Tag Archives: Persecution

Matthew 10: 34-42 Conflict, Wages and Hospitality for the Followers of Jesus

James Tissot, The Exhortation to the Apostles (between 1886 and 1894)

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.

Matthew 10: 24-33 Hope in the Midst of Resistance

James Tissot, The Exhortation to the Apostles (between 1886 and 1894)

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.

Psalm 26- A Liturgy for the Falsely Accused

The Temple by Radojavor@deviantart.com

The Temple by Radojavor@deviantart.com

Psalm 26

<Of David.>
 1 Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering.
 2 Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and mind.
 3 For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you.
 4 I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites;
 5 I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked.
 6 I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O LORD,
 7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all your wondrous deeds.
 8 O LORD, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.
 9 Do not sweep me away with sinners, nor my life with the bloodthirsty,
 10 those in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes.
 11 But as for me, I walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me.
 12 My foot stands on level ground; in the great congregation I will bless the LORD.

Many have stood in times where they felt unjustly accused by those in authority or those with power in their lives (whether friends, family, or perhaps in an educational, work or legal setting). In a familiar pattern from the Psalms in this part of the book of Psalms the petitioner and God stand against the judgment they experience from the forces around them. Martin Luther, for example, could reference his own struggles in attempting to be faithful to God’s Word and the persecution he is feeling in 1525 when he expounds upon the Psalm, (LW 12: 184) The Psalm invites us into that struggle with the difference between the life one expects in attempting to be faithful to God and the reality that the faithful one may experience.

The first two verses call upon God to act: to vindicate and to prove. Ultimately the crux of the Psalm is the trust that the speaker has for the LORD. They have tried to walk in a manner that reflects that faith and trust and it is that walk that has led them into this time of trial. The LORD is the one they call upon to act in setting the tables right and restoring the things that have been lost in this time where their way of life has been called into question. In parallel with this prayer to be vindicated is a parallel prayer to be evaluated. They cry on the LORD to weigh their life on the scales of justice and to see if their punishment is just. In the psalmist’s view the struggles they are going through do not fit the life they have tried to live and they open themselves up to God’s evaluation. This is perhaps a terrifying place for many people who are painfully aware of their sins or times they have not been completely faithful but as Beth Tanner can state about this text, “The point here is not to prove oneself, but to demonstrate one’s trust in God’s power of hesed and grace.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 263)

It would be easy to become critical of the tone of this and many other Psalms where the psalmist places themselves in the position of the righteous one who is judged and yet that would miss the point in this Psalm. The Psalms are experienced theology put into prose rather than some type of systematic theology which needs to be consistent throughout. The freedom of the Psalms is the ability to give voice in a faithful way to the world one is experiencing. There will be moments where the Psalms will focus on the writer’s guilt or their need of redemption, but there are also times in the Psalms and in life where the speaker feels unjustly persecuted. The Psalms can provide us a ‘Liturgy for the Falsely Accused’ in the words of William Bellinger and Walter Brueggemann. (Brueggeman, 2014, p. 137) There are times where we need to know that we are innocent, or at least justified if we want to be dogmatic, where we haven’t associated with the wrong people or done the wrong things. Where our life has attempted to closely follow our values and where we do need a God who can judge between us and our persecutors. We want God to discriminate between us and the ones who we feel have acted unjustly. Maybe in the space of the prayer God acts, maybe in the space of the prayer our enemy changes, or maybe in the space of the prayer we are tested in heart and mind and we need to change. Yet, the speaker trusts that God will do something with their words and with their life. God will not remain silent and inactive.

Most of the prayer calls upon God to act on the psalmist’s behalf: to vindicate and to prove and not to sweep them away with the sinners. Yet, in the final two verses we return to the life the speaker is trying to live, a life that is in harmony with the trust they have in their LORD and the integrity in which they have attempted to walk. Even before God’s redemption they will continue to walk in integrity, and to bless the LORD in the worshipping community. They will continue to try to live the life they feel called to live, a life faithful to their calling as a person of the LORD.

The Place of Authority 2-2: Rome’s Christian Problem

Anti-Christian Graffito from the Paedagogium, part of the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill, Rome

On the 18th and 19th of July of 64 CE the city of Rome burned, and of the fourteen districts only four remained relatively untouched. Emperor Nero presented the Christians as scapegoats for the city’s destruction, and one of the reasons that may have made them a particularly good scapegoat was that the early Christians in Rome may have lived in the regions of the city that were not burned (Peter Lampe draws that conclusion in From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries,47) Tradition has it that both the apostles Peter and Paul will be martyred under emperor Nero. From 64 CE on the Christians are noticed in varying levels throughout the Roman Empire and they presented  a unique challenge to the authority of the Roman Empire.

All empires to varying extents impose their will on their population and upon their challengers by the promises of reward for good behavior and the consequences of negative behavior. For example, a person may know the consequences of speeding, but if they deem the consequences light enough they may choose to exceed the speed limit anyways. There are more consequential examples: the mere accusation of being a traitor may have devastating consequences in most societies. Empires are built upon a network of favor, wealth and power being exchanged and in most times and places the pain of challenging that network (which may result in the loss of power, arrest, torture and even death) is far too high a cost to seriously entertain. In Rome the gladiatorial arenas, crucifixions, and various other forms of public execution and torture work to maintain conformity and fear of the Romans and their designated local authorities. The Roman Empire was neither more evil nor harsher than empires that came before, but in these early Christians they found a unique challenge.

Most of the early Christians were not powerful individuals, they were a relatively small minority within the societies they found themselves scattered within and they were not organized into large churches. There was some organization as bishops and leaders began to emerge, but they did not set out to challenge the Romans Empire. Often referred to as ‘atheists’ because they would not participate in the adoration of emperors or gods (which also had the consequence of denying many of these early Christians access to meat and feasts that accompanied these celebrations-in a society where meat was a rare treat this is a big sacrifice) and this led to significant challenges for the minority of Christians who were of a higher standing in society. Most Romans found what little they understood of Christianity as puzzling-they worshipped a crucified person (a huge scandal), they refused to enjoy the benefits of the empire, they were sometimes accused of cannibalism (not surprising when you think about what the Eucharist must have sounded like to outsider ears) and yet no amount of persecution seemed to make these Christians go away, rather they seemed to multiply even quicker.

The severity and extent of the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire varies through time and region. Most of the persecution is regional and there never seems to be an organized campaign to completely seek out every Christian, but the experience of persecution by many Christians was very real. At points where the persecution was the most visible, “Christians were part of a good day out; part of the entertainment; part of the show” ( Christopher Kelly, The Roman Empire, 78) and it is precisely at this point where they posed the greatest challenge to the empire. The gladiatorial games were not a gathering of the dregs of society, the elite and the good solid citizenry were there and the best seats were occupied by the leaders and elite of the society (the closest comparison we would have are the luxury boxes at many sporting events). Yet at the point where the Roman society demonstrated itself and its superiority on display Christians challenged the heart of the violence and order that stood at the center of the games. Take for example the writing of the second century Ignatius, bishop of Antioch:

Let there come upon me fire and the cross, and packs of wild beasts, lacerations, dismemberment, and dislocation of bones, the severing of limbs, the crushing of the whole body…Allow me to be an imitator the Passion of my God…Do not speak of Jesus Christ and still long for the world!

As a movement that refused to acknowledge the superiority of the emperor but rather worshipped a person who had been crucified on a Roman cross, who acknowledged Jesus as their Lord rather than Caesar, and who were not afraid of death this causes a lot of problems for the authority of the empire. How do you threaten a person who doesn’t fear torture and death (or at least does not view these things as more important than their allegiance to their God) and when a person views a shameful death (in the societies eyes) as the greatest honor how do you deal with that? In fact the more you persecuted these Christians publicly, the more their numbers seemed to grow.

In 312 the Roman Emperor Constantine would become the first to allow Christianity and this would dramatically altar both Rome’s and Christianity’s stories, but before that point Christianity would face its own challenges as it tried to figure out what was and was not Christianity. It had interacted with many new cultures, new languages and Christianity was not a centralized movement. There were leaders of the church in Rome, or Antioch, or Alexandria for example and many churches had collections of gospels, letters, and teachings in combination with the Hebrew Scriptures they inherited from Judaism but there was no central authority to say what was in and what was not. It is to this challenge we will turn next.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com