A Deadly Obsession (Pentecost 3A – Matthew 10:24-39)

sFor Sunday, June 25, 2017

Contents:

  1. Scripture Readings
  2. The Text
  3. Call to Worship
  4. Opening Prayer
  5. Prayer for Illumination
  6. Prayer of Confession and Words of Assurance
  7. Further Reading/Notes

SCRIPTURE READINGS

Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

THE TEXT

There is no getting around the importance of the first verse of this week’s text from Matthew: “A disciple is not above the teacher” (Mt 10:24). This verse is not Jesus’ attempt to underline his authority, but rather it indicates the costs involved in doing the kind of world-healing work Jesus has set out to do and is now calling his disciples to participate in. For Matthew’s Jesus, the Reign of Heaven is an obsession, and his disciples are asked to look ahead and consider how dangerous this obsession might actually be.

This may be one of the most important statements in all of the New Testament. To follow Jesus and join this radical world-changing alternative community, the disciples must understand that their task is to engage with the violence of world in order to eradicate it. And that requires moving beyond personal comfort to risking creating division in their families and communities, risking persecution, and even putting themselves at the receiving end of the violence. Peacemaking is a deadly obsession, since the world does not generally welcome its challenge and alternative. Nevertheless, following Jesus requires nothing less.

Moving beyond comfort, as it is meant in reference to this passage, is a willingness to see the comforts brought about by the disorder of this world as false comforts. The disciples are willing to risk their lives and move beyond false comfort because the they are able to find real comfort under the Reign of Heaven (cf. Matthew 11:16-30, especially verses 28-30). This passage highlights the conflict that has already arisen between Jesus and the religious elite. Read from the scope of the entirety of Matthew’s narrative, this text foreshadows the violence of Jesus’ public execution at the hands of the Roman soldiers.

Contextual Location

The gospel of Matthew begins with the telling of a clash between two kingdoms, one represented by Jesus and the other by Herod (chs. 1-2). Even from its earliest pages, the story tells how the birth of Jesus threatens the sovereignty of the reign of violence and death, exposing it in full display—even to the extent of the slaughter of innocent children (2:13-15). The conflict between the two kingdoms then plays itself out in the rest of the narrative through life and ministry of Jesus.

Jesus began his ministry with no institutional authority whatsoever. At a public demonstration declaring the arrival of the reign of heaven, a call was made for the crowd gathered to repent and show their commitment to reign through a public ritual of baptism. When Jesus arrives on the scene, a voice speaks from heaven declaring him to be God’s beloved (ch. 3). This heavenly pronouncement not only illustrates that Jesus’ authority lies outside of the religious and political system, but also highlights the kind of ministry Jesus will be engaging in—the building of an egalitarian community of resistance where everyone is understood to be the beloved of God. After this baptismal ordination, Jesus then quickly finds himself led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he engages in a spiritual battle aimed at usurping Jesus’ belovedness. Jesus succeeds by relying on his faith in God’s pronouncement over him rather than falling into the trap of trying to prove his belovedness (ch. 4). Jesus then begins his ministry by gathering a crowd of social outcasts and pronouncing God’s blessings on them. Jesus was God’s beloved, and they were too.

This Week’s Passage

When we arrive at this week’s passage, Jesus has already drawn a massive crowd with his teachings and miracles, creating the beginnings of an alternative political community, the community he chartered in the first major speech block of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-9). From the earliest moments of Matthew until now, the tension between Jesus and the religious establishment has been growing. The first scene of Jesus’ adulthood began with his baptism, where John the Baptist called the Pharisees and the Sadducees a “brood of vipers” (Mt 3:7). At the end of the narrative block prior to this week’s pericope, just before Jesus begins his second major teaching, the Pharisees are demonizing Jesus, claiming that his ministry is the work of the “prince of demons” (Mt 9:34).

This conflict can be articulated in several ways. First, Jesus’ ministry is in competition to the authority of the religious institutions. As Brian Capper puts it, Jesus is acting as a virtuoso elite—using his skill, achievement, and the power of his message for the people to establish the authority of his teachings, rather than relying on institutional means [1]. Jesus’ healing actions and the content of his message called other kinds of authority into question. And people questioned his authority all throughout. When Jesus welcomed those who were generally treated as outsiders, they ascribed to him a sense of authority that was accompanied by awe and wonder. When the institutional elites questioned his authority, it resulted in ridicule, violence, and eventually, death.

It might do well to point out that the religious elite within the context of Matthew exist within a context of oppression, but self-identify in a way counter to the process of liberation. This process is what Paulo Freire called adhesion:

Almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or “sub-oppressors.” The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped. Their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity. This phenomenon derives from the fact that the oppressed, at a certain moment of their existential experience, adopt an attitude of “adhesion” to the oppressor. Under these circumstances they cannot “consider” him sufficiently clearly to objectivize him — to discover him “outside” themselves. This does not necessarily mean that the oppressed are unaware that they are downtrodden. But their perception of themselves as oppressed is impaired by their submersion in the reality of oppression. At this level, their perception of themselves as opposites of the oppressor does not yet signify engagement in a struggle to overcome the contradiction; the one pole aspires not to liberation, but to identification with its opposite pole [2]

Secondly, Jesus’ ministry challenged social boundaries. Institutional authority is both established by and a source of propagating social boundaries. Thus far in the narrative of Matthew, Jesus’ ministry has broken open and redrawn those boundaries. In the words of John Dominic Crossan, in healing illnesses and refusing to treat people according to expected social boundaries, Jesus is acting as an alternative boundary keeper [3]. In our text this morning, Jesus is sending his disciples out to do the work he has been doing. He is sending them out, however, with an expectation that they will encounter significant difficulties. As Matthew scholar Warren Carter puts it, “Generally, the world does not welcome its challenge and alternative” [4].

Foreshadows of Political Violence

Our passage this week comes directly after a passage that sparked an important debate in the history of New Testament scholarship about the historical Jesus. Matthew 10:23 says, “When you are persecuted in one place, fell to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Human One comes.” In 1906, Albert Schweitzer  made the argument that Jesus was sending his disciples out expecting them to be executed. Jesus believed that the end of the world (eschaton) would come before the disciples returned. When this didn’t happen, this led Jesus to live out the inauguration of the end of history on his own, requiring him to journey to Jerusalem and die. Thus, Schweitzer made an argument that Jesus believed that the literal and immediate end of the world was coming, and that this emphasis on the end of the world was so important to Jesus that it was at the core of everything Jesus preached and did. In other words, Jesus was obsessed with the idea of heaven. Schweitzer’s argument is known as the old “thoroughgoing eschatology” thesis.

Another approach, reworking Schweitzer’s thoroughgoing eschatology, is to argue that Jesus was looking for the end of the world, but the end of the old world ruled by death (think in the context of Matthew of the violence of Herod and the adhesion of the religious elites) and the inauguration of a new world ruled by life. As Ched Myers puts it in reference to the gospel of Mark, “Mark looks for the end of the old world and the inauguration of the new, but it is discipleship—which he equates with a specific social practice and costly political engagement—that will inaugurate this transformation” [5]. Jesus is obsessed with the Reign of Heaven, out of a deep and abiding love for the life of the world.

The main question raised by the text this week is what Jesus was expecting of his disciples and what difficulties they would encounter as he sends them out. If we take Ched Myers’s approach, Jesus’s ultimate agenda was a kind of discipleship—a way of living in the world that necessitates costly political engagement—that will inaugurate the transformation. By the way they live in the world, disciples are to expose the world as it truly is. They are to be as obsessed with heaven as Jesus is, to live as pioneers of the world as God calls it to be—pioneers of the reign of God. In doing this, Jesus makes clear that the conflict will only grow between him and the powers of death at work in the world. Generally, the world does not welcome its challenge and alternative “A disciple is not above the teacher…they demonized me, they will demonize you.” The Reign of Heaven is a deadly obsession.

As it does with the rest of the narrative of Matthew’s gospel as a whole, Jesus’ description of difficulties the disciples increases in severity as the passage progresses. While not specifically in this week’s reading, the culmination of this passage mirrors the violence at the heart the gospel narrative—the violence of crucifixion. Indeed, we hear Jesus instruct his disciples to “take up the cross” (10:38) and to be willing to “lose their life” (10:39). The disciple is not above the teacher. If you want to be my follower, Jesus says, beware. The world does not welcome its challenge and alternative—rather, it crucifies it.

When the excluded are included, when social boundaries are crossed, when untouchable bodies are touched, and when power as domination and subjugation is exposed and destabilized, danger lies is ahead. “Do not fear,” Jesus says, “those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul” (10:28).

Selected Word Studies:

Disciple: μαθητῇ (mathētē) [noun, dative, masculine, singular]
GRK: ἀρκετὸν τῷ μαθητῇ ἵνα γένηται
NAS: It is enough for the disciple that he become
KJV: It is enough for the disciple that
INT: Sufficient for the disciple that he become

Beelzebub: Βεελζεβοὺλ (Beelzeboul) [noun, accusative, masculine, singular]
GRK: τὸν οἰκοδεσπότην Βεελζεβοὺλ ἐπεκάλεσαν πόσῳ
NAS: the head of the house Beelzebul, how much
KJV: the master of the house Beelzebub, how much
INT: the master of the house Beelzebul they called how much
Notes from Marvin Vincent (1887), volume 1, page 62: There is a course witticism in the application of the word to Christ. Jesus calls himself “the Master of the house,” and the [religious elite] apply to him the corresponding title of the Devil, Heb., Beelzebul, Master of the dwelling. (The phrase reappears in German, where the Devil is sometimes called Herr vom Haus. See Goethe, “Faust,” sc. xxi.). Dr.Edersheim’s explanation, though ingenious, seems far-fetched. He says that szebuhl, in Rabbinic language, means, not any ordinary dwelling, but specifically the temple; so that Beelzebul would be Master of the Temple, an expression having reference to the claims of Jesus on his first purification of the temple. He then conceives a play between this word and Beelzibbul, meaning Lord of idolatrous sacrifice, and says: “The Lord of the temple was to them the chief of idolatrous worship; the representative of God, that of the worst of demons. Beelzebul was Beelzibbul. What, then, might his household expect at their hands?” (“Life and Times of Jesus”).

to bring, to send peace: βαλεῖν (balein) [verb, aorist, infinitive, active]
GRK: ὅτι ἦλθον βαλεῖν εἰρήνην ἐπὶ
NAS: that I came to bring peace
KJV: that I am come to send peace on
INT: that I came to bring peace to
Notes from Marvin Vincent (1887), volume 1, page 62: Lit., to throw or cast. By this word the expectancy of the disciples is dramatically pictured, as if he represented them as eagerly looking up for peace as something to be flung down upon the earth from heaven. Dr. Morison gives the picture thus: “All are on tiptoe of expectation. What is it that is about to happen? Is it the reign of peace that is just about to be inaugurated and consummated? Is there henceforth to be only unity and amity? As they must and debate, lo! a sword is flung into the midst.”

to set at variance: διχάσαι (dichasai) [verb, aorist, infinitive, active]
GRK: ἦλθον γὰρ διχάσαι ἄνθρωπον κατὰ
NAS: For I came to SET A MAN AGAINST
KJV: to set a man at variance against his
INT: I came for to set at variance a man against

CALL TO WORSHIP (with Introit)   

Vocalist:  The Summons (v. 1)  —  written by John Bell.
Leader:   As you call us God, we come!
People: With flaming courage of Holy Spirit fire, we come aware of what the future holds for us.
Vocalist: The Summons (v. 5) — written by John Bell.
Leader:   As you call us God, we come!
People: With raging storm of Holy Spirit wind, we come with your announce of new beginnings

OPENING PRAYER

Leader:   Creator of all, Savior of all, Spirit in all, One God in perfect community,
People:   make us a channel of your peace.
Leader:   Where there is apathy,
People:   let us provoke.
Leader:   Where there is compliance,
People:   let us bring questioning.
Leader:   Where there is silence,
People:   let us be a voice.
Leader:   Where there is too much comfort and too little action,
People:  grant disruption.
Leader:   Where we hesitate to follow,
People:   make us restless until we change.
Leader:   For yours is the kingdom, the power, and glory for ever.
All:          Amen.

[Modified from a prayer known as “Prayer for Disruption” or “Channel of Disturbance.” Author unknown.]

PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION

Your love, Oh God, is active, engaged, and involved. You have made us in your image. You have shown us mercy and kindness. You have given us grace and peace. Open your word to us this morning. Teach us to be merciful, as you have been merciful to us. Teach us to love in kindness, as your kindness always leads us to repentance. Teach us to approach our enemies with grace, that we may learn to call them our neighbors. Teach us to share in your love and spread the promise of your peace. Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

God of unending love, in our selfishness and greed we have failed to be an obedient church. We have heard your word, and yet failed to answer the cry of the needy. We know your commandments, and yet we have failed to love. We have lived in the world as if it is ours, and we have forgotten that everything we have, we have because of the grace you poured out on us. Forgive us we pray. Free us for joyful obedience. Come live in us, in those whom you have created. In Jesus’ name we pray.

WORDS OF ASSURANCE

Leader:  Hear the Good News: God did not send Christ into the world to condemn us, but that the violence of the world might be interrupted by the power of God’s peace through him. As God so loved the world, and in spite of our failings, God has also loved us. In Jesus Christ, therefore, you are forgiven.

People:    In the name of Jesus Christ, our Prince of Peace, you are forgiven.

All:           Glory to God! Amen!

Further Reading/Notes

[1] Brian J. Capper, ‘Jesus, Virtuoso Religion and Community of Goods,’ in Bruce Longenecker and Kelly Liebengood, eds., Engaging Economics: New Testament Scenarios and Early Christian Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), pp. 60–80.

[2] Paulo Freira, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Bloomsburgy Academic, 2016), p. 45.

[3] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (New York, N.Y.: HarperOne, 2009), p. 93.

[4] Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (London: T & T Clark, 2004), p. 239.

[5] ChedMyers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2008), p. 416. For more an alternative approach to Albert Schweitzer’s thesis of “thoroughgoing eschatology,” see Dale Allision, “The Eschatology of Jesus” (http://www.marquette.edu/maqom/allison.pdf).

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