Sermon, June 21

This speech by Matthew’s Jesus is a tough text. I looked back in my sermon files and I seem to have avoided preaching on it, like, EVER. …. Better late than never?

Before we even listen to the text, I want to start by placing it in the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel. It’s part of a long speech – the whole of chapter 10 – which begins with Jesus calling the twelve disciples and sending them out to heal the sick, cast out demons, and preach the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. 

We have the story of Jesus in four Gospels, which tell the same story (more or less) through different lenses. It’s often informative to look at them side by side. Mark is the oldest and shortest; Luke and Matthew both use Mark as a source, in addition to other sources and to what seem to be their own distinctive understandings. (John has fewer overlaps and does not have a parallel to this story.) But Mark and Luke do. 

In Mark, Jesus sends out the Twelve, tells them to take nothing for their journey but rely on the hospitality of those they meet, and don’t waste their time in places that don’t receive them. The Twelve go out, and heal and preach and cast out demons. Then they return to Jesus and tell him all about it. In Luke, Jesus sends out seventy appointed disciples, not just twelve, and his instructions to them are a bit more of a speech – he speaks about the doom that awaits the towns who reject the good news. Then the disciples go out and return with joy, having had great success with casting out demons. 

In Matthew, this chapter begins the same way: the Twelve are named and sent out, advised to take nothing with them and to rely on hospitality, and when a town doesn’t welcome them, to shake the dust from their feet and move on. But then we get this passage. I’ve tweaked the lectionary to give us what seems to me to be a complete thought. Listen now…. 

Gospel Reading: Matthew 10:16-39 (NRSV)

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of people, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;  and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 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; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’

Now, parts of that speech are also in Luke, and some fragments in Mark as well; it’s not all unique to Matthew. But big chunks of it are unique to Matthew – and even the bits he shares with other texts, he’s put into a particular context here. And the context is a warning to his followers about what is going to happen to them AFTER he’s gone. In Mark and Luke, Jesus’ advice to his disciples is for their work in this moment, though it may guide them in the future. Matthew’s Jesus looks ahead to the persecution, dissension, violence and loss that the first couple of generations of Christians will have to live through, and tells them, It’s going to be really rough, in ways you can’t begin to imagine. Stick with it anyway. Unlike Mark and Luke, Matthew never describes the disciples’ return – another clue that he’s speaking beyond the present moment within the text. 

Let’s hear the speech again in the Message Bible paraphrase – abbreviated somewhat, but I think this version may help us hear the text. Would someone like to read this aloud? …

Matthew 10, selected verses, The Message, alt. 

“Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, and inoffensive as a dove. 

Don’t be upset when they haul you before the civil authorities. They’ve given you a platform for preaching the kingdom! And don’t worry about what you’ll say or how you’ll say it. The Spirit of your Father will supply the words.

People are going to turn on you, even people in your own family. But don’t cave in. Focus on survival. And remember: a student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content to get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, a demon, then what do you think they’ll call you, my servants? … 

Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, so don’t hesitate to go public now. Even if the worst happens to your body, there’s nothing anyone can do to your soul. God cares about what happens to a sparrow – so don’t you think God is paying attention to what happens to you? So don’t be afraid of those who threaten you. You’re worth more than a million sparrows. 

Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut through your family ties and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you choose father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you choose son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me. If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me… 

If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”

Last fall I preached about the book of the prophet Jeremiah as a text of trauma – a text that reflects a community’s experience of terrible, violent overwhelming events. For Jeremiah, that event was the conquest of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the violent deaths of thousands of his people.

Matthew experienced the same thing, six hundred years later. In the year 66, some Jews in Judea began to revolt against Roman rule and taxation. Repression by the Romans drew more Judeans to the cause and things escalated into a full-on rebellion. The rebels had some early successes – but they never had a chance against Rome’s machinery of war. In the year 70, Roman armies breached the walls of Jerusalem, having already re-conquered the countryside. The city was reclaimed, and the second Great Temple was torn down. 

The violent quashing of the Jewish revolt marks many early Christian texts, but it seems likely that the voice we know as Matthew was a first-hand witness. We see it in the distinctive violence of some of the stories and imagery in this Gospel. We see it in the urgent yearning for revenge upon enemies, and those who fell away from the truth. If you read a Gospel text that talks about someone being cast into outermost darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, it’s from Matthew.

And we see it in this speech, in which Matthew’s Jesus tells his followers, Terrible times are coming. You may lose EVERYTHING. Everyone you love. Even your life. But if you stay true to me through all of it, at least you will not lose your soul. 

You will have noticed the focus on family division, in this text. Matthew’s Jesus speaks about straining – breaking – family ties TWICE in these 23 verses. This is shocking for us, and would have been MORE shocking to the original audience. Family loyalty is a central value in Jewish faith and law.  Richard Swanson writes, “Torah observance means many things, but one thing it surely means is that there is a dance done by parents and children that acts out the stable and orderly love of God so that people grow up knowing in their DNA that God is good and loving. This holds the world together.” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew, p. 156) Jesus’ insistence that people must choose him over parent, spouse, child, is incredibly jarring. Why would he say that? … 

I don’t think we know much about what was going on inside of families, in those difficult first-century decades, beyond hints like this. But it’s not that hard to project. People joining the Way would have caused tensions within families right from the start. The autobiography of the apostle Paul is informative on that front. Paul was a fiercely faithful Jew who thought that Christianity was an affront to his religion, and eagerly worked to identify and round up Christians, to have them arrested and even killed. Paul didn’t have a family of his own. But imagine if he had. Imagine if his son or wife had become a Christian before he did. 

So the new faith itself created strains within families. Then you add the layer of rising political unrest. The revolt in 66 did not come out of the blue. The census of Judea under Quirinius around the time of Jesus’ birth was widely resented; people had to be forced to comply. Other episodes over the decades increased resentment and mistrust. When things started to break open, thirty years or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection, it probably started with the young men (and a few of the young women) – feeling helpless and hopeless, furious at the forces that held them down and made a mockery of their lives and dreams. 

Some of their elders would say, You are absolutely not going out to a protest; you’re going to get yourself killed. Some would say, Violence in the streets won’t help anything; let’s start a letter-writing campaign instead. Some would say, This is foolishness; Rome keeps order in the streets. We’d have chaos if they weren’t in charge. And some elders, of course, would join the young folks in the streets. 

All of those rising tension and fears would only increase the strains within families. How those new factors intersected with existing tensions between Jews and Christians isn’t very clear, historically – but we know that new stressors tend to exacerbate old ones. So, says Matthew’s Jesus: You expect your family to be your anchor, the thing that defines you and protects you, no matter what. Stop expecting that. Now. 

I’ve been using the phrase “Matthew’s Jesus.” What do I mean by that? 

The Jesus of the four Gospels is discernibly the same guy. But those four texts do remember him differently. They give him somewhat different tones and agendas. That’s not surprising, given what we know about human beings and historical texts. If the Gospels were more alike, I’d be more suspicious that someone made the whole thing up. But it does leave us as faithful readers sometimes wondering what to make of the differences.

When Matthew’s Jesus has something to say – as he does here – that is somewhat different from anything in the other Gospels, we can wonder about that. We can wonder whether Matthew had a source that remembered some things Jesus said that the other Gospels don’t reflect. 

Or – we can wonder whether Matthew received the same words of Jesus that are reflected in the other gospels – and reads them through the lens of the trauma he has witnessed. In that case, this speech of Jesus’ might be a mix of Jesus’ voice and Matthew’s voice – which doesn’t make it less gospel. There are lots of hints in all the gospels that Jesus anticipated violence and chaos in the coming decades. One way to read Matthew is as the gospel that leans into that aspect of Jesus’ message – just as Luke is the gospel that leans into Jesus’ outreach to the marginalized, as Mark is the gospel that leans into the urgency of the call to transformation of life, as John is the gospel that leans into the cosmic nature of Jesus’ redemptive work. 

All right. Enough context. What do we make of these words of Jesus? 

Richard Swanson writes about this passage, “If the raw demands of this scene are reduced to bland encouragements to love God a lot, then we might as well stop trying to read, interpret, and honor the Bible and the old strange stories that peek out of it. We ought to admit publicly that we really intend only to interpret the messages written in uplifting greeting cards. Of course, you might be stuck with a commitment to the Bible that is stronger than your commitment to greeting cards. How inconvenient…. Just for a moment, imagine that the Bible is more substantial and interesting than a greeting card. Imagine that biblical stories are more challenging than uplifting, that they give life by provoking their audiences out of their dogmatic slumbers.”

Then, Swanson challenges us, imagine this scene with people who “feel the sharp edge of the sword” when Jesus speaks of coming to bring division. It’s too easy to set the stage with people of courage who choose Jesus, and people of cowardice who don’t. Imagine people of integrity and honor who choose their families, no matter what. Imagine people who abandon their families all too readily – who were, perhaps, just waiting for an excuse. This is not an easy word to receive, then or now, and we should not pretend otherwise. 

One thing I often wonder about, when I’m struggling with difficult words of Jesus, is how he said them. The Biblical text only rarely gives us hints about mood or tone. Let’s listen to a few verses of this text again, read in three different ways. And as we listen, ask yourself: What do you hear? What do you notice? Is Jesus speaking to you? … 

The first reading will be in the voice of the Historian. Perhaps this is Matthew’s voice: Matthew using Jesus to talk about what actually happened, what Matthew experienced and witnessed in those tumultuous years.  I need someone who can read this without much emotion. You’re just telling us what happened. (This is also how we usually read stuff in church!…)

Mt 10: 21-22, 34-36

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved… Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” 

The second reading is in the voice of Angry Jesus. This is the Jesus who yells at someone for wanting to bury his father before he becomes a disciple. This Jesus thinks his followers are a bunch of fair-weather Christians who don’t understand what the Way will really cost you.This Jesus says, You think it’s all sweetness and light! You think Nice is the same as Good! You have NO idea of the real stakes!! Who feels like they could read that Jesus? …. 

Mt 10: 21-22, 34-36 again

The third reading is in the voice of Compassionate Jesus. This is the Jesus who weeps over stubborn Jerusalem, who sees struggle and cataclysm on the horizon and knows there is nothing he can do except try to prepare the few who will listen. He knows the same simmering resentments that will drive his execution will soon flare up into consuming violence. And he knows that following the Way will lead his followers into persecution by authorities and divisions within their families.  He is warning them, with an open and aching heart, how it’s going to go. Who feels like they could read that Jesus? … 

Mt 10: 21-22, 34-36 again

What did you notice? ….