"Jesus said to the twelve disciples, '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 apart from 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.
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.'"
--Matthew 10: 24-39
Hoo-boy! This is a doozy of a Gospel, isn’t it? Slaves are not greater than masters.. Whoever denies me I will deny before my Father. You are of more value than many sparrows. Do not think I have come to bring peace, I’ve come to bring a sword. Wow, Jesus. You’re not making it easy on us this week, are you?
Such a tough Gospel reading, though, serves as a reminder that the ways we read Scripture are really, really important, and for the most part there are two ways that people approach it: either the words written on the page are literal and have the same meaning then, now, and forever, or the words are metaphorical and are only applicable to their time and place and don’t have anything to teach today because they probably aren't real anyway. This dualistic approach isn’t helpful either way. The former leaves out room for interpretation and modern application, assuming that the world works the same way now as it did then, while the latter throws out the baby with the bathwater (so to speak) and restricts us from hearing the Holy Spirit speaking through the ages. So, then, what’s a helpful solution, especially with a text as complicated as this one? Well, there is a third way, which is more like a process. That process begins with asking questions.
The first thing we need to ask is: what is the context? What’s going on in this passage? Jesus isn’t giving a sermon to a large group of people, rather he is continuing his instructions to the 12 apostles as he sends them, picking up where last week’s reading left off. So we know that the instructions in this passage are intended not for a large group of people but for the 12. It's important for us to keep in mind who the audience is, as a saying meant for a small group of people with a very specific mission won't necessarily be applicable to a larger crowd.
Now that we know what’s happening with the passage let’s ask: what’s going on with the community that produced it? Matthew’s Gospel was composed around the year 85 AD, 15 years after the destruction of the Jewish Temple. There is a theme that undercuts all of Matthew and it is the eschaton, the end of the world as we know it. Matthew uses the term 'Son of Man' a lot because theories on the eschaton said the Son of Man must come first and that terrible things—like the Temple destruction—must happen. Matthew’s community was steeped in this way of being, so when they heard Jesus speaking to the apostles in this story, talking about terrible things happening like family members at war with each other, they understood such sayings through the context of their own sufferings, and figured that the eschaton was right around the corner. What they were experiencing shaped how Matthew's community constructed and understood the gospel.
So we know the context for the passage and what was going on in Matthew’s community when the text was written. Now the big question that stirs : what does the text mean for us today? This is the part we sometimes get tripped up on; after all, we don’t live in first century Palestine in a time when Christians were forced to worship in hiding, and I'd be willing to bet that most of y'all don't believe the eschaton is right around the corner, either. So we can’t really say that every word of Scripture has the same meaning for us now as it did back then. When Christians approach Scripture that way, we make mistakes: slave owners routinely quoted the beginning of this passage to their slaves as a reminder of their eternal place in the order of things; preachers have long used Jesus’ words to the apostles about denying those who deny him as evidence that God has condemned everyone who isn’t a Christian; folks have even used Jesus' line to the apostles that they are of more value than sparrows as an excuse to deny environmental justice; and from the days of the Crusades to these days after 9/11 Christians have used Jesus’ words about brining a sword to justify holy wars. If we read the text with a literalist approach we see meanings like these, which I would suggest are not proper or helpful for our time. Yet if we use the other approach and just read the text within its own context and ignore it then we can’t find any meaning at all. What do we do? How do we find the meaning for ourselves?
It's tricky. We cannot ignore Scripture just because passages like these are hard. But we also cannot just accept everything at face-value and say that this is how the world still works. There's a third way, though to fully understanding Scripture—that is, putting it in the context of its own time while searching for modern application and meaning—takes time. It may seem like I just wing it when I preach or write these blogs, but I have to pour over the Scriptures before I speak because Scripture deserves that kind of respect. It deserves to be studied and wrestled with, not just by me and other preacher types, but by all y’all. Everybody has a Bible—and if you don’t, I’ll get ya one. Take that Bible, go online and find the readings for a given Sunday, and pour over them. Get you a commentary, I have plenty I can recommend. Find out what the church fathers and mothers said about a text. See what the original text was saying—and I don’t mean the King James Version, I mean the Greek! Biblical scholarship isn’t easy, but if you want to know how I do what I do and want to do it yourselves, that’s how. Everyone can do it! It takes time and it’s tough, and in some ways I envy the folks who either outright dismiss Scripture or take it all at face value because those methods are easier. But trust me, if you apply yourself to this third way, if you ask questions, read commentaries, and pour over the Scriptures you will find the deeper meanings not only for their time but for yours as well. Maybe if you apply yourself to the Scriptures we can have a conversation in light of one of these blog posts, and then the Scriptures will truly come alive!
I never answered the question though, did I? What does this rather problematic text have to teach us today? Well, during my study of the text, and my own questions about what was happening then and what is happening in our world now, what I kept coming back to was the fact that Jesus was right about division. He may not have personally brought a sword, but his coming into the world sure did. It brought disagreements, splintering of homes, wars, and every kind of oppression, all in his name. Yet the Good News that I found is in the last line: 'whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.' I interpret that, as Matthew’s community did, that if my hope and trust is in Jesus, I will find my true life, even as the world around me falls apart. That’s what I think this text has to teach us today.
But I didn't come to that conclusion overnight. It took time and effort, but it was worth it. Biblical scholarship is not just for folks with fancy titles and fancy dresses, it’s for all of us. I hope this text, hard though it may be, will inspire y’all to ask the questions, check out commentaries, and go deeper with the Scriptures. You may find them opened up to you in ways you never imagined!