Today in our Gospel we are presented with a series of sayings by Jesus which it is generally regarded come from quite different sources and indeed from very different situations. Matthew has put them together and presents them as a series of instructions given by Jesus to the Twelve Apostles about how to carry out their mission.
This raises the question of Matthew’s authenticity as a Gospel writer. I suppose the ordinary person who doesn’t give the matter much thought probably imagines that Matthew witnessed everything that is recorded in his Gospel account of Jesus’ life.
They might fondly think of Matthew as following Jesus around with a notebook, making little jottings whenever he had a spare moment. As soon as you begin to think about this you realise that such a thing could not be remotely true. First of all we must realise the great problem it was in the ancient world to write anything at all, especially when one was on the move. Paper or its equivalent was very expensive and fragile and the taking of notes was therefore an extremely difficult process. Writing was, in fact, the work of professional scribes and not something undertaken by ordinary folk.
However, the other thing that we are mostly unaware of was the extraordinary memories people had. Today, the ease of writing means that we don’t have to remember very much at all and this has in turn meant that our facility for remembering things is very poorly developed. If you are anything like me you find yourself making lists of things to do; and even then when looking at it later some of the things on the list don’t make any sense at all!
Even a few generations ago our forebears had extremely good memories and could recite unaided great screeds of poetry, stories and prayers off by heart. Many years ago I met an old lady who knew by heart most of the New Testament. She was a Methodist and had been brought up in a family who read the Bible together every evening, so that probably explains it. But what a contrast with the modern family, each watching their own TV programmes in quite separate rooms!
In the early years of the Church there were plenty of people who had been present at one or other of Jesus discourses and who could remember more or less just what he said. They surely told stories about him to each other, taking great delight in remembering all the details. Yes, there would have been significant variations between one account and another but gradually an accepted version of the particular teaching or incident in the life of Jesus would have emerged. Those who knew the story would tell others and this became a real feature of Christian life especially in the liturgy. And of course this is so right down to the present day.
What we are doing in the first part of the mass when we read from the scriptures is precisely this; telling the story. Telling the story of Jesus’ life with special emphasis on his teachings and miracles and how he brought about our salvation. We rely on the accounts given us by the Evangelists and we place great trust in their reliability even if we are quite well aware of the different emphases that they each give.
So whatever their original context this particular collection of sayings has been gathered together by St Matthew and presented to us as part of Jesus’ missionary discourse to his Apostles. There are two particular themes in the text set before us today: that the Apostles should not be afraid and that they are truly Christ’s representatives.
By saying, ‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul’, Christ is preparing them for a difficult ministry. As we know almost all the Apostles died a martyr’s death. But they do not fear persecution because their faith is in the one who is more powerful than anyone on earth. They are not afraid because they know that they are treasured by God himself and it is he who guides and protects them on their mission.
They are truly Christ’s representatives. As Apostles their primary task is to declare themselves for Christ in the presence of men; in fact there is no other way of being an Apostle. A secret Apostle is no Apostle at all!
An Apostle must declare who it is he represents. He must do so in words and also by his actions. He must proclaim the Gospel of Christ from the rooftops; that is his principal task. An Apostle is to continue and extend the ministry of Christ in the world. An Apostle is to do the work of Jesus and to bring as many people as he can to knowledge and love of him.
And Jesus promises that his disciples will be vindicated. They will be vindicated in the place that matters most; and that is before his Father in heaven. The judgement of this world is temporary and superficial; the real judgement occurs on the last day and it is in that court that Christ promises that he will speak up for his disciples. The Court of Heaven is the only court that really counts; and it is in that court where the real judgement will be given.
I remember several occasions talking to people who were either facing death or the death of a loved one who asked me the simple but devastating question: Is it all true? All I could respond in such a situation is to say, ‘What else have we to rely on except the promises of God.’ And this is one of those promises: You stand up for me before men and I will stand up for you before my Father in heaven. But the opposite is also true; should we neglect stand up for Christ in this world, then how can we possibly expect him to stand up for us on the day of judgement?
So in conclusion let me make a suggestion, a small challenge for the coming week. Sometime during the week speak up for Christ or for the Gospel to someone who speaks against them. Ordinarily you might let a particular sort of comment or assumption pass; but this week stand up for Christ and make your views known.
Do not let your faith lie hidden. And do not be afraid of the consequences of speaking out. What Christ has told us in the darkness, now tell in the daylight! What you have heard in whispers, proclaim from the housetops!
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket