Sermon preached at
OS 12: Mt 10.24-39.
24‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it 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!
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. 35For 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; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Reading the bible can be a dangerous thing. Perhaps a Bible should come with safety manual; or maybe a manufacturer’s disclaimer! One of the points in that manual should be that single verses cannot be taken out of context! The problem is that because the Bible is a sacred scripture, and we hear it read in a special context in worship, that we can unthinkingly imagine that every word in it is of equal value. This approach can lead us to regarding the Bible as a collection of verses, each of which has an instruction or message for us. And these verses are somewhat like trees; we can get so preoccupied with the individual trees that we cannot see the whole forest.
Today we just heard the words of Our Lord as recorded in Matthew’s gospel, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (10:34). How can we deal with that? Do we conclude that the way of Christ is not one of peace? That those who follow Jesus should carry swords? Or do we then look at other things said by Jesus, such as, “Blessed are the peace-makers”, and then say that as the Bible contains things which contradict each other that it’s either unreliable or totally untrue?
The problem comes when we think we can take every word in the Bible out of its context and that somehow there is the word of God.
Another problem is in the way we read words in a context that gives them authority. A bible carries a layer of authority because of what it is and because of the way in which we read it. An instruction manual has a sort of authority too, but if, for example, if I just bought a toaster and page one of the manual said it was only for 110 volts, and page 2 of the manual said it was only for 220 volts then I might ask myself how could I believe anything in the manual at all. (Or perhaps we could start two rival groups here – the “220 volt” group and the “110 volt” group; and each would denounce the other as being false; until perhaps one day we tried to plug the toaster into the mains to see what happens!)
And yet another problem in interpretation is how we understand words such as “you” or “we.” We hear these read out in a bible passage, and often without thinking we take them as applying to us. But it makes a difference if “you” means “the disciples”, or “a crowd”, or “the Pharisees”. Perhaps we can apply them to ourselves as well, but we need to be careful before making that jump because by interpreting the meaning of the original passage in that way we could be making some change in its meaning.
Let’s return to the gospel passage first. Actually this whole chapter of Matthew, part of which we heard from last week, is about the instructions Jesus gave to his first missionaries, the twelve disciples. If we read chapter 10 we can see the authority Jesus gave them, who they were, where they were to go, how they were to go out, some of the problems they might encounter and how they were to deal with those problems. That’s the immediate context of this passage. Instructions to the twelve disciples.
Part of the wider context is the situation in which the gospels were being written. Division had arisen between Christian and Jew. At the time Matthew’s gospel was being compiled Christians of Jewish origin were being excluded from the synagogues. To be a Christian could put you on a collision course with your family or friends.
The disciples’ mission, we are told in Matthew 10.5 was to the “lost sheep of the house of
These were all fundamentally signs of healing. They were signs that what had been broken though illness, or disease, or death, or demonic possession was to be restored—made whole. Brokenness was not part of the kingdom of heaven. Wholeness was. In fact the kingdom could be described as a kingdom of peace. The Hebrew word “shalom” carries that meaning of wholeness, more than just “peace”. Peace is not just the absence of conflict—rather it’s an active wholeness.
So, returning to this problem verse, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” and placing it in its context of instructions to the twelve disciples for their work of mission of proclaiming the good news of the coming of God’s kingdom of peace, I think we can see that this verse is not telling Christians to get out with swords and start fighting.
We can often get a clue in interpreting the gospels by looking at the parallel passages in the other gospels, and in this case Luke has a parallel. He says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Lk 12.51). We can see that for Luke the sword is a symbol of division, rather than an instrument of war.
This also fits with the verses which follow in today’s gospel. Family members will be divided, one against the other; and Jesus sets the challenge for his followers of loving him more than family members. Remember the time in which this gospel was being compiled. Christians were being excluded from Jewish circles. To be a follower of Christ required a radical decision and could result in separation from family.
Overall the context of this chapter is about the proclamation of the
It is not that Jesus, and the message of the Kingdom, provokes violence. It is rather that his life, as an innocent and forgiving victim, and his preaching of the message of God’s kingdom, challenge the status quo and uncover the networks of power and oppression. He uncovers the violence and division which is already present.
To broaden the context now to this present age and ourselves.
We also are called to continue the mission of Jesus and to be people who proclaim the nearness of God’s kingdom. We also live in a society of deep divisions; a world much in need of good news and of healing. The instructions to the twelve disciples also can inspire us with a vision of how to live as people who proclaim the
The disciples were told as they went about their mission to “acknowledge Jesus before others.” (10.32). How can we continue that today? Who is the Jesus we acknowledge? The gospels show us Jesus who is an innocent victim, Jesus who doesn’t take revenge, Jesus who breaks the circles of violence, Jesus who forgives his murderers and persecutors and betrayers. Ultimately Jesus dies for us, and in so doing, breaks the power of death.
The decision to be a follower of Jesus is the decision to follow this way; and that calls for rejecting the way of violence and for standing against the powers of destruction. But following Jesus is yet more than that. It is more than opposing the ways of destruction and violence; it is working to transform them with love and forgiveness.
The image of beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks in the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah is a striking example of such transformation. There are movements today, for example in areas which have had high levels of militarization, for transforming former weapons into instruments of peace. An example is from
However, more important than transforming the hardware of violence, is transforming the thoughts and impulses and all that leads to violence. The hardware of violence is easy to notice; it’s something “out there”; but the inner thoughts of violence are not; they are internal and normally hidden, and so are, in a way, more dangerous. They can trip us up when we least expect it.
Transforming hidden thoughts of violence can seem impossible but we have the example of Christ, the innocent victim, who occupied the place of destruction, who overcame the power of death. The forces of violence need not frighten us. Christ has gone ahead, has drawn the sting of death and pioneered the way of salvation.
In the Anglican Church these days we have many concerns, to put it mildly! People have many fears about the future. The challenge we face, I think, is not so much about structures or decisions about boundaries, but rather how to be followers of Christ, who broke down boundaries, who called sinners to fellowship with him, who forgave his murderers, and who challenged all his followers to live by this same radical love.
And now, we prepare to gather round the altar for this meal of fellowship with our Lord and with one another, and to proclaim the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. We remember that we follow the Son of Man, who lived the way of God’s Kingdom; a way of peace and reconciliation. We carry such wonderful good news, news which is so good that we cannot keep it to ourselves but must share it with others.
May God, whose kingdom we proclaim, be with us.
May Jesus, the healer and reconciler, lead us.
May the Holy Spirit ever inspire us to be people of the gospel of peace.