3rd Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword… 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… (Matt. 10: 34, 37)
I have titled today’s sermon: "Jesus: Non-traditional Family Values"
So, what is this sword that our messiah brings and how exactly does it affect for our families? As is often the case, the first step in answering these questions is to quickly look back at the story so far:
Jesus begins his public ministry in the fourth chapter of Mathew’s gospel. After being baptized by John in the river Jordan and wandering through the wilderness, Matthew says that:
Jesus went throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (Matt. 4:23)
Jesus spends the next three chapters – chapters five through seven – delivering his Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus acts as the better Moses delivering a better law. And this new law has some pretty radical stuff in it: Things like turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies.
After descending from the mount, Jesus puts his teaching into practice. Through chapters eight and nine, Jesus now acts as the better Elijah – a better prophet and miracle worker: Jesus challenges the religious establishment, he raises a child from the dead, and he even shuts up a storm.
Matthew concludes his summary of Jesus’ early ministry much the same way in which he began it, saying:
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. (Matt. 9:35)
Then in the tenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel – the chapter from which this morning’s reading is from – the scope of Jesus’ ministry extends beyond himself to his disciples. So then, the architecture of Matthew’s gospel up to this point goes something like this: Jesus teaches, Jesus demonstrates, and now Jesus sends.
As we heard last week, Jesus is sending his disciples out for the first time with very specific mission parameters: He commands them to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom, to cure the sick, to raise the dead, to cleanse the lepers, and to cast out demons. In other words, Jesus is sending his disciples out to do the exact same work he has been doing for the last six chapters! The mission given to the disciples shares the same teach-and-heal pattern Matthew uses to describe Jesus’ own ministry. The new movement of God that surpasses the work of Moses and Elijah is now the disciples’ to share.
But that’s just part one of the commissioning. Part two, which comes directly on the heels of these mission parameters, is our gospel reading this morning. It is in this cluster of verses that we get Jesus’ version of a pep talk. And what does Jesus say to pump up these rookie missionaries? He tells them that if they share his ministry, they will also share his suffering.
If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
“They called me the prince of demons!” Jesus says, “Just imagine what they’ll say about you!” Jesus is giving his disciples an explicit head’s-up that the work ahead will make them wildly unpopular.
The world may be able to handle the sick being healed, but when you’re out there yelling about the new government of God, the principalities and powers tend get a little nervous. And, sure, the world may be able to handle the occasional leper-made-clean, but empires do not take too kindly to being told they have demons they need exercised!
Jesus indicates that if his disciples follow him faithfully and love the world as he loves it, then the world will try to do violence to them. The autoimmune system of empire responds viciously to the way of Jesus. The prince of peace is being called the prince of demons precisely because to a world infested by the demonic, the way of Jesus will seem diabolical.
Are you feeling pumped up yet?
If you’re not, you’re not alone. The disciples probably weren’t as optimistic as they would have liked to be before their first mission. But the very next thing Jesus tells them is that they shouldn’t be afraid of the world and the violence it will do to them. While they may be tempted to keep silent about the way of Jesus, he tells them that they should instead shout about it from the rooftops, not only because it is something that will inevitably be uncovered, but because the Father is watching over them. They need only trust in the one who cares for sparrows and who counts hairs. If they acknowledge Jesus when the pressure is on, then they have the promise that he will acknowledge them before the Father in the ultimate.
Now, it would have been great if Jesus had ended his pep talk on that note. But he goes on. And now we come to this bothersome business about a sword and familial discord.
“I have not come to bring peace,” Jesus says, “but a sword.”
To some it might sound like Jesus is saying that he came to Earth at least in part to initiate some kind of physical, armed conflict, but this is not the case. The Sermon on the Mount from just a few chapters earlier was marked by a divine commitment to the non-violent love of the enemy, so Jesus must mean something else here.
And what does he mean? Well, thankfully, we need look no further than Luke’s account of this same story in his gospel. In Luke 12:51, Jesus says that he has come to bring, not a sword, but “division.” The sword then is not a metaphor for some sort of armed conflict, but a symbol of severance. And this sword is nothing less than the way of Jesus: What he taught and how he lived.
In the book of Revelation (19:15), John depicts Jesus as wielding a sword before the final battle, but John adds this peculiar detail: The sword comes out of Jesus’ mouth. Now, I’m no swordsman, but last I checked, if you want to win a sword fight, you don’t hold the hilt between your teeth! And I don’t think John was confused about this either. I think he knew exactly what Jesus was talking about when he said that he came to bring a sword. The sword is a weapon of spiritual warfare – the very word of God that comes from Christ’s mouth. John says it is a sword to strike down the nations. A sword to upset the power dynamics of empire. A sword to cut through the fallen orders we know as the status quo.
And, as Jesus indicates to his disciples, it is a sword that cuts no more deeply than it does within families. Quoting from the prophet Micah (7:6), Jesus tells his disciples that their foes will be members of their own households. If you thought having the principalities and powers against you was bad, just wait until your loved ones turn against you.
Jesus is telling his disciples in no uncertain terms that following him might cost them their families. For some it will mean being barred from their father’s household. For others it will mean being abandoned by a spouse. But in either case, they will be issued an ultimatum: It’s Jesus or this family; pick one. If they choose rightly, they will likely find themselves cast out, abandoned, and disowned.
But, is this what Jesus wants? Especially in our own culture, where families are routinely fractured by divorce and estrangement, does Jesus want more broken homes? Does Jesus demand too much of his disciples when he says they should love him more than their parents or children?
I think what Jesus is doing here is articulating his own, non-traditional family values. In a culture whose social fabric was held together by family ties, Jesus is reprioritizing the lives of his disciples with their kingdom-driven mission as primary and ultimate. Yes, broken homes may very well be a tragic consequence of their ministry, but it is certainly not the objective. I think if Jesus really had his way, then the family of each the disciple would have joined them on their mission.
In the same way, Jesus’ call for his disciples to love him more than parents or children is not a call for the disciples to stop loving or to abandon their families. In Mark’s gospel (7:9-13) Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for neglecting their own families under the guise of religious obligations. What Jesus demands is that his disciples prioritize their love for him as supreme above all other loves, even the love of family. A good disciple must love her family to her dying breath and then loves Jesus even more.
And Church, we are disciples. The mission of the twelve is our mission. What Christ says to the twelve he says to us. When we proclaim the kingdom in the midst of empire, when we heal what is sick, when we raise what is dead, when we restore what is decaying, and when we cast out what is evil we are sharing in the ministry of Jesus. This ministry is the hope of the world, and in ways both great and small the world will hate us for it.
While 21st century America may be relatively better acclimated to the way of Jesus than 1st century Judea, discipleship will still be costly for us. It may not cost us our lives or our families, but it will inevitably demand something of us. We should all make a careful self-assessment: If our faith in Christ has not upset the value systems of any one of the communities we belong to, then perhaps we have upset the value system of our faith. If our gospel this morning tells us anything it is that we cannot afford to compromise our discipleship in order to appease the principalities or powers, or even our own families.
For the disciples, following Jesus meant much more than going to synagogue and brunch. The same is true for us. We share the cost of discipleship: We carry crosses and lose our life in the hope of finding it.
In lieu of a conclusion, I leave you with this quote from C.S. Lewis: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”