Matthew 10: 24-34
Parallels Mark 13: 9-13; Luke 21: 12-19, Luke 12: 2-9
24 “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 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!
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. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 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. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So 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; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
The relation of the disciple to Jesus can’t be captured in a single image. There is the element where they are like the disciple/student who learns from the teacher: listening to what the teacher says, imitating what the teacher does, practicing what the teacher preaches, living like the teacher invites their students to live. But there is also the slave (and this is better than softening the term to servant) and lord relationship (the word translated master is the word often translated lord in relation to Jesus) where the relationship is not one of equals but of master and subordinate. Modern people who tend to think of themselves as free willed individuals may chafe at the lord/slave dynamic and it also has the additional baggage, particularly in the United States, of our standing in the continuing long shadow of centuries of brutal slavery in the new world. As uncomfortable as the term slave may be to our ears, I do think we need to accept that for Matthew this was an appropriate metaphor to understand the relationship of the disciple to Jesus. The yoke that Jesus may offer is lighter than the yoke offered by others, but it still involves submission to the way of the Christ. But finally, the image is also the image of a member of the household, a child of father and one whose identity is bound to this new household of God. One’s identity as a disciple involves learning, serving, submission, but also inclusion as a part of a family which imputes a new identity to the household of Christ.
Becoming a herald of the kingdom of heaven and being identified with Jesus will also bring on conflict with those who have set themselves up in opposition to the kingdom of heaven. Jesus mentions that they will call the lord of the house Beelzebul (which we encounter later in Matthew 12: 22-32) they will also encounter those who label them (mistakenly) as those serving demonic forces rather than divine. Much of the resistance will come from those who occupy some type of religious authority, whether Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, and eventually the priests in Jerusalem. Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of heaven, his teaching, his practices and those he draws into his household will not fit within their understanding of what it means to be faithful. For Jesus, their judgment and punishment are not what ultimately matters. They may revile and persecute and they may even be able to order death of the followers of Jesus, but the followers of Jesus who hear these words after the resurrection trust that the one who speaks these words is stronger than the ones who can threaten death. I’ve written about the concept of Gehenna/Hell in the New Testament earlier when we first encountered Jesus using this language in chapter five. Matthew uses this language more than the other gospels and does have a concept of punishment beyond this life, but never dwells upon it. Gehenna is the place where those opposed to the kingdom of heaven find themselves. In a choice where the foolish end up in Gehenna and the wise in the kingdom of heaven the followers of Jesus are expected to know the wise path.
These followers of Jesus are never alone in this confrontation. One of the bookend themes of Matthew’s gospel is the presence of God (in Jesus) with us. Even sparrows, which can be acquired cheaply, are highlighted as being seen and valued by God. Earlier in the Matthew 6: 25-34 the birds of the air where used as an illustration of God’s providence for these humble creatures and now the theme is reinforced again by encouraging disciples not to be afraid for not only is every hair on their head known, but again that they are more valuable than many sparrows.
What the disciples have heard, they are now to bear witness to. What was spoken in secret they are to make known. Those being sent out are to be those who reveal the truth that has been unseen. While Matthew may not use Mark’s secrecy motif where what was covered up was covered up in order to be revealed, Matthew does see the necessity for the hearers of the words to Jesus’ followers being proclaimed. They were not formed to be merely private practitioners of Jesus’ ideas, but the process of discipleship is connected to the necessity of proclamation. They are the heralds sent forth to acknowledge their Lord. There is a need for these workers to go out into the mission field, to risk the danger of those who will oppose them and to confess faithfully before others what they have learned. There is a need for the message to go forth so that people may align themselves with the approaching kingdom of heaven, so that they may be ready to receive the Son of Man as he comes. For those who have been disciples, slaves and members of the household of God the wise choice is to turn towards the kingdom of the Father of their Lord. To deny this would be to risk finding oneself, with the others who opposed the kingdom of heaven dwelling in Gehenna.
These passages may sound stark to our modern ears and that speaks to our distance from the early hearers of this message. This is intended as a message of comfort and just as the blessings at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount speak to people who most individuals would not consider blessed, so these warnings of persecution reinforce that the resistance they encounter are signs of their faithfulness. These passages speak to people who may be experiencing persecution by those with religious or political authorities and it reminds them that the persecution they are experiencing does not negate the reality of their inclusion in the household of God. Their experience of scarcity and rejection is like what the prophets received, and yet they serve a God who provides for the sparrows and knows each hair on their heads and will provide them what they need. It speaks of judgment for those who are judging them currently, much like the language of the prophets or the psalms, and that may sound harsh to modern followers of Jesus who are not judged, excluded, persecuted or killed but would have been essential for those persecuted by an unjust world and crying out for God’s intervention. As the following passage will highlight, the approach of the kingdom of heaven is an unsettling thing for the established order. Aligning one’s faith and one’s life with the community of disciples sent out at Jesus’ command doesn’t promise an easy life, it promises that one will take up one’s own cross and follow their crucified Lord and yet in that call and in that community there is grace even in the midst of persecution, hope in the midst of rejection and God’s provision of enough in the experience of scarcity.