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.
Poet cast your spell upon our imaginations to see a way beyond this fight
Use your words to help us see another path than the road to hell we’ve paved
Be the prophet who helps us see the humanity in those we’ve demonized
Be the statesman who can inspire the better angels of our humanity
Be the sage whose wisdom can cut through the proud prognostication of fools
Move us beyond our fear, teach us to hope again and poet
End this war!
Poet, I know that in the past your words have fallen upon ears that no longer hear
Made deaf by the frenetic posturing of the pundits and politicians with their promises
You spoke an inconvenient truth as others shouted what seemed attractive lies
Quiet our minds so we can hear the peaceful words you softly uttered in our midst
Still our tongues and turn us away from the screens that distract us and close our eyes
So that we might see the visions you dream and poet
End this war!
Poet, I know this request would be easier if your lips still moved and your heart still beat
If we had honored your presence among us rather that branding you a pariah
If your difficult words, which were the medicine we needed, we received as a prescription
Instead they became the justification used for your surgical removal from society
For we danced the bloody dance where steel and lead are mightier than the pen
Where prophets and poets, statemen and sages are those out of step and out of time
We have drunk this bloody feast, this unholy communion and poet
End this war!
Poet, as I read your words through the tears in my eyes something broke inside my heart
I have consumed your words which were so sweet but turned to sourness in my gut
Your words were the mirror we needed to look inside to see how we far we fell
The poet may be gone but the poetry remains and there is some magic left in these scrolls
My dry bones sit in this boneyard hoping for some wind of inspiration to breath
When I hear your spirit whispering softly in my ear, “Poet
End this war!”
Exodus 17: 1-7 Massah and Meribah-Physical Needs, Testing God and Quarreling with Moses
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He called the place Massah1 and Meribah,2 because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
The wilderness is a place of perpetual struggle for the people of Israel. The LORD makes life for the people possible for they journey across the wilderness to their promised home, but the wilderness is never a place they are meant to dwell in. Once the threat of Egypt’s use of force has been removed the conflicts in the past two chapters and here revolve around the very basic physical needs for sustaining life: food and water. In Exodus 15: 22-25 the crisis revolved around undrinkable water, Exodus 16 the problem was the lack of food and the LORD’s provision of manna and quail, here in Exodus 17 the first crisis is again water. The lack of a predictable water supply is one of the great challenges of the journey across the wilderness and here the lack of water creates a crisis for Moses.
Moses, in his role as the mediator of God’s words and covenant, bears the impact of the anxiety of the people. Even though the LORD has provided in the past, here in a moment of fear and crisis the faith of the people is challenged. Sitting in air conditioned houses, drinking ice water and having our fill of food it would be easy to critique their fear-but when our basic needs of food and water are threatened we probably would not respond as rationally as we want. Moses deals with a desperate people and is caught between their fear and the lack of an immediate response from God.
A part of the Exodus story is the paradox of faith and sight. For so much of the narrative of the Exodus, God demonstrates God’s strength and trustworthiness in physical and tangible ways. The people see the waters part or the manna, for example, or the pillar of fire as demonstrations of the LORD’s presence in their midst. Yet, most of life is lived in these times where, as St. Paul can state, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7) If one’s belief and trust in God is contingent upon a constant and continual demonstration of God’s miraculous provision then faith is transformed into sight. Yet, need continues to be need and the fears and anxiety of the people about surviving in the wilderness would not be assuaged by being told the need to believe when their needs are not being met. Ultimately, God is not threatened here by the people’s cries and actions—it is Moses who is threatened. God hears Moses, speaks to Moses and provides a solution to the needs that the people voice. The place of testing and quarreling (the meaning behind Massah and Meribah) ultimately becomes one more place where water is provided in the wilderness.
One could argue for many natural explanations for water coming out of the mountain, and this would still be consistent with the Exodus narrative. All throughout the signs and wonders, the parting of the Red Sea, and the provision of food and water God uses the things of the earth to provide. Often God is present in the mundane provision of food and water in natural ways. Yet, this does not take away from the reality that for Moses it is the LORD that demonstrates where he is to lead the elders and strike the rock. Yet, in the beautiful language of Isaiah, the LORD is the one who is doing a new thing: “I am about to do a new thing, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43: 19) Whether it is through creation or a new act of creation, the LORD is the one for Israel who gives “water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people.” (Isaiah 43: 20)
Exodus 17: 8-16 The First Battle for the New People
8 Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. 9 Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some men for us and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” 10 So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. 12 But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set. 13 And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword.
14 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” 15 And Moses built an altar and called it, The LORD is my banner. 16 He said, “A hand upon the banner of the LORD 1 The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”
Pharaoh’s armies may no longer challenge the people of Israel on their journey but their movement into the promised land will not be conflict free. Here for the first time the people of Israel who left Egypt company by company like an army now for the first time are challenged militarily by Amalek. Joshua enters the narrative for the first time and we see him being the military leader he will be in the book of Joshua. Yet, it is not Israel’s military might which is key factor in the battle’s outcome. Moses again is called upon as a demonstration of the LORD’s presence as the battle rages. The holding up of the staff of Moses to the LORD coincides with the battle’s turning in the people of Israel’s favor, but the people’s strength becomes tied to Moses’ strength. As Moses’ strength fails Aaron and Hur become instrumental in taking some of the burden from Moses’ already overexerted shoulders. They provide a place to sit and support under his arms so that together they can become a demonstration of the combined strength of the people reaching up for the LORD’s aid in battle.
At a simplistic level, the statement that the future of Israel does not rest solely on Moses’ shoulders, or any leader’s shoulders, is an important one. The following chapter will have Jethro giving Moses advice about properly delegating the task of leadership. Yet, Moses will continue to have a unique role among the people and the time where Moses is away from the people will be a time of temptation for Aaron and the people to turn away from God’s stated intent.
The Bible also invites us into many ethical reflections on the use of force and God’s sanctioning of warfare. This is a difficult question that I have dealt with in other places (most completely in Deuteronomy 20). Here Amalek and his descendants become the recipients of an enduring curse that calls for their obliteration. After the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and several other places throughout the 20th and beginning of the 21st century I will continue to remain uncomfortable with the designation of a people for destruction and I can admit there will be parts of the portrayal of God in the scriptures that will be difficult for me to understand or adopt. This is not the only voice in this conversation of scriptures and so perhaps as Jeremiah 18: 7-8 can state:
“At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.”
Exodus 7: 1-13 The Initial Challenge
The LORD said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. 2 You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. 3 But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. 4 When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. 5 The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them.” 6 Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the LORD commanded them. 7 Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh.
8 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, 9 “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a wonder,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake.'” 10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the LORD had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. 11 Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. 12 Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up theirs. 13 Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.
The liberation of the people of Israel from their servitude to the Egyptians in not just a conflict between peoples, at its root it is a conflict between the LORD the God of Israel and the Egyptian gods. Moses becomes the vessel of the LORD’s work against the Egyptians and Pharaoh and the ‘wise men, the sorcerers and the magicians of Egypt’ line up on the other side. The central two characters, Moses and Pharaoh, both become representative or avatars of the divine power behind them. Moses here will be ‘like a God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.’ Pharaoh derives his authority from a divine claim that the Pharaoh is a ‘son of Ra’ the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon. Two conflicting views of creation (Ra is the chief god of not only the sun but creation for Egypt) and two conflicting views of the way that world should be structured are in play. Within Egypt, the superpower of that era, Pharaoh is all powerful and yet in this narrative Pharaoh plays a tragic character. Pharaoh will not listen to Aaron and Moses initially, but the conflict between competing sources of divine power will be seen not only by the individual players but also by both peoples (the Egyptians and the Hebrews). The end is that even the Egyptians will ‘know that I am the LORD,’ as the coming ecological disasters will testify to the power of the LORD over creation and the inability of Ra and those loyal to him to prevent this upheaval.
One of the places where translations don’t quite do justice to the original language is here with the language about the snakes that come from Aaron’s and what comes out of the Egyptians staffs. The word here in Hebrew is Tannin which is not the typical word for snake but rather for the serpent like chaos monster or dragon. Both sets of Tannin, from Aaron’s staff and the Egyptian magicians, are forces of war and destruction and chaos. Here chaos is unleashed symbolically in a struggle between the LORD of Israel and the lords of Egypt. Interestingly, to me at least, in Egyptian mythology the nightly struggle of Ra is against Apep (or Apophis) the snake like force of evil and chaos but now in matching the display of power by the LORD unleashing the forces of chaos even the emissaries of Pharaoh, son of Ra, must unleash their own forces of chaos. Ultimately it is the tannin released by Aaron which swallows the tannin released by the wise men of Egypt and this initial conflict foreshadows the chaos unleashed on creation that is to come. One of the things that begins here is the inability of the Egyptian wise men, sorcerers and magicians to undo what has been unleashed through Moses and Aaron. They may initially replicate what Moses and Aaron do but they cannot undo it. They can only add to the chaos which threatens to consume all of Egypt.
One of the aspects of this and the following passage to consider is the ‘hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.’ There are certain passages where Pharaoh himself is the one who hardens his heart and others where the heart of Pharaoh is hardened by God. For those looking for a definitive answer to the tricky question of divine determinism I am afraid you are likely to be disappointed. Many interpreters see within this, and each interpreter makes theological choices based on their understanding of God, for Pharaoh’s free will remaining intact and the responsibility for the choices remaining entirely on Pharaoh’s shoulders. Others take serious this hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by the LORD and see the enslaver losing his own free will and becoming the tool that once the enslaved Hebrew people were. The truth is probably subtler as the ancient writers of the Bible were not dogmatically rigid. Divine determinism and free will could coexist without any perceived conflict. Perhaps, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks can state:
Pharaoh is in fact…a tragic figure like Lady Macbeth, or like Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick, trapped in an obsession which may have had rational beginnings, right or wrong, but which has taken hold of him, bringing not only him but those around him to ruin. (Sacks, 2010, p. 49)
Perhaps Pharaoh is merely trapped within a worldview that cannot imagine letting the Hebrew slaves go. Perhaps Pharaoh’s heart and mind receive some divine nudge to harden his resolve and will as the chaos unfolds around him and his people. Perhaps Pharaoh, who views himself as the king on the chess board is merely a pawn being played. Regardless Pharaoh, the son of Ra, will be unable to avoid being swallowed up by the chaos unleashed as he struggles against the LORD. The gauntlet has been thrown, the challenge has begun for the lives of both peoples. Warnings are unheeded, hearts are hardened and next the heart of Egypt will bleed.
Exodus 7: 14-25 The Bleeding Heart of Egypt
14 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. 15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water; stand by at the river bank to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that was turned into a snake. 16 Say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” But until now you have not listened.’ 17 Thus says the LORD, “By this you shall know that I am the LORD.” See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood. 18 The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile.'” 19 The LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt– over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water– so that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.'”
20 Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, 21 and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt. 22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them; as the LORD had said. 23 Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. 24 And all the Egyptians had to dig along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the river.
25 Seven days passed after the LORD had struck the Nile.
The Nile River, or to the ancient Egyptians simply the river, is the heart of the Egyptian empire. Egypt was shielded from other early civilizations by deserts on both sides and the Nile river delta provided for an agricultural abundance that allowed the people to focus on the construction of large public projects like the pyramids. The river is a source of food, transportation, and ultimately life. Without the Nile River, there is no Egyptian empire and even though the Nile never becomes a significant source of worship for the Egyptians, it is simply an assumed part of life. Yet, it is here that the LORD instructs Moses and Aaron to strike first. The heart of the Egyptian empire bleeds, life begins to end and an ecological disaster begins to unfold.
This begins a highly-structured telling of the signs and wonders that bring the people out of Egypt. In the three sets of three where the first in each set Moses speaks to Pharaoh outside in the morning, the second Moses speaks to Pharaoh inside in the palace and the third comes abruptly without a warning. Some would argue ecologically that one plague would naturally follow the others because of the ecological devastation, and while that may be true the narrative moves where the LORD is in control of each sign and wonder unfolding.
In Genesis 3, the end of the story of Adam and Eve, the disobedience by Adam and Eve which is supposed to result in their own deaths is ultimately born by the earth (see Genesis 3: 17). Here also it is the earth which bears the consequences of the disobedience of Pharaoh. Of the first nine signs, only the hail is fatal to humans and even then, Pharaoh and his people are warned to bring their people and animals into a secure place with a twenty-four-hour warning. Each sign seems designed to make the Egyptians aware that it is the LORD who is the God who has power over the creation and here the waters of Egypt are the first to bear the consequence of the refusal of Pharaoh to let the people go to worship the LORD.
Again, the magicians of Egypt, by their secret arts, are able to replicate this chaos with some of the uncontaminated water and yet they are unable to reverse or limit the effects. They can only contribute to the chaos. The river turns to blood, the fish die and the waters stink and are unable to drink. The lifeblood of Egypt is now biological waste and yet the people continue to find a way. Even though the river will be contaminated people are still able to dig for freshwater along the banks of the river. The ecological disaster forces the people to change their patterns and yet the Egyptians continue to find the water they need for life to continue. Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened and his will is resolved since his priests can apparently in some way replicate what the LORD is doing through Moses and Aaron. Perhaps, he is also shielded from the immediate effects since he would not dig for his own water, ultimately slaves or servants would do that for him. He retreats to his house without taking to heart the bleeding heart of his empire. He closes his eyes and his doors to the disaster beginning to unfold around him.
Since I have begun my new position at Rejoice Lutheran Church in Frisco, Texas and they are using the Revised Common Lectionary I am going to begin posting public domain Christian art I find for the upcoming week (some of which I will use, others I will not) and maybe someone else might find this helpful in their process of thinking about the texts.