Commentary on Matthew 10:16-23
Today’s passage clearly reflects later experiences of the Church as, for instance, described in many parts of the Acts of the Apostles and, of course, in the later history of the Church. Matthew’s gospel was written some 50 years after the death and resurrection of Christ and naturally reflects some experiences of this period. It is both a warning and a description of what has happened and continues to happen to the messengers of the Gospel.
We are sent out like sheep among wolves. We are in a way defenceless because we renounce any use of violence. There are wolves out there eager to destroy us because, despite our message of love, justice and peace, we are seen as a threat to their activities and ambitions.
We are to be clever as snakes and innocent as doves. We are to be as inventive and creative as we can be in dealing with the world; but innocent, not in the sense of being naive but in the sense of being completely free of even any suspicion of wrongdoing. The end does not justify the means!
As has happened so many times and continues to happen, followers of Christ, simply because they are his followers and for no other reason, will be hauled into court, will be the victims of intimidation and torture. This is our opportunity to give witness to Christ and everything that the Gospel stands for.
“When they hand you over” – a favourite Gospel expression: John the Baptist was handed over, Jesus himself was handed over first to the leaders of his people and then to the Romans, his disciples too will be and are handed over and, in every Eucharist, we hear that Jesus in his Body is handed over to us (“this is my Body, which is given up [tradetur, handed over] for you”).
When we are ‘handed over’ we are not to be anxious what to say. “You will be given what you are to say.” This has been confirmed again and again by people who have been arrested and interrogated. Not only do they know what to say but very often their fear, too, disappears. So that, once released, they simply go back to what they were doing when they were first arrested. (We see this in the Acts of the Apostles.) “You yourselves will not be the speakers; the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you.” The enemies of the Gospel have no ultimate answer to truth, love and justice.
The last words of Jesus are sad because they are true. The following of Christ can break up families. They betray each other, hand each other over. Once baptised, we enter a new family with new obligations. Our commitment to God, to love, to truth, to justice, to freedom transcends obligations that arise from blood. I cannot obey a father who tells me to violate the Gospel; I cannot cooperate with a brother who urges me to do evil. It involves painful choices but the opposite would be, in the long run, worse.
“You will be hated by all on account of me.” It is a saying we can sometimes find difficult to accept. It is difficult to understand that the following of the loving and loveable Jesus can create such hostility and hatred.
“When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” We need to be clear that Jesus never tells us to go out of our way to seek persecution or to be hated. On the contrary, we are to make Christianity as attractive as possible. We want people to share our experience of knowing and being loved by Christ. One of the reasons why the Church spread so rapidly throughout the Roman world was precisely because of Christians fleeing from persecution. There comes a time, however, when we can run no further, or when it is clear we have to take a stand and cannot compromise.