Declaring ourselves for Christ
(Readings: Jeremiah 20:10-13; Romans 5: 12-15; Matthew 10: 26-33)
Introduction to Mass
This Sunday’s readings focus on the prophetic element of faith in God. Commitment to God involves a dedication to truth and a clear perception of the fictions that human beings often wrap themselves in. Remaining dedicated to truth and exposing the fictions can prove costly, but Christ tells his followers that the more deeply they trust in God the more they’ll be able to face opposition with courage, and even with a fearlessness of death.
To begin Mass we think of the times when we've lacked the courage to witness to the truth, and we ask God for his forgiveness.
Chapter ten of Saint Matthew's gospel, which is where this passage we just listened to comes from, is a sort of training session for the apostles. The people who listened to Jesus' teaching, and acted on it, became his disciples. The disciples were then sent out to share the message with other people - then they're called apostles. After that, as apostles, they're encouraged by Jesus not to be frightened of the opposition - the inevitable opposition - that they'll come up against.
The atmosphere that we all have to live in, as followers of Christ, is an atmosphere where - as Jesus knew very well - people often lie about their real motives for doing something. They hide, or conceal, selfish motives and self-interest behind a façade of doing good. In our society various fictions have become so common, so much a part of everyday life, that even when we’re aware of them, we just take them for granted and accept them.
When our politicians jump on board the campaigns to eradicate poverty in the third world it’s not because of a sudden access of compassion on their part. Their offers of help are always tied to demands for trade liberalisation and the opportunity for western businesses to make new profits. When supermarket chains sponsor all kinds of local community projects, it's not really because they care about the community: it's an attempt to ingratiate themselves with their customers and establish bonds of approval and loyalty and dependency.
In instances like these the motives at work are never pure and disinterested. The real intentions are covered and hidden, in Christ’s language. But although we have no choice but to live among the deceptions and ulterior motives that are inevitable in such a commercialised culture, Christ urges us, through Saint Matthew, to be clear-sighted, truthful, and perceptive about what’s really going on.
That's the first point about this part of the gospel. The second point is, if we're going to take truthfulness and perceptiveness to certain lengths, we can expect opposition and rejection, and so we need to have courage.
That's the link between the gospel and the first reading, from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was called by God to speak out against the corruption and idolatry and lack of justice of his society.
But inviting his fellow-believers to radically examine their consciences wasn’t something he was thanked for. Jeremiah found that the price of being clear-sighted and honest was great unpopularity. His friends abandoned him. The religious leaders plotted to have him killed. The whole business of speaking out and confronting and exposing the Chosen People's falling-away from God's law caused Jeremiah great anguish and suffering, great loneliness and a great fear for his life. But he kept at it: "the Lord is at my side," he says. "I've committed my cause to him".
And that leads on to the third thing that Jesus recommends to the disciples in this passage: commitment.
In some parts of the world being a Christian, and telling the truth the way Jeremiah did, is dangerous. In parts of the Third World, many priests and nuns and laypeople have been murdered because their commitment to God's Kingdom made them speak out against the exploitation of the people, and against the whole structure of lies that supports it and covers it up. The latest example is Sister Dorothy Stang, the American Sister of Notre Dame, who was murdered because of her work on behalf of the landless peasants in the rain forests of northern Brazil.
In our society, circumstances for us are far less dangerous physically. Christianity used to be a powerful force and it was a badge of respectability. Now, the person who embraces the Christian faith faces a certain amount of mockery. We live in a time of challenge, and a challenge always separates the sheep from the goats.
To own up to being a Christian, to live according to Christian principles, increasingly requires another form of courage; and my prediction for the future, and the near future, is that while a lot of Catholics are just going to fall away - we can see that happening already - others will discover a new level of commitment, and accept the sacrifices that go along with it.
But when we talk about making sacrifices for the faith I think we’ve got to admit that there’s an irony in the fact that while some of our fellow Catholics are risking their lives in places like Brazil or some of the African countries or elsewhere, just for living out the implications of their Christianity, here, where there are no comparable dangers at all, a lot of church people show endless ingenuity in justifying the low level of their commitment to God, their lack of time for God on top of all the other priorities and goals they choose for themselves.
Perhaps Christ’s words are for them: "…the one who disowns me in the presence of men, I will disown in the presence of my Father in heaven".
In any case that's how I'd sum up what we’ve heard in the readings this Sunday: first of all, disciples of Christ should be clear-sighted in their vision of what's going on around them, aware of the real motives which are often at work behind benevolent façades. Second, they should have a passion for the truth, and speak the truth, even when that costs something. And last of all, the challenge of a difficult and hostile environment will separate the Christians who are really committed from those whose hearts lie elsewhere - a development which, at the end of the day, Christ himself saw as a good and necessary one.