Today’s biblical readings are a testimony of the contradictory and painful experience of those who have been called by God to proclaim his word in history. The voices of the prophet and of the apostle, antagonistic and discordant in the midst of the structures of this world, inevitably generate a conflict that reveals the radical difficulty of the human heart and of the powers of this world to welcome the “truth”. This rejection to listen to the voice of God is concretised in the violent opposition that is unfolded against the “evangelisers”. The tradition that associates the figure of the prophet to that of the martyr who suffers a violent death because of the word is therefore not accidental.
The first reading (Jer 20,10-13) alludes to a culminating moment of the book of Jeremiah. It is about the ultimate and most intense “confession” of the prophet, in which the destiny of Jeremiah, of the city and of the poor of Yahweh, persecuted because of their fidelity to God, are combined in the figure of the suffering “I”.
The prophet Jeremiah, known and chosen by God “from the womb”, consecrated “before he was born” and appointed a “prophet to the nations” (Jer 1,5), was continually marked in body and spirit by rejection and persecution, by physical suffering and hurtful contradiction of God’s silence. In Jeremiah, known by God “from the womb”, prophecy is not revealed at a particular moment of his life, but it enfolds the totality of his existence. His life is a real incarnation of the word of God. His own body is inseparably united with the prophetic vocation and mission (cf. Jer 1,5). Hence, his sufferings, social marginalization and solitude (cf. 15,10.17; 16,1-5), the persecutions and accusation that he bears (cf. 11,18-19; 20,10), the scourges, tortures, imprisonment and condemnation to death by the authorities (cf. 20,1-6; 26,11; 37,15-16; 38,1-13) express concretely the destiny reserved to God himself and to his word.
The text that we proclaim today as first reading represents a critical moment in the life of the prophet, who laments in his solitude, feeling threatened by the calumny and plans that friends and enemies plot against him: “Yes, I hear the whisperings of many… ‘Let us denounce him!’ All those who were my friends are on the watch for any misstep of mine. ‘Perhaps he will be seduced; then we can prevail, and take our vengeance on him’” (v. 10).
The key words with which the mortal blows of the enemies and friends are described are “seduce” and “prevail”. They are the same words with which Jeremiah laments before God: “You seduced me, O Lord, and I let myself be seduced; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed” (20,7). The prophet felt “seduced” (Hebrew: patáh) by God, as “a virgin who is not betrothed is seduced (patáh)…” (Ex 22,15). Jeremiah let himself be seduced by the beautiful promises of the love of God (cf. Jer 1), but now he finds himself alone and abandoned, object of mockery of all the people and in the hands of his enemies who are enraged against him. Jeremiah accepts that he is also responsible for this situation for having accepted the divine task of announcing the word (v. 7: “I let myself be seduced”), but the greater responsibility is God’s since the initiative of the prophetic mission is his and he is stronger (v. 7: “you were too strong for me, and you triumphed”). The inner crisis from his own ministry, which has been presented before as caused by God (v. 7), is now seen concretised in the mortal attacks that he receives from friends and enemies: “Perhaps he will be seduced; then we can prevail, and take our vengeance on him” (v. 10)
His adversaries are hostile to the prophet and to the word; they want to finish off with him, mock his preaching and plot his destruction. They shout sarcastically: “Terror on every side!” (v. 10). This is a phrase used by Jeremiah in his prophetic announcements of condemnation, with which he sought to fill his listeners with fear of God’s judgment (6,25; 20,3; 46,5; 49,29). His enemies now use ironically the same words: the prophet who frightens now trembles with fear. They threaten him saying: “we can prevail!”, almost like defying the truthfulness of the divine promise in which Jeremiah trusted: “Though they fight against you, they shall not prevail” (15,20). They want to denounce him: “Denounce! Let us denounce him!” (v. 10). The Hebrew verb used (higgíd: declare, denounce) also belongs to the preaching of Jeremiah, who has condemned strongly the sins of his contemporaries (4,5.15; 5,20; 16,10; etc.). Now, paradoxically, his enemies are the ones who seek to accuse and denounce the prophet. The whole text, therefore, is constructed with a terminology that shows the contradiction of the prophetic ministry and the painful crisis experienced by a man who has been called by God to proclaim his word.
Unexpectedly, the words of the prophet takes the form of a trustful and serene prayer: “But the Lord is with me like a mighty champion” (v. 11). His gaze is turned to God and to his saving strength. The same strength that he has experienced within him before (v. 7: “you were too strong for me, and you triumphed”), is now turned against his enemies: “My persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph. In their failure they will be put to utter shame, to lasting unforgettable confusion” (v. 11). The defeat of his adversaries is described with two verbs that in the Bible indicate total failure, destruction and confusion: “stumble-fall” (Ps 26,2; Jn 18,6) and “shame” (Ps 35,26; Gen 2,25).
Beside the prophet, abandoned and marginalized, Yahweh appears like a strong soldier, defender of the weak and of the defenceless. In fact, the Lord is a relentless and inexorable judge of those who have violated the rights of the poor; he is a “just judge who probe the mind and heart”, who acts in favour of the one who “has entrusted his cause to him” (v. 12). That is why the poor and the prophet, saved by the hand of God, could say: “Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord, for he has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked” (v. 13). In the midst of the prophet’s experience of anguish and solitude, God shows himself in solidarity with him who is marginalized and oppressed, persecuted and threatened to death for justice’s sake. The Lord is stronger than any strong and unjust human power.
The second reading (Rom 5,12-21) refers to a remarkable and difficult Pauline reflection that speaks of two human models that are set against each other in history and in the way of daily life of each man and woman. The first Adam represents the humanity that walks to death because of sin; the second Adam (Rom 5,12-21) is Christ and all those who, united with him and like him, follow the ways of God in fidelity and obedience. Paul exhorts us to live united with Jesus the Messiah, the new and definitive Adam, model of true humanity. The humanity that follows the model of the Adam of Genesis will encounter frustration and death because “by the offence of one man all died” (Rom 5,15), but if it lives united to Jesus the Messiah obedient to the Father (cf. Rom 5,19), with the power of his grace it will walk towards true life, because “those who receive the overflowing grace and gift of justice live and reign through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom 5,17).
The gospel (Mt 10,26-33) belongs to the missionary discourse of the Gospel of St Matthew, in which are described the figure and the mission of the apostle as martyr, that is, as witness of the Kingdom to the utmost consequences.
The apostle is not called to live secluded from the society or in silence, but he has to face the risk of speaking to the world. The most significant characteristic of the apostle, like that of the prophet, is the act of “speaking to others”: “What I tell you in darkness, speak in the light. What you hear in private, proclaim from the housetops” (Mt 10,27). Personal adherence to the word of God is not enough. The prophet, the apostle, the evangelizer, are called to proclaim the word of God to the world.
In his mission, he stakes his life and runs the risk of physical destruction. That is why Jesus encourages those whom he sends to mission saying to them: “Do not fear those who deprive the body of life” (Mt 10,28). In the midst of dangers that threaten the apostle, the word of Jesus resounds, which is repeated thrice in our text: “Do not be afraid” (Mt 10,26.28.31). It is the same phrase with which the Risen Lord, conqueror of the powers of death, greets his disciples after his resurrection: “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28,5).
Jesus emphasizes, in the context of the apostolic mission, the tender and loving presence of God who is attentive like a Father to the small and fragile realities (the birds, the hair) and, therefore, is much more caring of the precious life of his children: “Are not two sparrows sold for next to nothing? Yet not a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Father’s consent. As for you every hair of your head has been counted; so do not be afraid of anything. You are worth more than an entire flock of sparrows” (Mt 10,29-31). Faith in the loving providence of the Father sustains the Christian mission, instilling confidence and courage in the apostles. But this faith does not save them miraculously from persecution and death in history. In spite of the loving care of the Father, the birds fall to the ground and the apostles are condemned to death, but the scandal of the martyr’s death is illumined from the perspective inaugurated by Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, with whom the persevering disciple is in solidarity even to give his own life.
Giving testimony to the gospel is to live and to announce, in the midst of conflictive and dangerous situations, the values of the Kingdom: justice, peace, mercy, equality among peoples. It is to “acknowledge Jesus before men” (v. 32), that is, to take sides openly in his favour and of the gospel. What is contrary is to “disown him”, as Peter did on the night of the arrest of Jesus, for fear of being in solidarity with the destiny of the Master (Mt 26,74: “I do not even know the man!”). To acknowledge or to disown Christ is a decision that is not limited to the missionary sphere, but it represents the decision in which the final destiny of the disciple, his salvation or definitive destruction, are at stake: “Whoever acknowledges me before men I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. Whoever disowns me before men I will disown before my Father in heaven” (vv. 32-33).
Radical faith in the Father, merciful and provident, and solidarity with the destiny of Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, are the two coordinates that orientate the life and mission of the Christian disciple. The freedom of the evangelisers from fear and their resolute commitment to announce untiringly the gospel of the Kingdom are derived from these two experiences of faith.