A Provocation: Third Sunday After Pentecost: June 25, 2017: Matthew 10:24-39

Matthew 10:24-39
10:24 “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;

10:25 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!

10:26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

10:27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

10:28 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.

10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

10:30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.

10:31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

10:32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven;

10:33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

10:34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

10:35 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;

10:36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

10:37 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;

10:38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

10:39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

A Question or Two:

  • What are “many sparrows” worth?
  • What is the exchange rate for sparrows?
  • How does that transfer to mallard ducks?

Some Longer Reflections:

First of all, what is all this about being “worthy?”  The Greek word is ἄξιος.  That’s just the regular word for worthy. It does sort imply, in Greek as in English, that this is a matter of worth and value, not just eligibility.  This makes the linkage with crucifixion strange, of course. The only people who could be crucified were those who had no worth, of who had to be identified as having no worth. So Jesus’ remark has a bitter, humorous, ironic bite: you’ve got to be a useless no-account like me to be worth anything.  So it’s a little like the old Jefferson Airplane song:

We are forces of chaos and anarchy;

Everything they say we are, we are.

The humor is essential, especially in this scene with so much potential for anger and violent action.

The sparrows.  The matter of being worth crucifixion.  Even the bit about parents and children.  The humor is bitter, to be sure, especially in this last instance, but it is crucial to catch it, because if you don’t, you will read this as a “hate your parents” project, and that makes the Jesus movement into the most frightening sort of cult.  But seen from the point of view of people that Rome kept crucifying, the bitter humor might make sense.  Nobody’s parents raised them for such an outcome.  Follow God’s promise to turn the world right-side-up and the Empire will crucify you.  And no one would call that loving your parents.  Nor would anyone call that caring for your children.

Except parents who are also caught up in turning the world right-side-up.

And except children who need a world where the cynical worst possibilities aren’t the only options.

That is the promise and the danger of this scene.

That is the promise and the danger of believing that Jesus is the Messiah.  If the world is in the process of being turned right-side-up, the sacrifice is worth it.  But if not, then this whole project is only a religious diversion from the cynical work that we ought to be doing.

I have to admit that the cynicism is attractive.

This week a jury acquitted the police officer who killed Philando Castile.  I was not on the jury.  I do not have access to the evidence or the arguments that led to that verdict.  But I (along with many others) have followed the trial and have paid attention to the ways that basic racism leads to triggers being pulled.  It is a fair bet that if I had been driving the car with a broken brake light, I would not have been shot.  It appears that you have to have dark skin to be (quoting another incident that contributes to cynicism) a “big, bad dude.”

The reasons to quit hoping and pick up cynicism are many, and pretty convincing.  The current president pays taxes and follows laws “only when you make me,” to paraphrase a moment from one of the pre-election debates.  Maybe it IS smart to avoid paying taxes.  And maybe the only way to resist the resurgence of fascism is to mount violent attacks on white supremacist marches.  And maybe the next time a bunch of testosterone-addled white guys feel the need to carry weapons into local coffee shops, just to dare anyone to challenge them and their “Second Amendment remedies,” maybe we need to challenge them right back.  Maybe they’re right and the world is only safe for people who are armed.  And maybe….

You know how it goes from here.

The thing is, the cynical violence of the moment calls for such wondering.  If the world is NOT being turned right-side-up, then the cynics are right, maybe especially the ones with guns.

So we have some decisions to make.

This is a violent moment in our history.

If when we call for calm and rational discussion we are mostly just saying that things aren’t THAT bad, we are not really calling for peace, just for quiet.  And for a maintenance of the status quo.  Which means that we are glad to have someone else engage in violence to protect our comfort.  That’s not pacifism, or peace-making.  It is, simply, privilege protecting itself.

If, on the other hand, we actually believe that some basic systems are broken, that racism is no longer tolerable, that the natural environment needs defending, then this implies vigorous, uncompromising action.  Some of that action will be violent.  All of it will be disruptive.  None of it will allow us simply to wait, and hope, and be patient.

There is another option.

Probably there are several others.  We will have to discover if we actually believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  Is the resurrection real, and is the world in the process of being reborn to new, more abundant life?

Not “spiritually” but actually.

If that is the actual situation, it is all over for the status quo.  Patience is at an end.  Privilege is a luxury we cannot afford.

The same goes for cynicism, however.  If the Christian faith is not simply a favorite narcotic of a post-war society that longed for calm and respectability, then this is a moment for real change, real disruption.

Cynicism is easier, too much easier.  Violence is finally only destructive and desperate.

I do not know if I dare to believe that God is turning the world right.

That remains to be seen, I guess.  But there is one thing that caught my eye in this scene, something that I had not considered before.

Jesus says that There is “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”  I have sometimes wondered what this might mean, but my wondering was casual at best.  But over the past year I have found myself wrestling with the role that cynical secrecy plays in our life together.  Sexual abusers smile, secure in their public role, with the secret of their actions covered by a blanket of social conventions, the least or which is the idea the “boys will be boys.” A presidential candidate brags that he could shoot someone on State Street and not lose political support.  The True Believers would only dismiss any evidence or even any inquiry as “fake news” that is part of a “witch hunt.”  Faced with health care realities that require us to honestly look for ways to protect workers and families from medically induced bankruptcy, politicians spend their considerable energy and resources looking for ways to convince the electorate that the most important issue is whether the solution to our shared health care conundrum will raise their taxes.

In a society where secrets protect injustice, Jesus’s words offer what looks to me like the key item of faith for Christians (and probably Muslims and Jews, too).  Is honest revelation finally something we can count on?  It is, but only if the world is in fact being turned right-side-up.

And I do not know if I dare to believe that right now.  Maybe I’ll start with trusting that God has counted the hairs on my head.  And the hairs on Philando Castile’s head.  And the hairs on the heads of soldiers who can came home haunted by PTSD.  And the hairs on the heads of police officers who go off to work not knowing what they will meet.

3 thoughts on “A Provocation: Third Sunday After Pentecost: June 25, 2017: Matthew 10:24-39

    1. This seems to me to be exactly the right question. “The wrong seems oft so strong…,” to quote an old hymn. But the key is the status of God’s act in the real world. And that is the complication.


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