John Donne was a seventeenth century author, poet, and preacher. In his poems and sermons Donne penned a bevy of striking lines. “Death, be not proud . . . Death, thou shalt die!” “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Strikingly familiar lines like that pop up all over the works of John Donne. I remember my college English professor saying that he once recommended the works of John Donne to a friend. When he later asked this friend what he thought of Donne, this person replied, “He’s a good writer, but he uses too many clichés.”
Matthew 10 may make a similar impression. In these 42 verses Jesus is on a kind of linguistic jag as he piles up one memorable line after the next.
The lost sheep of Israel.
Shake the dust off your feet.
Sheep among wolves . . . shrewd as serpents, innocent as doves.
Two sparrows are sold for a penny . . . even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
Whoever confesses me before people, I will confess before the Father.
I did not come to bring peace but a sword.
Take up your cross and follow me.
Whoever finds his life will lose it, whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
If anyone gives a cup of cold water . . . he will not lose his reward.
Were it not for the fact that Jesus appears to have been the first person ever to say these things, you’d have to conclude that he was having his own cliché festival that day! These are among the best-known verses in the New Testament. At first glance this may look like just a jumbled mish-mash of diverse sayings. But when you step back and look at the whole of Matthew 10—including the key portion in this Year A lection of verses 24-39—you see that these words are all related to what life is going to be like for the disciples once they begin proclaiming the gospel on Jesus’ behalf. The picture Jesus draws, however, is alarmingly distressing.
The chapter begins happily enough: Jesus confers great authority on the twelve disciples. He gives them power to do miracles and he provides them a hopeful message to proclaim. Jesus sends them out in gentleness, telling the disciples that it is not their job to fight when the going gets rough. They are not to brow-beat people with the gospel. If people don’t like what the disciples have to say, then they are to move on, simple as that.
If they are roughed up in a certain town, they are told simply to move on to the next village. If they get arrested, they are not to call some high-octane lawyer but are to let the Spirit speak through them, providing them with an on-the-spot defense counsel. The disciples are to be gentle souls and loving proclaimers of the gospel. They are not to be warriors, they are not to be shrill, they are not to hang around where they are clearly not welcome. Their lives need to be consistent with the gospel of grace they proclaim. Their very demeanor must mirror God’s love.
The chapter begins by sounding these notes of non-violent, loving gospel proclamation. But what startles in the balance of the chapter is how the rhetoric of Jesus steadily spirals down, down, down. The outlook here gets pretty grim pretty quickly. Despite all their loving rhetoric and gentle demeanor, the disciples are going to get slammed, beat up, arrested, falsely accused. Despite a message of love, they themselves will be hated. Despite their transparent witness to God, they will be called devils.
Worse, their words will bring about the dissolution of families on account of the disagreements that will swirl around Jesus and his gospel. And if all of that is not surprising enough, Jesus himself then declares that he did not come to this earth to bring peace but strife! So if you don’t love him more than mom and dad, if you don’t love Jesus more than your own sons and daughters, then you’re a gospel fake, a holy wannabe.
Apparently Matthew has not read the Gospel of Luke where the angels herald Jesus’ birth as the advent of “peace on earth!” And it looks like Jesus’ version of “family values” is a wee bit different than what sometimes gets touted today. All of which should give us considerable pause. Why is the gospel going to be so hated? What’s the rub? What is the essence, the core, of what lies behind the negative, sometimes even violent, reaction which some have to the Christian faith? (And if Jesus himself predicted this, why do so many Christians in North America today react with mere shock whenever they find society opposing the gospel?)
Why is the gospel sometimes hated? Well, let’s admit that sometimes it is because the bearers of the gospel are themselves glaringly un-Christ-like. In history the Church at times tried to convert people at the point of a sword on threat of execution. Certain Medieval popes were little better than mafia types who literally had their enemies assassinated. Eventually in history the followers of Jesus were not the ones being thrown into jail because of their beliefs but instead it was the followers of Jesus who were throwing other people into jail because of their unbelief! In all of these ways and a thousand more beside, it is not difficult to know why the gospel was despised or rejected. The gospel gets polluted when we who bear the message are ourselves living at cross-purposes with the gospel’s content.
True enough. But in Matthew 10 Jesus seems to assume that the disciples will not be hypocrites. Jesus appears to operate from the premise that the disciples will be innocent doves and vulnerable sheep who will faithfully proclaim the good news. But even still Jesus predicts all manner of persecution, rejection, hatred. Apparently it is not just the church at its worst that will be rejected but the church at its very best, too. There is something very near the heart of even the purest proclamation of the gospel that is just flat out not going to sit right with a good many people. What is that something?
In a word: surrender. The heartbeat of the gospel is grace and love, forgiveness and renewal, hope and joy. These are commodities so precious that on the surface you can’t imagine anyone’s not wanting them. Rejecting the gospel would be similar to someone’s just hating the site of adorable kittens and puppies. How can you not like puppies!? They’re so cute! So also how can you not like the gospel: it drips with love, grace, and hope!
But it’s what lies behind the love, grace, and hope that nettles people. God’s forgiveness is great until you realize that accepting it means acknowledging that you’re a rather greasy, guilty sinner. Has anyone ever offered to forgive you for something you don’t think you did? Forgiveness is lovely, of course–it’s one of the more beautiful words in the English language. But it can sound ugly if your acceptance of it would implicate you in something you refuse to acknowledge ever doing. Suppose I come up to someone and say, “Floyd, I would like to forgive you for that completely rude and inappropriate thing you said to me a few months ago after that committee meeting.” Well, if Floyd happens to believe he said nothing that was even remotely out of line after that meeting, then his response may well be, “You can keep your lousy forgiveness! I don’t want it because I don’t need it.”
Surrender. Surrendering to God’s offer of forgiveness implicates one in a sin which many people don’t think they have a problem with in the first place. Another lovely word is grace. Few words shine more brightly or are more redolent of a generous spirit. Even the cognate words of grace are all positive: gracious, graceful, gratis, gratitude, Graciás, graced. Who could not like grace? Maybe anyone who refuses to believe that he needs outside help. Maybe anyone who is convinced that human cunning, personal skill and achievement, or just the sum total of a good life well-lived ought to be enough to make the grade with God.
Accepting grace implies helplessness, paralysis, inadequacy. Many people have a hard time admitting they need Prozac to hold depression at bay or that they need food stamps and some welfare to help make ends meet. Shame often attends those who are on the dole, who are dependent instead of independent. That’s true even when the assistance being granted through medication or some government program is restricted to just one area of life. Embracing grace, however, says something about the whole sweep of your existence. And for some that’s just too big a load of shame, disgrace, and dependence to accept.
The most striking verse in Matthew 10 may well be verse 36 where Jesus predicts great strife within families. The verse there seems to be a quote from Micah 7:6 and is usually flagged as such in footnotes. But if this is an allusion by Jesus to Micah, then it is doubly surprising. Because in Micah these words occur in the midst of a lament over Israel’s sorry state of affairs. Micah warns the people that things have slipped so far in Israelite society that you can’t trust even the lover in your own arms, you can’t trust judges because they are all on the take, you can’t trust the rulers because they’re all out to line their own pockets with ill-gotten gain. This is a lament over a society gone wrong.
But then in Micah7:7, the prophet ends this litany of doom with these words, “But as for me, I watch in hope for the LORD, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me.” In other words, in the face of sons dishonoring fathers and daughters rising up against mothers and of a man’s enemies coming chiefly from within his own household, the one hope you can cling to is the coming of God (presumably to make all things right). So how can it be that Jesus—the ultimate arrival of God in our midst—quotes Micah 7:6 and its sad portrait of family squabbles as a state of affairs that will RESULT FROM his ministry and presence? Isn’t that exactly the opposite of what you would expect?
If ever there were a verse that reveals to us one more time that the true coming of God is always surprising and mysterious, this inversion of Micah 7:6 is surely it!
Years ago a man named Millard Fuller was pretty near the apex of an American success story. He was a high-octane corporate executive working eight days a week and pulling down close to a million bucks a year. But then one day he heard God calling to him, telling him his life was overfull and his priorities out of whack. So in prayer with his wife one day, Fuller re-committed his life to Christ. He quit his job, moved to a more modest house, and wondered what to do next. What he ended up doing next was building affordable houses for low-income families who could purchase these homes interest-free. Today we are most of us well aware of the great good Habitat for Humanity has done.
A preacher once re-counted Fuller’s story but was later approached by someone who asked, “How old were Fuller’s children when he quit his job like that?” It took this preacher a minute to appreciate what lay behind this query: how dare Fuller uproot his kids and subject them to a less lavish lifestyle just so that he could serve God?!
That is just the way lots of people think these days. Taking up a cross to follow Jesus is, even economically for some, as unpopular now as ever.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 25, 2017
Matthew 10:24-39 Commentary