In today’s gospel, Jesus instructs his apostles about the cost of discipleship. Christianity just is not an easy life, he seems to say.
Our commitment to Christ will be put to the test. We will hear whispered warnings and denunciations, as Jeremiah does in today’s First Reading. Even so-called friends will try to trap and trip us up.
As Jeremiah tells us, we must expect that God will challenge our faith in Him, and probe our minds and hearts, to test the depths of our love.
This section of Matthew’s Gospel should be read in the context of Matthew’s intended audience, a Jewish-Christian community. The Gospel alludes to the dangers and persecutions that this community has most likely already faced and will continue to face. To reassure this community, Matthew recalls for them the encouraging words of Jesus that we read today. Do not fear death, for the forces of evil may kill the mortal body but they cannot kill the soul.
And that beautiful, poetic image: the sparrow, worth half a cent, is cared for and loved by God. Every sparrow. And every hair on your head. In this Gospel passage then, Jesus might be understood as putting suffering in perspective. The disciples of Jesus are called upon to keep their focus on God.
Jesus lays out two fundamental principles of Christianity: First, we are not spared from suffering, and, second, when we suffer God suffers along with us.
First, suffering: we may not be flogged before governors or hated by everyone—but we do struggle. We contract diseases, grieve the death of loved ones, lose jobs, and undergo a myriad of nasty experiences—some trivial, and some catastrophic.
And part of what Jesus seems to be saying in this passage—in his own exaggerated manner —is that we will most probably continue to suffer. The Christian life is not a magic fix to the woes of this mortal life.
If it were, we would not have the manifestation of any evil or hate in the world. Instead, everything would just be lovely.
Imagine: No mass murder of Coptic Christian children in Egypt. No Manchester or London bombings. No killings in Paris, Ferguson, Orlando. No war in Iraq or Afghanistan
And as beautiful a picture as that might be, it is a picture of the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, what we hope and pray for, what Jesus came to earth to proclaim was coming, and—let’s face it—what is not yet here.
So how are we to live in this world where hate and violence are so rampant? We need the help of God.
And that’s the second point: our God is with us. “He shall be called Emmanuel, God with us”—remember that from Christmas? The promise made by Jesus is that we are not alone in our struggles. God is here, to comfort us, to help us through the difficult times, to show us the way when we don’t know where to turn, to help us when we cannot help ourselves—and certainly to rejoice with us in good times.
We will sometimes suffer in this mortal life, but God is with us—to comfort and guide us.
Perhaps we might think of these two things when we consider the many current controversies that we seem to be entwined in—in the church, in our nation, maybe even in our families and communities.
Voices on both sides of every issue want resolution—they want to be out of the struggle. And they seek to do this by legislative action, human edict, and having one winner—all based on contradictory interpretations of the same text or tenet.
But could it be that no less than our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ is calling us not to make an end to our struggle, but to be in the midst of it?
And could it be that, once we accept our place in the very midst of it, the Holy Spirit could show us the way forward?
That’s, at least, how Jesus seems to imagine it. Oh, we all have opinions of our own—make no mistake about that. But we must be interested in opposing views—hearing them and respecting them. We must not dare to presume that our view is the right view—or the only view.
We might not face the same type of persecution, but we do experience difficulties as we endeavour to live a Christian life. Sometimes we let the opinions of others prevent us from doing what we know to be right. We need the reminder that what God thinks about us is more important. And so, these readings are an encouragement to hold on, to take courage, to trust in God’s presence and care in our lives and in our struggles. God may not be able to take our pain away, or fix the wrongs we have done, our give us some magic answers to our search for direction in life. What these readings testify to, though, is that God is indeed there, gazing at us, looking on us with care and love. God’s eye is on the sparrow. We are reassured by the promise that God cares for us and protects us.