From time to time, an event occurs that leaves me uncertain about how to respond. The local newspaper reported such an event this past week. As you are aware, all the local county governments have instituted ordinances that mandate wearing a face covering in public. Some of those ordinances put the onus of enforcement on businesses and their employees. The local newspaper reported that, at a local business, an employee was threatened with physical violence by a customer who grew angry over being asked to put on a mask. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The employee was complying with the law, the customer was refusing to comply, yet it was the customer who became angry. A friend of mine routinely commented on such situations by saying, “That’s so sad.” I was never certain whether she meant the situation was sad, or the person was a sad example of human nature, or both at once.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes a statement that might cause some people to be uncertain about how to respond. Speaking to his disciples about the cost of discipleship, he said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Mt. 10:37) This statement might sound somewhat callous, but it expressed a commonly held belief at the time.
One of the common expectations during Late Second Temple Judaism was that the arrival of the Messiah would finally make public the distinction between righteous people and the unrighteous. This expectation acknowledged that appearances can be deceiving and, therefore, only God can judge rightly between persons. Jesus’ saying in today’s Gospel expresses the expectation that his teachings will cause some to believe and others to reject him. In fact, this messianic expectation is represented in every crisis situation portrayed in the Scriptures. In the Scriptures, judgment is concomitant with every crisis of faith: those who remain faithful are judged worthy of God and those who prove themselves unfaithful lose God’s favor.
It is probably a truism that every crisis brings judgment. This certainly seems to be playing out in the crises precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic has brought into sharp relief the distinction between those who have an awareness of their personal responsibilities and those who refuse to act responsibly. The business customer who grew angry about having to comply with the law is a clear example of this. During a deadly pandemic, the claim that one’s freedom is infringed upon by having to wear a face covering in public is a bogus claim; in the absence of social responsibility, there is no freedom, only selfishness.
Another distinction has become self-evident during the pandemic. After Jesus addressed the costs of discipleship in today’s Gospel reading, he described the rewards that can be expected by those who welcome his teaching. He said, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” (Mt. 10:40)
Jesus understood himself to be the incarnate presence of God’s mercy for the world; as the disciples were his chosen representatives, they, too, became the presence of God’s mercy to the world. This is the meaning of the fifth beatitude in Matthew’s Gospel, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Mt. 5:7)
The coronavirus pandemic has become an unwanted and undeserved, but fortuitous, opportunity to practice the kind of discipleship that Jesus expects from all the baptized. At present, our nation is degenerating into irrational violence. Individuals are falling into despair. Public institutions are seized by a growing paralysis. Everyone is crying out for help of some sort. Is it possible that a lasting remedy might exist for these many crises of faith?
In his teachings, Jesus repeatedly assures his disciples of God’s mercy and commands them to be instruments of God’s mercy for the world. Jesus’ teaching, then, is the source of a two-fold healing: those who accept his word are assured of the unfailing presence of God’s mercy and, secondly, they are obliged to bring that unfailing mercy to the whole world through humble service to those who suffer.
If you are concerned about the pandemic, the social unrest in our country, or even your personal freedom, there is a simple and thorough remedy for your concerns. Jesus says that every disciple must pick up the cross, follow in his footsteps, and bring God’s merciful consolation to the whole world. (Mt. 10:38) His words are the judgment that separates the righteous from the unrighteous, the sheep from the goats, the citizens of God’s kingdom from the citizens of the kingdom of darkness. While it is true that we live in confusing times, there is no confusion in God’s mind about who belongs to God’s kingdom of mercy. There should, likewise, be no confusion in the minds of Jesus’ disciples about how to respond to the current crisis. We are to pick up the Cross, follow Jesus, provide humble service to the world and, thereby, be the living presence of God’s mercy.