Matthew 10: 34-42
Parallels Luke 22: 36; Luke 14: 25-27; 17:33; Luke 10: 16; Mark 9: 41
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. 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; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
As the followers of Jesus are sent out as herald of the approaching kingdom of heaven, they will meet resistance from those who have aligned themselves with the kingdom of the world. Although Jesus will practice non-violence his reception by others will not always be peaceful and for the disciples who will follow him they also must be prepared for the reality that their vocation could cost them their families, their security, their reputation and even their lives. For a community that is experiencing persecution for their faithfulness to Jesus’ call this, like the rest of this chapter, could be heard as a gracious affirmation of their faithfulness amid their struggle. It may help them link their suffering with the suffering of Jesus and may encourage them to hope, in Paul’s language, that if they have suffered the loss of all things, they may regard the things lost as rubbish so that they may gain Christ and be found in him. (Philippians 3: 8-9)
Although Matthew 21: 34 (and the similar command in Luke 22: 36) have sometimes been taken out of context for Christians who wanted an authorization for owning weapons or using violence to read the text in this way is to misunderstand who Jesus is and what Jesus represents. In the Lukan passage, which is set immediately before Jesus’ betrayal, Jesus’ response when the disciples take his words literally and point to the two swords that they have is probably ironic when he says, “It is enough.” I read this passage as one of the times where Jesus does become perplexed by his followers inability to understand he is not talking about using swords to impose one’s will (this is heightened in Luke 22: 49-51 when Jesus responds to the disciple’s use of a sword by rebuking him and saying “No more of this” and then healing the injured slave). Violence is not Jesus’ way, but neither will his message literally throw peace upon the earth. The sword here refers to the conflict which will occur between the disciples and those who they interact with. Even the foundational relationships of family are not exempt from rupture and betrayal over differing receptions of Jesus’ proclamation.
Family may be important for many modern people, but familial relationships were central to one’s identity in the ancient world. Throughout most of history one’s identity was handed on from one’s family, and this is one of the reasons Matthew spends the first seventeen verses of the gospel narrating Jesus’ family tree. Yet, in this new community where one’s relationship comes from Christ and brothers and sisters and mothers are those who are in the presence of Jesus this displaces the central position of family in one’s identity. Relationships between parents and children and daughters and mothers-in-law may be places where disciples experience the heartbreak of betrayal and brokenness. Jesus is demanding the central place in his followers’ lives. The familial love (this is the Greek phileo type of love, where Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love gets its name) between parents, children and siblings is to come second to the commitment to Jesus.
Those who follow Jesus may have to suffer for that willingness to follow. Just as Jesus may be slandered by being associated with Beelzebul and those associated with him will also be slandered, so those who follow the one who goes to the cross may find their own crosses waiting for them. Most of the twelve disciples named at the beginning of this chapter are crucified in some manner. The famous paradox of those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for Christ’s sake will find it is a little more direct in the Greek. The word translated ‘life’ is the Greek psuche which is normally translated ‘soul.’ In Hebrew thought the ‘soul’ was not detachable from one’s life but was the center of who one is (it would not have the body/soul dichotomy of later Greek and even Christian thought). If one attempts to find one’s soul, one’s raison d’etre (reason for existing) one ironically destroys it (Greek apollumi-to destroy, ruin, kill) but if one’s original reason for existing is destroyed because of Christ they find their reason for life. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorable quote from a speech in Detroit on June 23, 1963, “There are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. And I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live”
These sayings are placed in a narrative context where the disciples are being sent forth to be received into peoples’ homes, and in a culture where hospitality has a high value, what Jesus states that receiving an emissary of the kingdom of heaven is equivalent to receiving God. Whoever welcomes a disciple of Jesus welcomes Jesus, and whoever welcomes Jesus welcomes the God who sends Jesus. This is a theme that will come back in Matthew 25:31-46 where receiving one of the ‘least of these’ is equivalent to receiving Jesus. Jesus is found among the little ones who need to receive care and hospitality from the households and communities they encounter. In addition to the high honor of receiving God there is also a sharing in the wages (Greek misthos is better translated wages than reward here) of the prophet or righteous person. The wages of a prophet or righteous person may not be pleasant in terms of what they receive when they are acting as a prophet or acting righteously in a world that doesn’t practice Jesus’ understanding of righteousness. Those who shelter a prophet or a righteous person may also receive the ‘wages’ delivered by the society towards the prophet. But wages here has a primarily positive sense in the light of the approaching kingdom of God where God will ultimately be the one who rewards both those sending and those receiving the messengers.
Even though there is not the verbal linkage in the Greek between little one (Greek mikros) and the ‘little faith ones’ (Greek oligopistos) there is still a thematic parallel, especially when linking little ones and disciples. Little ones here probably goes beyond just the scope of welcoming the messengers of Jesus and probably extends to the broader ideas of hospitality grounded in the vision of what Israel and now the community of the faithful is to be towards the rest of the world. The community of little faith ones gathered around Jesus are to be those who offer water as a sign of compassion to those who need water. Welcoming a disciple in hospitality means welcoming Jesus but as we will be reminded in Matthew 25: 31-46 the followers of Jesus will be those who welcome those who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison. Sometimes the ones in need will be disciples needing hospitality extended to them because they are strangers coming into towns they do not know. Other times the ones in need will be the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and those who are persecuted. The community which Jesus is sending the disciples out to find is the community that the people of Israel were set apart to embody. The disciples are to go looking among the lost sheep of Israel for the remnant still practicing the hospitality that the law expected them to practice.