Homily for the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Jeremiah 20:10-13; Romans 5:12-15; Matthew 10:26-33

Noli Timere’ (Do not be afraid) were the last words of the poet, Seamus Heaney, to his wife, Marie, before he died, ten years ago. They are the most frequent words spoken by Jesus to his disciples, and, in today’s gospel reading from Matthew, they occur three times.  But we need to pay attention to the text and the context to understand his words properly.   

Jesus is not giving his disciples the false assurance that they have nothing to afraid of. In last Sunday’s gospel, we heard how Jesus selected twelve of his disciples to collaborate with him in his revolutionary mission. He told them that he was sending them out ‘as sheep in the midst of wolves’ (Mt 10:16). Hence, they must be prepared to meet with opposition and persecution: ‘You will be dragged before governors and kings because… and you will be hated by all because of my name’ (Mt 10: 18,22).  So the disciples of Jesus had genuine reasons to be fearful. Indeed, it would be superhuman of them not to be afraid. What Jesus is saying to them, as he is saying to us today, is they must not be overcome or paralysed by fear, but continue to carry out the mission he has entrusted to them, trusting in the power of the Spirit to sustain them.

Our first reading sets before us the example of the prophet Jeremiah. A timid and sensitive youth, afraid to speak, Jeremiah was nevertheless chosen by the Lord to be ‘a prophet to the nations’ (Jer 1:5). It was only with reluctance that he accepted this mission. Fidelity to his prophetic vocation cost him dearly. It pitted him against the whole nation of Judah from the king, princes and priests down to the people in the streets of the Jerusalem. Indeed, Jeremiah was constantly derided, opposed and physically threatened, as the first words of our reading make clear. There were times when he was sorely afraid and tempted to give up being a prophet. However, he not succumb to his fears. He remained faithful to his difficult calling to the end of his life. And the foundation for this fidelity was his trust in the Lord’s promise to be with him always:  ‘The Lord is with me, like a mighty champion: my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph’ (Jer 20: 10).  

Like Jeremiah, those called to continue the mission of Jesus must be prepared to meet with opposition, rejection and persecution. They cannot expect to be treated differently from their master (cf. Mt 10:24). Indeed. the absence of persecution may be a sign that the Church has diluted the gospel to suit the spirit of the times. The message and mission of Jesus were radical, indeed revolutionary. His words and actions represented a complete reversal of the value system that marked the society of his time. He was perceived as a threat to the powerful political and religious elites of his day. No wonder he opposed, tortured and crucified!

Down through the centuries, all true disciples of Jesus, those who continue to promote his vision of a world ruled by the love of God (the Kingdom of God),  have always met with opposition from those who benefit from the unjust status quo. In recent decades, violent persecution of Christians has been on rise  According to Pope Francis, conditions for Christians are worse now than they were in the days of the early Church. At the present time, 360 million Christians live in nations with high levels of persecution or discrimination. According to the 2023 World Watch List (WWL), nearly 6,000 Christians were killed for their faith last year; and more than 2,000 churches were attacked or closed. Sadly, sub-Saharan Africa, the epicentre of global Christianity,  is now also the epicentre of violence against Christians, as Islamist extremism continues to spread well beyond Nigeria. It takes a lot of courage to live as fully committed Christians in such situations.

Thankfully, in most countries of the world, Christians are not in danger of being  killed or driven from their homes. But they often are subjected to more subtle forms of opposition and persecution. Many western countries allow their citizens to believe what they want, but impose laws which render ineffective their capacity to influence public life, morals, or policy. In some countries, the name of Christ cannot be mentioned in public prayer, and the crucifix cannot be placed on the walls of public institutions. Such regulations constitute a form of discrimination and harassment that relegates Christianity to the private sphere, and keeps Christian influence from the public forum – perhaps in hope that it will eventually fade away.

In face of such opposition and persecution, Jesus urges his disciples not to allow their genuine fears to cripple them, but to continue to proclaim the truth of the gospel and to witness to him publicly. He assures them that the truth that the powerful elites try to cover up will eventually be revealed: ‘Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known’ (Mt 10:26). He reassures them of the Father’s love and care for them: ‘Even the hairs of your head are all counted’ (Mt 10:30). And he ends by making them this awesome promise: ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before other, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven’ (Mt 10:32). So we pray: Lord, grant us the courage to stake our lives on the truth of your blessed word. Amen.

Michael McCabe SMA

To listen to an alternative Homily  for this Sunday, from Fr Tom Casey of the SMA Media Centre, Ndola, Zambia please click on the play button below.

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