disciples that Jesus says: “Remember, I am with you always ... “ (Matthew 28:20 – the last words in the Gospel of Matthew). Jesus’ gentle reminder echoes God’s promise repeated throughout the Hebrew Scriptures – for example Isaiah 41:10: “Do not be afraid for I am with you”.
What is it about being disciples – Jesus’ followers and learners – that might frighten us?
The deep, primitive truth of our fear – as in other complex life matters – remains largely buried below the surface of our awareness, masked by our pretenses and wishes and expectations and yes, even other fears. We can suppress and repress our fear but we cannot get rid of it. Only love can do that. It is crucial that we give ourselves every possibility to hear God’s word of love – to hear it with the ear of the heart, to taste it. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
Everything in the Gospel accounts of discipleship implies that it is a response to being loved. Those first disciples did not take the initiative. It was not a career move. It was not even a decision of high moral principle. It was a very human response to a word of love: “Come!” Interestingly enough, today’s Gospel text, in saying explicitly that the number of disciples here is eleven, reminds us that one of their number, although involved, was never really a disciple, a follower and learner. And those who did begin the journey of discipleship – the eleven – sensed something in Jesus that drew them to follow and seek to learn, more and more.
The disciple is, first and foremost, one who has let her/himself taste the love embodied in Jesus. Once you have tasted God’s love, everything else will follow.
Chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel is referred to in the Jerusalem Bible as “The Apostolic Discourse”. It begins with the mission of the twelve – they are named and sent out as disciples of Jesus, they are to proclaim what they have learned in following Jesus, there is a warning concerning the hardships of this mission, Jesus urges them not to be afraid.
Daniel Harrington writes: “In 10:26–31 the disciples are urged: ‘Do not fear’ (10:26, 28, 31). In their mission they continue the process of making public the message of Jesus, which is not hidden or esoteric (10:26–27). They are to fear God alone, not human beings (10:28). They are to trust in God’s care for them (10:29–31). Then in 10:32–33 they are reminded that their steadfast confession of Jesus will be rewarded and their denial of him will be punished. Though these sayings came as a package in Q (see Luke 12:2–9), they originated as small, independent units. Taken individually, they are difficult to interpret because we do not know their context. Whatever their original context may have been, Matthew has given them a new context in his mission discourse. In that context they take on a certain meaning” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 152).
have no fear of them: This command – a reiteration of the great promise given to Moses (Exodus 3:12) and repeated in different ways throughout the Bible – holds our text together. This command demands that we focus on God – we are about God’s work, it is, in the end, not our work. The apostle is someone who makes him/herself available to God for God to do what God will do. Luke 1:38 is the paradigm, where we hear Mary respond to the call of God issued by the Angel Gabriel: “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’.” We might regard this as the key to discipleship, no matter what form it takes. Those who can hear that command and be transformed by it will be those who have a deep and rich relationship with Jesus – a crucial basis for the next command which follows: Go out and share it.
What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops: This builds on the previous command to take their discipleship to the world without fear. Let everybody know what you have come to know in being with Jesus, listening to him, absorbing his way of being. Every person can and should come to know the love of God revealed in Jesus. John puts it succinctly and beautifully: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us” (1 John 4:16). Clearly this proclamation is much more than merely passing on information!
hell: The English word “hell” is Old English, perhaps with a Germanic origin. It means roughly what the Jews meant in Jesus’ day when they spoke of “gehenna”. “Geenna, usually transliterated as ‘gehenna’ or translated as ‘hell’, refers to the place of punishment at the judgment. The term derives from the name of a valley located on the south slope of Jerusalem, the Valley of Hinnom (Josh 15:8; 18:16), where Ahaz and Manasseh followed the ‘detestable practices of the nations’ by burning sacrifices to Molech and even sacrificing their own sons in the fire (2 Chron 28:3; 33:6; 2 Kings 16:3). Associated with such practices as these, the Hinnom Valley (or Valley of the Son of Hinnom) came to be associated with the most horrific images of divine judgment (Jer 7:30–33; 19:1–13; 32:34–35; cf. Is 31:9; 66:24). (J B Green, “Heaven and Hell” In J. B. Green, J. K. Brown, & N. Perrin (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition, IVP Academic, 2013, 371.)
Today’s Gospel – Matthew 10:26-33 – reminds us that, to be a disciple of Jesus, is to bear witness to the Good news. As disciples, we know we are sent. There is nothing accidental about our existence. We are here because that is what the all-loving God intends. That is why St Paul prays that beautiful prayer for the Christians in Ephesus: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:16-17).
When we begin to awaken to who and what we are, when we experience it in our daily lives, there is a dawning realization: “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:31-35). There is a name for this freedom and boldness that emerges when we begin to know who and what we are – the Greek word is parrhesia. The meaning of this word is difficult to catch in English. But it is along the lines of freedom and boldness in speaking the truth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions it: “This power of the Spirit who introduces us to the Lord’s Prayer is expressed in the liturgies of East and of West by the beautiful, characteristically Christian expression: parrhesia, straightforward simplicity, filial trust, joyous assurance, humble boldness, the certainty of being loved” (Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed.) #2778).
Parrhesia was well known to the ancient Greeks. It also appears in the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures. One instructive instance is found in the Book of Leviticus: “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect” (26:13). Parrhesia is here translated as “erect”. The people are reminded that God has liberated them, they are now God’s people and their bearing in the world should manifest this. In other words: “Have confidence, trust Me, walk in the truth of who and what you are! I am with you!”
If St Paul’s prayer – for the Christians in Ephesus but also for all disciples – bears fruit in us, we will be able “to speak the truth in love” and we will “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16).