"I hear the whisperings of many:
'Terror on every side!
Denounce! let us denounce him!'
All those who were my friends
are on the watch for any misstep of mine.
'Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail,
and take our vengeance on him.'
But 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.
O LORD of hosts, you who test the just,
who probe mind and heart,
let me witness the vengeance you take on them,
for to you I have entrusted my cause.
Sing to the LORD,
praise the LORD,
for he has rescued the life of the poor
from the power of the wicked!"
Brothers and sisters:
Through one man sin entered the world,
and through sin, death,
and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned—
for up to the time of the law, sin was in the world,
though sin is not accounted when there is no law.
But death reigned from Adam to Moses,
even over those who did not sin
after the pattern of the trespass of Adam,
who is the type of the one who was to come.
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.
Jesus said to the Twelve:
"Fear no one.
Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed,
nor secret that will not be known.
What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light;
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.
Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?
Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father's knowledge.
Even all the hairs of your head are counted.
So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Everyone who acknowledges me before others
I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father.
But whoever denies me before others,
I will deny before my heavenly Father."
Today’s first reading is from what I regard as the Bible’s most depressing chapter: Jeremiah 20.
As we hear in chapters 10-20, the prophet actually dares confront Yahweh about his problems. Though Jeremiah’s convinced he’s one of Yahweh’s spokespersons, his enemies not only treat him like dirt – some have even put out contracts on his life – but Yahweh lets them get by with it.
To correctly understand the depth of Jeremiah’s complaints it’s important to note that during the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, the prophet can’t fall back on the two safety nets we frequently employ today in parallel situations. First, he has no belief in a heaven or hell. He can’t say, “They’ll get ‘theirs’ after they die; while I’ll get ‘mine.’” People’s actions were rewarded or punished in this life only. The afterlife offered neither reward nor punishment. Second, there’s no concept of a devil as we know it. In many situations, Yahweh causes good and evil. In Exodus 7:3, for instance, God actually tells Moses he’ll “harden Pharaoh’s heart” so he won’t let the Chosen People leave Egypt? How do you deal with a God who actively works against what he/she tells you to do and admits it?
In today’s passage Jeremiah can only fall back on his conviction that Yahweh will come to his aid, though at this point there’s no sign he/she will do so in time for the prophet to actually “witness the vengeance you take on them.” It doesn’t do the prophet any good if Yahweh avengeances him five minutes after he dies. In some sense, his praising Yahweh for “rescuing the life of the poor from the power of the wicked” is a little like whistling in the dark. Further along in this chapter, when his pain becomes unbearable, he’ll demand to know why he was even born!
Because of the two safety nets I mentioned above, we don’t have to suffer in the way Jeremiah suffered in his relationship with Yahweh. Yet, in other ways we still feel insignificant when it comes to God – or the risen Jesus – relating to us. To quote Deutero-Isaiah, we’re nothing but a bunch of maggots, maggots who’ll eventually get into heaven if we follow all the proper rules and regulations, but still not very important individuals.
Perhaps that’s why we should listen carefully to today’s other two readings.
Paul certainly operates off the idea that we’re very important people, not necessarily because of what we’ve accomplished, but because Jesus thought us important enough to die for. He reminds the Christian community in Rome of one of his most compelling beliefs. “If by the transgression of the one (Adam) 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.” If Jesus is convinced we’re significant, how can we disagree?
Fifteen or more years later, Matthew still thinks it’s necessary to remind his church of their importance. They’re the special people entrusted to “proclaim from the housetops” the message they’ve received from the risen Jesus. Should they have doubts about being so privileged, the evangelist points out that the one who takes such good care of sparrows will certainly take care of them. (Considering my baldness, I normally ignore commenting on God counting the hairs of my head. Doesn’t take him/her long to carry that out.)
Maybe the most serious sin we can commit isn’t denying that God exists, but denying that God actually cares for us. Our biblical authors are convinced that if God exists, then God cares. If Jeremiah, with all his problems, never went far enough to definitively deny God’s care, then who are we to question it?