In the year 70, the Roman army utterly destroyed Jerusalem, both the city and the Temple. The great first-century historian, Josephus, claims that 1.1 million people were killed during the siege, the majority being Jewish, and that 97,000 people were captured and enslaved. (1) Josephus writes, “The slaughter within [Jerusalem] was even more dreadful than the spectacle from without. Men and women, old and young, insurgents and priests, those who fought and those who entreated mercy, were hewn down in indiscriminate carnage.”
The Gospel according to Matthew was written in the years just following this utter destruction of Jerusalem. So when we hear in the Gospel passage appointed for today, Jesus’ saying, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves… They will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues… and you will be dragged before governors and kings…” this is what is literally happening. Followers of Jesus had been slaughtered and would continue to be tortured and exterminated by the Roman occupying forces, and for the next nearly 300 years. In the eyes of the Romans, the followers of Jesus were yet another zealous group of the problematic Jews. In the eyes of the Jews, the followers of Jesus – maybe they were fellow Jews, but they were not faithful Jews – were increasingly being infiltrated by Gentiles, which was defiling. This put a terrible strain on relationships, sometimes even within families. When the Gospel according to Matthew writes about the persecution of Jesus’ followers, Matthew is not giving a press release, nor is Matthew giving a prediction of what might happen. It’s happening. Persecution is happening. Matthew is signaling that it will continue. What we could call “news” in Matthew’s report – good news – is not to worry; God will provide.
Down through the centuries, many, many followers of Jesus have found enormous comfort in this assurance, amidst suffering and persecution, that we need not worry; God will provide. From Palestine and Syria, to Kenya, North Korea, and Albania, to our own country, myriads of people have literally understood Jesus’ prediction of persecution and his promise of provision. And we need only look at the media to see how this continues to be true for all-too-many people even today.
For those of us who, today, are not fearing for our lives and are not facing active persecution, the prospect of enslavement, or the threat of death because we are followers of Jesus, what do we do with this passage? I’ll suggest two things:
- Pray for those who do. As you learn about those who suffer today for the cause of Christ, pray particularly for those whose plight captures your attention. Whether they be in Cairo to Charleston or somewhere in between, pray for these dear souls, that Jesus’ promise of provision be real to them in their hour of need. You be an agency of intercession on their behalf. Pray particularly for those whose needs capture your heart’s attention.
- Secondly, take Jesus’ at his word that you need not worry. Whatever there is in your life that threatens to engulf you – a troubling relationship with someone you love or someone you hate; something awry with your work or the work you don’t have; something about health, your health or a loved one’s; something about finances – whatever is coming at you that feels threatening to engulf you, take heart. Hear Jesus’ words of promise: in all these terribly worrisome things, you need not worry. There will be provision. God will provide.
“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (2)
- Flavius Josephus (37 – c. 100), the great Jewish historian, was a prolific author.
- Ephesians 3:20-21.