Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“(Jesus instructed the Twelve as follows): So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:26-33 – NRSV).
“Do you know what the most frequent command in the Bible turns out to be? What instruction, what order, is given, again and again, by God, by angels, by Jesus, by prophets and apostles? What do you think—‘Be good’? ‘Be holy, for I am holy’? Or, negatively, ‘Don’t sin’? ‘Don’t be immoral’? No. The most frequent command in the Bible is: ‘Don’t be afraid.’” (N T Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, SPCK, 1994, 56.)
The command “Don’t be afraid” comes up in today’s Gospel. Afraid of what?
The Greek word, akolouthein,meaning “to walk behind, to follow” is frequently used in the Christian Scriptures to speak of discipleship. It gives a specific Christian meaning to the common Greek word mathētēs, meaning “disciple”. That word, mathētēs – in different forms – is used 261 times in the Gospels and Acts. It is rooted in the verb manthanō, meaning “to learn”. Put them together and you have the rich concept of Christian discipleship: Those who follow Jesus in order to learn what it means to be a human being. The following and the learning never cease. This is both the promise and the challenge of discipleship.
It is in the context of Jesus’ call to those eleven men to be disciples that Jesus says: “Remember, I am with you always … “ (Matthew 28:20 – the last words in the Gospel of Matthew). Jesus’ gentle reminder echoes God’s promise repeated throughout the Hebrew Scriptures – for example Isaiah 41:10: “Do not be afraid for I am with you”.
What is it about being disciples – Jesus’ followers and learners – that might frighten us?
The deep, primitive truth of our fear – as in other complex life matters – remains largely buried below the surface of our awareness, masked by our pretenses and wishes and expectations and yes, even other fears. We can suppress and repress our fear but we cannot get rid of it. Only love can do that. It is crucial that we give ourselves every possibility to hear God’s word of love – to hear it with the ear of the heart, to taste it. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
Everything in the Gospel accounts of discipleship implies that it is a response to being loved. Those first disciples did not take the initiative. It was not a career move. It was not even a decision of high moral principle. It was a very human response to a word of love: “Come!” Interestingly enough, today’s Gospel text, in saying explicitly that the number of disciples here is eleven, reminds us that one of their number, although involved, was never really a disciple, a follower and learner. And those who did begin the journey of discipleship – the eleven – sensed something in Jesus that drew them to follow and seek to learn, more and more.
The disciple is, first and foremost, one who has let her/himself taste the love embodied in Jesus. Once you have tasted God’s love, everything else will follow.
Chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel is referred to in the Jerusalem Bible as “The Apostolic Discourse”. It begins with the mission of the twelve – they are named and sent out as disciples of Jesus, they are to proclaim what they have learned in following Jesus, there is a warning concerning the hardships of this mission, Jesus urges them not to be afraid.
Daniel Harrington writes: “In 10:26–31 the disciples are urged: ‘Do not fear’ (10:26, 28, 31). In their mission they continue the process of making public the message of Jesus, which is not hidden or esoteric (10:26–27). They are to fear God alone, not human beings (10:28). They are to trust in God’s care for them (10:29–31). Then in 10:32–33 they are reminded that their steadfast confession of Jesus will be rewarded and their denial of him will be punished. Though these sayings came as a package in Q (see Luke 12:2–9), they originated as small, independent units. Taken individually, they are difficult to interpret because we do not know their context. Whatever their original context may have been, Matthew has given them a new context in his mission discourse. In that context they take on a certain meaning” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 152).
have no fear of them: This command – a reiteration of the great promise given to Moses (Exodus 3:12) and repeated in different ways throughout the Bible – holds our text together. This command demands that we focus on God – we are about God’s work. It is, in the end, not our work. The apostle is someone who makes him/herself available to God for God to do what God will do. Luke 1:38 is the paradigm, where we hear Mary respond to the call of God issued by the Angel Gabriel: “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’.” We might regard this as the key to discipleship, no matter what form it takes. Those who can hear that command and be transformed by it will be those who have a deep and rich relationship with Jesus – a crucial basis for the next command which follows: Go out and share it.
What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops: This builds on the previous command to take their discipleship to the world without fear. Let everybody know what you have come to know in being with Jesus, listening to him, absorbing his way of being. Every person can and should come to know the love of God revealed in Jesus. John puts it succinctly and beautifully: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us” (1 John 4:16). Clearly this proclamation is much more than merely passing on information!
hell: The English word “hell” is Old English, perhaps with a Germanic origin. It means roughly what the Jews meant in Jesus’ day when they spoke of “gehenna”. “Geenna, usually transliterated as ‘gehenna’ or translated as ‘hell’, refers to the place of punishment at the judgment. The term derives from the name of a valley located on the south slope of Jerusalem, the Valley of Hinnom (Josh 15:8; 18:16), where Ahaz and Manasseh followed the ‘detestable practices of the nations’ by burning sacrifices to Molech and even sacrificing their own sons in the fire (2 Chron 28:3; 33:6; 2 Kings 16:3). Associated with such practices as these, the Hinnom Valley (or Valley of the Son of Hinnom) came to be associated with the most horrific images of divine judgment (Jer 7:30–33; 19:1–13; 32:34–35; cf. Is 31:9; 66:24). (J B Green, “Heaven and Hell” In J. B. Green, J. K. Brown, & N. Perrin (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition, IVP Academic, 2013, 371.)
The speaker more than the spoken
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 10:26-33 – Jesus gives instructions to the disciples concerning their mission. Three times he says: “Do not be afraid”. In the Gospels, Jesus’ words expose rather than impose. His words bring to light the desires and ways of the Father. That is why it is essential that we take time to listen, to open our minds and our hearts so that we can hear with the ear of the heart and see with the eyes of the soul what is being brought to light.
Imagine a parent with their frightened child on the first day at school. The parent says: “Don’t be afraid”. What matters more, the words or the presence of the parent? Clearly, the parent’s presence communicates much more than the words. It would be possible, for example, to imagine one scenario where the child’s fears are allayed and another scenario where the child’s fears are not allayed, maybe even deepened. The speaker is much more significant than the words spoken.
The unshakeable ground of all biblical revelation is found in Moses’ encounter with God on Mt Sinai. Moses’ fear – “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” – is met with God’s promise – “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:11-12). Matthew, at the very beginning of his Gospel, tells us that “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us’” (1:23). The final words of Matthew’s Gospel are, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20).
Being a disciple of Jesus is not just another form of Stoicism. Perhaps the best-known expression of Stoic approach to life is found in Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor 161-180 CE. There is much that is noble and very commendable in this book. But, although Stoicism has found its way into Christian thought over the centuries, there is a radical difference between the Christian and the Stoic. The Stoic gives pride of place to human reason and human will power. The Christian gives pride of place to Jesus Christ and grace, placing human reason and human will power at the service of these.
For the Christian, the deepest human aspirations are found in Jesus Christ. What we most aspire to emerges only when we are one with Jesus. We are baptized into Christ – see Romans 6:3 – and find our identity, fulfilment and moral integrity in him. We are reminded of this in the Great Doxology at Mass. At the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, the consecrated Bread and Wine are held up and the proclamation is made: “Through him, with him and in him, O God almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever!”
It is “him” who speaks the words of encouragement and support to each of us: “Do not be afraid!”