As people around the world observe Sunday in various ways, many are also honoring their fathers. The first reading doesn’t seem very appropriate for Father’s Day, since it speaks of suspicion, denunciation, unjust criticism, plots, and eventual vindication. Or maybe it is, given recent events and the tone of much public discourse these days. Perhaps it’s time to consider other possibilities.
We too easily forget how precious good family life is, how important, and how fragile. But events along the US border with Mexico, in Syria, Yemen, Central America and elsewhere are still too painfully evident for us not to bear witness to families forever shattered, of parents shot before their children’s eyes, and children themselves victims of drive-by shootings, or starving, killed or injured in war-torn areas of the world. Or of refugee families returning to scenes of devastation. We prefer not to think about these things, especially on a day such as this, but fathers think about them, worry about them, pray about them. Yes, Black Families Matter.
We are long way from new neckties and shaving sets, at least from the first and second readings in today’s liturgy. At least at first. But there is a connection. When St. Paul says that sin and death came into human experience through Adam, but grace
and life overcame them through Jesus Christ, he is pointing out that in these two all-important respects, one single human being can change everything — for the worse or for the better.
And that’s where the Gospel takes us. Do not let people intimidate you, Jesus says. Especially do not hesitate to speak out fearlessly for his sake. So we look back at the reading from Jeremiah in the light of the gospel and discover the power and the price of fidelity and radical dissent.
The prophet has been put on the spot. The Babylonians are threatening Jerusalem, and King Zedekiah wants to cement some alliances with his neighbors to defend the city. And he wants Jeremiah to predict success. But God has revealed to Jeremiah that the city will fall and the king and nobles taken into captivity.
Hardly the kind of news Zedekiah wants to hear. It gets even worse. As a result, Jeremiah is beaten and thrown into prison by Pashhur, the son of the High Priest. But he doesn’t learn his lesson. Prophets are like that.
The next day, when Pashhur released Jeremiah from the stocks, Jeremiah said to him, “The Lord does not call your name Pashhur, [which means Liberation in Hebrew] but Magor-mis-Sabib [Terror on every side]. For thus says the Lord: Behold, I will make you a terror to yourself and to all your friends. They shall fall by the sword of their enemies while you look on. And I will give all Judah into the hand of the king of Babylon; he shall carry them captive to Babylon, and shall slay them with the sword. Moreover, I will give all the wealth of the city, all its gains, all its prized belongings, and all the treasures of the kings of Judah into the hand of their enemies, who shall plunder them, and seize them, and carry them to Babylon.”
Jeremiah is playing on words here, part of the irony and sometimes grim humor in the Bible that we easily miss because we forget that names often mean something: Jeremiah turns his attention toward the man who imprisoned him:
“And you, Pashhur, and all who dwell in your house, shall go into captivity; you shall go to Babylon; and there you shall die, and be buried, you and all your friends to whom you have prophesied falsely.”
So the background of today’s first reading is that poor Jeremiah is dealing with fear and reluctance to tell the emissaries of King Zedekiah the hard truth they do not want to hear, what the king does not want to hear. It is not good news. And Jeremiah has already paid for it by being beaten and imprisoned. Now he fears for his life.
Matthew’s gospel speaks directly to such fear, one we all face when we find ourselves in the position of bearing unwanted news. In the ancient world, and even more recently, messengers who brought bad tidings were often killed on the spot. Or in more “civilized” countries, simply fired.
But in the Gospel, Jesus is telling us, Don’t be afraid to speak up. They may even kill you for it, but they can’t destroy your soul. Stifling the truth because we are afraid to speak out CAN destroy our souls. And other peoples’ as well.
Jesus is not merely saying that each one of us is important in the grand scheme of things. He is also saying that five million Hungarians can be wrong. So can a hundred million Americans. And on the other hand, one voice, clearly speaking the truth, even in dissent, can light the way for the world. So it was with Jesus. And with Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, Colin Kaepernick, Dr. Rick Bright, and Geoffrey Berman.
The power of one. It happens in small ways as well as great ones. Not many of us will be forced to stand up to a head of state and say that he and all his staff and the whole country are surely on the way to perdition. And in fact, that can be too easy to do: just listen as the national conventions get closer. A single critic is not right simply because he is against the majority! But how many times have we been in a position to speak up against injustice and kept silent? How often in the face of injustice have we kept quiet out of fear of reprisal? As Jeremiah learned to his sorrow, whistle-blowers are not very popular people.
But to keep silent when justice and truth require us to speak is to betray our conscience and our God. And this is what Jeremiah and Jesus are getting at. Not to speak out against injustice is to condone injustice. It takes courage to be able to proclaim the truth quietly, much less from the rooftops. But that is what we are called to do.
It also takes wisdom and discretion to know when and how to do it. So let us pray for God’s gifts, the presence of the Holy Spirit of Discretion and Fortitude and a firm conviction in the power of one. We may find ourselves lonely for speaking God’s truth, but we will never be alone. And as a Father’s Day message, that that has to be as good as it gets. Even when there aren’t as many hairs on our heads to count as we would like, we can rest assured that God knows each one of them intimately. The sparrow still may fall, but it will never fall out of the hand of God.