In today’s first reading the prophet Jeremiah finds himself denounced and pursued on every side, though he does not lose heart, saying: “the Lord is with me, like a mighty champion: my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph. In their failure they will be put to utter shame, to lasting, unforgettable confusion” (Jer 20:11). The prophet cries out for relief from his persecutors and expresses confidence that they will have their comeuppance and Jeremiah himself will be rescued by the Lord.
This fits perfectly with the Gospel passage from Matthew, where we hear: “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed…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” (Matt 10:26-28).
Jesus teaches his listeners that those like Jeremiah who are hounded by oppressors need not fear them, for they can only take one’s earthly life, not one’s heavenly inheritance. The words of denunciation whispered against Jeremiah by his detractors will be shouted from the rooftops, and their secret scheming to kill him will be made known as well. This still sounds like quite a toll that our opponents can take, yet Jesus is pointing to the fact that the fullness of human life and purpose lies not in the present life—“do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul”—but we prepare for it in the present life and only experience it in its perfection in the life to come.
We have seen before that in arranging the Lectionary the Church began by selecting a Gospel passage and then chose a first reading, generally from the Old Testament, to introduce and support the Gospel. The second reading, normally taken from the New Testament epistles, often takes up a different theme. Today we find that the second reading, from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, might be the key that helps us understand Jesus’ Gospel lesson and draw hope from it.
Paul writes: “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death….But the gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many” (Rom 5:12, 15). We see two critical points here: the universality of sin among human beings and the universality of God’s saving grace which comes to us through Christ.
The first point—the universality of sin—is what Jeremiah felt the sting of as he was chased by his persecutors. It is also what we sense when we are the victims of another’s sin and when we ourselves stoop to sin against others: we feel the guilt that always accompanies sin and is one of its destructive side-effects. The second point, that of God’s all-encompassing and all-powerful saving action in Christ, is what Jeremiah anticipated with great longing and we what share in its fullness.
The next time we feel pressed on every side by foes of any sort, let us pray with the Psalmist, “Lord, in your great love, answer me,” (Ps 69:14) knowing that in Christ God has already defeated the power of sin and death once and for all, and has given us the hope of living in virtue in the present life that we might enjoy the fullness of his glory in the life to come.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Artwork: Rembrandt’s Jeremiah.