Our inability and unwillingness to speak about fear and what frightens us, and Jesus’ clear expectation we will face division and brokenness in our lives because of the world’s response to him, makes for very uncomfortable reading and reflection.
These statements Jesus makes about discipleship in Matthew 10: 24-39 are extremely challenging. We do not like to think about Jesus as a troublemaker, possibly divisive and unapologetic about the breaking of relationships because of his presence in our lives and in the world.
Perhaps we have an image of Jesus as quiet and gentle, compassionate, loving, clearsighted and on the side of those in need of help. We are tempted see him as accepting and grateful for the little we give him. He has become someone we can ignore when being an active Christian is too demanding and uncomfortable. It allows us to make excuses when we can’t accept Jesus’ love and what that might mean for us in our lives.
Yet if you read the Gospels this image is so far from the reality of Jesus, his life, ministry and teachings, based on love we must be blind and deaf to think of Jesus as a comfortable, domesticated person, with a comfortable message.
I also think we have such an idealised view of the family, its structure and centrality in our lives and culture, we resist any imagery which threatens or questions its core value. We are truly shocked when Jesus tells us:
‘Brother will betray brother to death and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death;’ and again,Matthew 10:21
‘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.’Matthew 10:35
The sword Jesus brings is the violent response made when Jesus arrives. This whole chapter in Matthew lays out the conflict in detail and the violence which results from the disciples, including you and I, proclaiming the good news (10.7). It is important to realise, the violence arriving with the sword, is not because Jesus brings and uses violence, but because rulers, governors and kings draw the sword violently in response to the words and deeds of Jesus and his disciples.
So where does this leave us, with the fear and terror I named with Jesus at the start of this reflection, with the disturbing images and words Jesus gives us to ponder over, of retribution, violence and death through following Jesus; and the loss of family relationships as a direct consequence of discipleship.
There is no group or individual who does not see terror in these sayings, since we invest our whole health in the family’s health and wellbeing; and we see and experience firsthand within our families, the grounds for a good life.
Although Jesus spoke to us about not letting our hearts be troubled (John 14:1) and offering us peace, (John 20:19) Jesus never promised us that believing in him would make life easy, special, protected and with a guaranteed smooth path. Otherwise, people would be beating a path to our doors and we’d be rich with the bribes to be let into the front of the queue.
In 1 John 4:18 we are told instead:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…
However, the world’s response to Jesus’s love is one of resentment, fear, hatred, despair, rejection and death of others.
God’s answer to this world’s terrified and violent response is one of all-encompassing love, so profound that God’s Son dies for love of us rather than use fear. Perfect, abundant, unearned love. God does not deal in fear, God does not coerce, control, demand or reject. There is no death dealing; it is we who do this. We killed Jesus, his disciples and the millions of lives since then, all taken corruptly out of fear and terror that Jesus might upend the world’s preferred way of life with all its supposed benefits and instead, offer a different, loving, peace-filled creation.
Jesus clearly describes the consequences of accepting his presence in our lives. Our desire is to gloss over the impact of following Jesus and minimise its impact to socially acceptable levels, to diminish the awkwardness of our claim to be a Christian, with the changes it inevitably makes in our lives. Discipleship of Jesus evokes a response from this world that Jesus honestly and lovingly ensures we understand when we accept him in our lives.
Please let us not make light of this. Let us truly recognise and accept there are implications for being an active Christian. Our lives cannot remain unchanged as we move from this world into God’s kingdom.
Jesus is not demanding we love him more than our beloved children, partners, families, because he loves us. However, Jesus points out by truly loving him, with all our mind, body, soul and strength, and our neighbours, we change the way we live, think and behave. Our priorities alter, we make changes in our lives; the political, social and economic orders of this world shift in focus for us.
I have different priorities and expectations now in how I will choose to respond to this world, what I will expect from others, from God and what I will march about, speak out about and go to prison about. I want to do this, because I love Jesus.
The worldly orders today challenge us and demand we accept the world’s standards as the true and only option.
We say ‘no’ with love, clear-sightedness and courage. Injustice is injustice, accommodating the cruelty and vindictive, casual violence we see around us on a daily basis, supporting the structural and systemic privileging of those who set the rules, the wilful blindness of those who accept the benefits; all of this is not the state of heart or mind of someone who loves Jesus.
Jesus’ words about not being troubled, not being frightened go to the heart of the matter. Misplaced fear often results in a timid, compliant church, living in the world’s darkness rather than being a light. The world tries to subdue us and silence us, our families and friends, neighbours and communities all seek to suborn us and make us irrelevant because we are inconvenient.
Jesus’ teaching about the consequences of acknowledging or denying him then follows directly upon his assurance to the disciples, they need never fear the removal of God’s support, love and presence being with them always.
‘Even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’Matthew 10:30
As disciples we need not fear what to say when confronted by hostile authorities or disowning families or rejecting friends. We need only speak with courage what has been spoken to us in private, trusting the one we call Lord will not desert or leave us speechless in our hour of crisis.
‘What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.’Matthew 10:27
In times of hostility we are tempted to lay low, go with the flow, wait until an easier time, such as those religious leaders who advised Martin Luther King Jr., when he was marching for justice.
Mathew’s Jesus reminds us the Gospel will not be silenced, we speak with the Holy Spirit and with love and we should not expect better treatment than Jesus received.
We are called to move out of our life of fear in the face of public scorn, threats, and ridicule. We can be killed and Christians around the world are being killed today for their faith. God has loving care of both our bodies and our souls. Our bodies are broken, we have griefs and burdens, illnesses and terrible things happen to good people, but it is God who loves without ceasing, who loves us through fear, pain and suffering. This is a breathtaking intimacy with God. This is the love of the risen Christ, the Easter Christ. The Christ who has gone through all that the world can throw at him and still rise with love on his lips and in his heart for us.
Jesus reassures us:
‘Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’Matthew 10:39
The Lord be with you.