“Roses and Sparrow” Utagawa Hiroshige, ca. 1833. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper. Public Domain.
[And Jesus continued instructing his disciples, saying] 24 ‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a servant above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the servant like the master. If they have called the master of the house the devil, how much more will they malign those of his household!
26 ‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32 ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 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; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever 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; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Last week’s reading began Jesus’ second long discourse in Matthew, what some scholars call the “Missionary Discourse” or “Disciples Discourse.” The setup is essential. Immediately after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus and his disciples traverse the Galilean countryside and beyond, proclaiming the good news, healing sick people, helping troubled people, and inviting people to join the cause.
At some point, Jesus looks out on another gathered crowd of folks in great need and realizes that he cannot do this work alone. He pulls together his twelve closest followers and tells them that they will be sent out to do more of the same work.
The instructions are pretty straightforward: “Go, do good where you are accepted.” Maybe at this point, the disciples expect a moving sendoff, something heartfelt and inspirational like Knute Rockne’s fabled “Win One for the Gipper” halftime speech, or JFK’s speech about going to the moon.
Instead, they get a dose of reality. “A servant is not above his master” was a common idiom during Jesus’ day. When I was little, I remember visiting my great-grandmother’s house in South Georgia and seeing a needlepoint hanging on her wall that said, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” It’s the same message. If the head of the household suffers, everyone suffers. Jesus lets the disciples know that they will be treated with the same mixed response as he has. Sometimes that will mean that they will face violent opposition.
At the end of this section, we also have some of the gospel’s most difficult words. Jesus says that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword, and that his message and actions will cause divisions. His message will even split families.
Within this challenging message, however, there are words of encouragement. Jesus promises that God will be with them, watching over them. This doesn’t mean bad things will not happen; rather, that God will not abandon them when bad things take place.
We also get a problematic “Do not be afraid” statement from Jesus. “Do not fear those that can harm the body, but the one that can destroy the body and soul in hell.” This sounds a little heavy-handed. The language of this passage is pretty intimidating and alien to our 21st-century ears. But I think Jesus knows well the way people work. In our reading, we might say that he is making social commentary on how his message will be received, family dynamics, and the importance of living a principled life.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus enters a harsh and unrelenting world. After Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, he and his family flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s murder of the region’s children. When they return, they settle in Galilee, a rural region away from Jerusalem, so that they can go unnoticed. The Roman empire occupies the land. There are periodic rebellions and violent suppressions during Jesus’ formative years. Corruption between religious leaders, local governors, tax-collectors, and the empire is common enough to be visible to all. Most of the population lives in subsistence poverty, and folks are so desperate that they are going out to the wilderness to listen to the rantings of a wild man named John, who openly criticizes government officials and calls on the nation to repent.
Jesus’ message -- an upending and subversive challenge to the status quo -- will not be received well everywhere. After all, some are benefiting under the current system, and they hold state power and can call on state force. Others, fearing another violent suppression by Rome, want nothing to do with radical change, but to suffer on, with the no hope or future. To acknowledge the presence of God in every person and place is radical. To work for peace for every living soul, and not just a select few, is confrontational. To heal people the system said were unhealable and dare to touch those society says are untouchable is offensive. Oscar Wilde writes that “No good deed goes unpunished,” a reality check for those working to make good social change.
Families, the place where acceptance, protection, and love should be held up as sacred, are not safe from Jesus’ message either. The most difficult and important place to have conversations about social ills is not the public square or cable news, but dinner tables. We’ve made this all the more difficult on ourselves after generations of keeping a false peace in our families by refusing to talk about religion or politics. The most cringeworthy and painful conversation I’ve ever had about racism was with a close family member. Many of us have an uncle or cousin posting racist images and statements on social media right now, their response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and protests over systemic racial violence and inequality in America. How are we supposed to love our family members while being principled about love, justice, and equality? Jesus’ answer was to remember the sparrows. Even sparrows, creatures deemed largely inconsequential by us humans, are on the mind of God. When we worry that we will break a false peace, God is with us. When things go really bad, we can remember that there is no place where God is not.
Finally, Jesus warns his disciples about what it might look like to give up the principled life when he talks about the thing that can destroy body and soul. “Sin makes its own hell, and goodness it own heaven,” writes Mary Baker Eddy. The Dalai Lama writes that “Sin contains its own judgment and punishment.” The early twentieth-century cartoonist Kin Hubbard might say it best, “We are not punished for our sins, but by them.” When we’ve come to terms with the importance of a belief, but fail to live out that belief because of some pressure, there is something, part of our very selves that becomes damaged. Jesus’ disciples have seen an alternative way of organizing life. This alternative way positioned all people and God’s glorious creation in a sacred light. There was no one too sick to save, too troubled to help, too hopeless to hear good news. Divine presence, real work, purpose and opportunity, the right to life and dignity; these are all part of what it means to be created by God. To fail to work toward that aim hurts ourselves as much as it does others.
In recent weeks a group of knuckleheads has gone from town to town, here in Vermont, sticking white supremacist stickers on town halls, rainbow flags, and businesses owned by African Americans and people of color. The rainbow flag at the United Church of Hinesburg was tagged too. These moments are important. They remind us that some stand against an open and free society where all are treated with dignity and acceptance in our communities. At some point, they were taught to hate, in which case, we can only have pity, and ask God that they find a better way. Perhaps we can also be reminded that if we genuinely believe in words like equality, love, and respect, and carry the better heritage of our Christian faith in our souls, we will not stop working until our last breath for a better world. This is what Jesus hopes from all his disciples.
May you remember your work as disciples of Jesus. May you have the courage to act during these difficult times. And may you do all things in love.