One evening we had a liturgy of martyrs, recalling not only those of our long-past history, but especially those of the past half-century. People from every part of the world processed in with banners listing those who had been killed, usually because of their dedication to the marginal and their opposition to injustice. Karl Rahner, S.J., once remarked that in this century the tradition of martyrs who die as witnesses to the faith is now supplemented by witnesses for justice. I knew of those who had died in El Salvador and Zimbabwe, where I had visited freshly dug graves in the summer of 1978, but the extent and number simply overwhelmed me. The faith and courage of my dead Jesuit brothers both inspired and shamed me. Recently I read through Robert Royal’s book, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century (Crossroad, 2000), and realized that the Jesuit experience was but one patch in a multicolored mosaic of lives given for others throughout the world, including great numbers of women religious and lay women in countries ranging from El Salvador to Sierra Leone.
These martyrs came to mind as I reflected on the readings for this Sunday. After castigating the leaders for not obeying God’s word, Jeremiah is scourged and put in stocks by Passhur, the head of the temple police. Throughout his long career Jeremiah criticized the power elite for their neglect of the poor and their reliance on foreign entanglements rather than on God. Later he is thrown into a cistern to die (Jer. 38:1-13), and released only through the intercession of the Ethiopian court official Ebed-melech. According to later Jewish tradition, Jeremiah is martyred in Egypt.
Matthew 10, one of that Gospel’s five great discourses, is commonly called the Mission Discourse. Jesus instructs the disciples on the conditions and challenges of continuing his mission. Today’s Gospel is both sobering and consoling. The disciples will face lethal opposition but should not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul, because they are under God’s loving care and will have Jesus as their ultimate vindicator.
The church today is a community of martyrs (witnesses) no less than when Christians were thrown to the lions. Today’s lions are powerful figures and institutions who are unmasked by people who imitate the prophets and Jesus. Though most of us are not called literally to give our lives, the modern martyrs’ love of the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, and their concern for truth and justice, is a mandate for all of us.
• Pray in gratitude for contemporary martyrs and their loved ones.
• In moments when life seems lost, recall Jesus’ words, “whoever loses his [or her] life for my sake will find it.”
• Think of times when by receiving one of “the little ones,” you have received Christ.