In spite of the fact that there is still a fairly high level of unemployment, and jobs can be difficult to find, advertisements for them still try to make them sound as attractive as possible.
Recent teaching vacancies in this area offer inducements like this to applicants:
“We can offer you children who are well motivated and keen to learn, supportive and friendly staff and spacious well equipped classrooms.”
“We can offer you a supportive and friendly team and excellent professional development opportunities in a positive environment that encourages growth, whatever the stage of your career.”
So, the rewards offered are not just money, but also support from colleagues, a pleasant environment to work in, and good career prospects.
No human resources department nowadays would consider describing a job in the terms used in this Sunday’s Gospel. As they are sent out on their mission, what the disciples of Jesus are told to expect in this reading from Matthew’s Gospel is opposition, denigration, family conflict, and even execution. Not at all an enticing prospect!
It’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusions about what Jesus is saying here. He’s not commanding Christians to use physical force to impose their beliefs on others, or even to defend themselves against persecution. He’s not telling Christians to separate themselves from unbelievers, especially not if those unbelievers belong to their close family. He’s not saying that some people are destined to ‘get to Heaven’ and others are ‘condemned to Hell’.
Rather this passage paints a realistic picture of the consequences of submitting yourself to God’s sovereignty, of living by Kingdom values, of proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed. This picture applies both during Jesus’s lifetime, in the time when Matthew’s Gospel was written, and today. It says, in short, if you follow Jesus faithfully, whatever happened to Jesus is likely to happen to you.
So, Jesus was accused of being a servant of Beelzebub, the embodiment of evil. So were his disciples, so will we be. Jesus was disowned by his family, and his mission was opposed by his relatives. They came to take him home, alleging he was mad or possessed. His followers were accused of being mad in New Testament times, and still are today. So may we be. The radical message of Jesus provoked a strong reaction from those whose position and security it threatened. That continues to happen today.
Faith in the truth of what Jesus taught and the way he lived provoked deep divisions within his society, within the Roman Empire and within many, many societies since. Those divisions led to armed conflict, and death and injury to those on opposing sides. It still happens today. Jesus was put to death by the political and military rulers of his age. For the last two thousand years, people who attempt to follow him have been executed, sometimes in the name of Jesus himself. This passage predicts, though it does not endorse, that violence.
This passage says the denigration, the conflict, the violence is not something for Christians to fear. The body can be harmed, the body can be killed, but what is really important, the core of our being, our soul, cannot be destroyed. While isolation, injury and death are frightening, far more terrifying is to lose our faith in the God shown to us by Jesus, because that way lies spiritual death.
Jesus lost his life, but (in the picture language used in the Bible) was raised by God to Heaven, as a justification of the way he lived and what he taught. When we follow Jesus, we stand beside Jesus before God; when we deny Jesus, we separate ourselves from the God who raised him from death.
If we try to avoid the pain and conflict by compromising on Christ’s values, we may save our lives in human terms; but we will lose our connection with God’s Kingdom, in which we experience eternal life. It’s only when we make God’s sovereignty the priority in our lives and our decision making, that we experience the fullness of life that Jesus came to bring us.
This is the absolute opposite of the so-called ‘prosperity Gospel’ which assures us that following Jesus will being us wealth, status and personal happiness. That is not what we should expect.
The Old Testament reading today is a passage from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, which has a similar message. Jeremiah describes the consequences for him of speaking the words that God gives him. He complains that he has become a laughing stock; he moans that everyone mocks him. His prophesy of coming violence and destruction is so unpopular that everyone criticizes him for it. He is denounced for his message, even by his friends. Yet, if he tries to keep silent, to avoid speaking what he believes to be God’s truth, he is in torment; the words are like a burning fire shut up in his bones. Yet, his message ends on a note of hope: he has confidence in God’s ultimate triumph. He trusts that God will justify him in the end.
Today’s Psalm, number 69, also complains of strong opposition to the psalmist’s mission. He reports he has become a stranger to his kindred, that drunkards make up songs about him, that his enemies are more numerous than the hairs on his head. Does that sound familiar?
Yet, the passage from Matthew, while being entirely realistic about the possible unpleasant consequences of living the Gospel faithfully, also contains assurances of hope and comfort. Jesus assures us that the God in whom we trust has such a care for the world, that even the death of a sparrow is of concern (though there is no divine intervention to prevent it!) Jesus tells us that even the hairs on our heads are known to God; (but again, God does nothing to stop them falling out!) In bearing our cross in the service of the Gospel, we are assured of eternal life.
Bearing in mind that reassurance, what is the message that this passage from Matthew has for us in today’s church?
I think they stand as a reminder that the Christian life was never meant to be measured by worldly standards of success. We tend to speak of large churches, with lots of people in their congregations as ‘successful’ churches. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his book ‘The Cost of True Discipleship’: “Don’t put your hopes in large numbers, for true disciples will always be few”. Matthew is here teaching us that it is more important to be true to the Gospel than to be popular; and that is not likely to lead to large, rich churches. Most people prefer their comfort to the radical challenge of Jesus’s message. They don’t want to give up everything they have in order to follow Jesus. They don’t want to invite in the thieves and the tax collectors and the prostitutes to share their feast, and they don’t want to believe that such outcasts will be in the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of them. They don’t want to face the prospect of crucifixion, metaphorically or literally, for their faith. Perhaps, in view of this passage, some large enthusiastic congregations, if they are committed only to their own growth, and not to service of others, should be seen as a sign of failure, not success?
Lots of Christians today complain that Christianity no longer enjoys the support of politicians and the judiciary that it once did and so-called ‘Biblical values’ are not accorded a privileged position in the laws of our country. Christians in business or trade are subject to just the same anti-discrimination provisions as are those of no faith. This passage warns us that we should not expect that sort of privilege if we are serving the Kingdom of God. When the church holds a privileged position in society, and is supported by its powerful elites, it is more than likely that its values have been compromised.
The last suggestion I would like to make is on the personal level rather than the level of church or society. It is about how we should judge our family lives in the light of this passage. We tend to judge families as good or bad Christian ones according to how united they are in their faith. But in fact there are very few ‘united families’ in the Bible. Most of them were riven with conflict. When you read the Gospels carefully, Jesus was not very supportive of family life. He told his followers to expect division within their families (even more scandalous a thing in his society than in ours) and demanded that his disciples put their loyalty to God above their loyalty to their families. This is of course difficult for us to accept, since we tend to want to be on good terms with our families. But we shouldn’t feel ourselves to be failures as Christians if our families disagree over faith, and over how best to serve God. After all, that was the situation with Jesus, who we follow.
Matthew tells us here that the Kingdom values which should guide our lives are not, and never have been, popular or the norm. Submitting ourselves to the sovereignty of God is unlikely to bring us comfort, or peace, or success in worldly terms. The only promise to those whom Jesus calls to work with him is that they will stand alongside him in the light of God’s approbation – and that is eternal life.