|Words from Fr. Frank Cordaro|
June 23, 2002
Twelfth Sunday Ordinary Time 2002
Jer 20: 10-13, Rom 5: 12-15, Mt 10: 26-33 Jeremiah 20:10-13
"Let me witness the vengeance you that on them". Jeremiah was a prophet at an unfortunate time in Jewish history. He was the last prophet in Jerusalem before the Babylonians destroyed the temple, leveled the city, and took its inhabitants off to captivity.
Born into a priestly family he started his prophetic career very young. His career began during the reign of good King Josiah who was known for the reforms he initiated, reforms Jeremiah wholeheartedly endorsed. King Josiah was killed in a battle with the Egyptians and from that point on things got worse for Judea and Jeremiah.
After the death of Josiah the Babylonian Empire came on to the world stage. They defeated the Assyrians and looked to Egypt for their next big conquest. Caught in the middle, Jerusalem’s king and leaders made the necessary accommodations to the Babylonian presence, much to the displeasure of Jeremiah who railed against the diluting of the faith and the neglect of the poor. A lifetime of telling God’s truth only earned Jeremiah an arrest, imprisonment, and public disgrace. He ended his prophetic career, framed and at the bottom of an empty muddy well, left to die. He was rescued by an Egyptian and deported from Jerusalem on the last caravan leaving the city before its destruction. He died a broken man in Egypt. This week’s text comes from a section in chapter 20 which could be called the prophet’s lament. It takes place right after Jeremiah did a symbolic witness. (Jeremiah 19) At the Jerusalem gate leading to the town dump Jeremiah summoned the temple leadership and called a press conference. He read a scorching statement in which he indicted the Jerusalem leadership of infidelity to God and predicted the ruin and destruction of the city and its people. He then led the party to the dump and smashed a potter’s vessel for a visible effect to symbolize the destruction of the city and its people, a kind of "Humpty Dumpty" statement. He returned to the temple and passed out a press release in which he reports his witness at the dump and includes his statement.
Chapter 20:1-6 begins with the account of the priest Pashhur, head of temple security, arresting Jeremiah, having him "scoured" and placed in the "stocks" for 24 hrs. Upon his release Jeremiah has nothing good to say about Pashhur and leaves dejected.
Then the text records the prophet’s lament (Jer 20:7-18). I highly recommend a reading of the entire lament to get the full impact of the prophet’s anguish. The book of Jeremiah is unique in this respect because we get insights into the prophet’s personal feelings, and his mood swings as he attempts to be faithful to his calling in the most difficult of times. This week’s four verses are self-explanatory. In verse 10 Jeremiah complains about how others, even his former friends are out to get him. In verse 11 Jeremiah affirms that God will take his side and do his foes in. In verse 12 Jeremiah asks God to let him witness the vengeance he seeks for his foes. And in verse 13 the prophet sings God’s praise for God rescues the poor from the wicked. Matt 10:26-33: This week’s gospel is a continuation of last week’s instructions to the 12 apostles before they are sent on their first missionary assignment. The discourse actually moves beyond the particular mission of the 12 to the post-resurrection community whom Matthew was writing. Right before this week’s gospel in verses 10:16-25 Matthew describes the current events of his own times where the followers of Jesus were outlaws and enemies of the state. They were arrested and tried before courts and synagogues, tortured and put to death. The most bitter divisions took place within families where family members turned on each other because of the Jesus way.
Matthew warns his readers to be prepared to be hated by the world, accused of the most vile things including being agents of the devil. He tells them to be prepared to flee from town to town to avoid persecution. This will be the case right up to the end of time.
In this week’s gospel Matthew continues to give advice on how to live under persecution. In this week’s reflection, I’m taking Matthew’s directive and applying them to our own situation and my life as a follower of the non-violent resisting Jesus. Do not be afraid (Matt 10:26,28,31): These words are repeated three times in this week’s gospel. Clearly Matthew is emphasizing a point about fear. I must admit every time I hear this directive I think about my visits to my doctor for my annual prostate examination when he asked me to drop my pants and bend over. Just before he does the examination he tells me, "Relax. "Yeah, sure-Relax"?
Matthew has just informed his readers that they should expect to be persecuted for their embracing of the gospel, that they should expect to be arrested, thrown into jail, tried, tortured and killed. And now he’s saying, "Don’t be afraid"? Its not that he is saying don’t have fear. This would be impossible. What he means is, don’t let your fears rule. It’s best to face your fears, own them, live with them, give them over to God and do what is right despite your fears.
This was really brought home to me when I was involved in preparing to do the Gods of Medal Plowshares witness in May 1998. The danger level and negative consequences from participating in a Plowshare’s witness are many times greater than a simple "line crossing" trespass charge at a military base. For the months leading up to the witness my fear factor was very high. The thought of months and years in prison was at times emotionally paralyzing. It took all the faith and courage I had to act despite my fears. And even though I ended up doing just six months for the witness, it was many times more difficult than my last line crossing at Offutt. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed (Matt.10:26): Wow! Doesn’t this describe exactly what is happening in the Catholic Church today, surrounding priest sexual abuse issues and the bishops cover ups? Our Church is painfully experiencing the truth of this statement. For years victims of priestly sexual abuse have been ignored, overlooked, hushed up, and bought out while bishops protected the image of the Church at the cost of its substance and faith integrity. And all of this shameful behavior was covered in an institutional environment of fear, intimidation, and silencing of dissenting voices within the Church. Anyone who loves our Church, regardless of our differing ecclesiologies has to feel a profound sadness for what is coming to light in these matters. We can only hope and pray that these difficult days of exposure will help bring about the reforms and changes needed to make our Church a more honest proclaimer of the gospels we all profess to follow. 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 body and soul. (Matt 10:28): Each person has a soul. Each soul is an embodied spirit. Natural death is inevitable. None of us gets out of this world alive. Though natural death is inevitable, the immortal life of the soul, an embodied spirit, is up for grabs. It’s in both God’s doing and our choosing. As human beings made in God’s image, natural death need not be an end in itself but a means to God. In making life choices it is imperative that we choose to do good and not the bad that would put our immortal souls at risk. Nothing, even the preservation of our natural lives, is worth risking our immortal souls, out immortal lives. Matthew is telling us we need not fear the evil forces that might take our natureal lives, but fear the evil that can both kill the body and destroy the soul.
And when it comes to modern warfare and nuclear weapons, these are evils that can destroy our natural bodies, if not all life! They also pose a threat to our immortal souls when we place our trust and faith in them as means for security no matter how just the cause. They are what Matthew would have us fear. They are what our faith in Jesus would have us nonviolently resist at the cost of our natural lives. "Whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father" (Matt 10:33): To accept or deny Jesus in our U.S. society means much more than verbally professing our faith. Words are cheap in our political world. We can say and believe anything we wish. This freedom of words and belief are part of our political and religious rights protected under the constitution. And this is a good thing, something we can be proud of as Americans. However a verbal acceptance or denial of Jesus is not what Matthew is writing about in 10:33. The acceptance or denial of Jesus has to do with the whole person; their words, deeds and heart.
The Church and State of their day must also read this verse in its context, in a section in which Jesus tells his disciples to expect persecution, and rejection. In this regard I find a measure of comfort in the troubles I’ve experienced with the Church and State of my own time.
Some would say this is an unfair comparison. Ours is not a pagan State, nor a pagan Church. We are a believing nation whose majority is Christian. We live in a politically free democracy. We have "In God we Trust" printed on our money!
Remember, it is not what we say but what we do that determines our acceptance or denial of Jesus. Could a nation or a Church be following Jesus and drop an atomic bomb of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan? Could it fight a Cold War where millions are killed in surrogate wars and hold the world captive with nuclear weapons? Could it consume far more than its share of resources while 1/2 the world goes hungry? Train assassins and human rights violators at the School of Americas? Starve one half million children in Iraq through economic sanctions? The list is endless. You get my drift.