The emperor, Domitian, had begun a persecution in Asia Minor of Christians who refused to worship his statue. They were at the limit of endurance and the risk of apostasy was looming.
To encourage the Christians of his community, Matthew wrote these sayings of the Master regarding the difficulties and persecutions that the disciples would have had to bear.
For the Christians, persecution is not an accident; it is an inescapable fact. But fear often paralyses a Christian.
It manifests itself in the fear of losing position, of seeing the esteem of superiors diminish, of losing friendships, of being deprived of property, of being punished, demoted, for some even of being killed. Whoever is afraid is no longer free.
In today’s gospel, Jesus insists, three times, “Do not be afraid!”
The announcer of the gospel is worried that, first of all, because of the violence unleashed by the enemies of Christ, his mission might fail.
Jesus assures him that despite the trials and hardships, the gospel will spread and transform the world. They probably will not see the seeds of light and goodness that they have sown with toil and pain germinate. However, they must cultivate the joyful certainty that the harvest will grow and will be plentiful.
The second is the fear of being mistreated or even put to death. Jesus invites us to reflect: what harm can the enemies of the gospel do? To offend, accuse unjustly, beat, confiscate property, take away life! Yes, but nothing more!
No violence is capable of depriving the disciple of the only lasting treasure: the life he has received from God and that no one can take away.
But there is someone whom Jesus maintains is to be feared. It is “the one who has the power to destroy both soul and body.” It is not an external character to us. It is the evil that, since birth, we carry within us.
Have we not many times, for fear of being alone, cultivated ambiguous friendships or maintained relations that ended up making us slaves and preventing us from living?
The third reason why persecution frightens us is that it affects not only ourselves, but also those around us, who may be deprived of the necessary subsistence.
To this objection, Jesus responds by recalling the trust in the heavenly Father’s providence. He does not promise his disciples that nothing will happen, that they will always be rescued in a prodigious way.
He assures us that God will still realise their true goodness if they have the courage to remain faithful.
Even without bloodshed, persecution exists and it is unavoidable. Sometimes it openly manifests itself through insults and public taunts, at other times through subtle and disguised marginalisation, discrimination or exclusion.
One who has no concern for another has adapted the principles of this world and, perhaps, has given up the kingdom of God without realising it.
Father Fernando Armellini SCJ
Translated by Father John Ledesma SDB
Abridged by Father Jijo Kandamkulathy CMF