Trinity 5

Matthew 10: 24-39

Man against Father

 

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.   Amen.

 

Let me start by asking you to cast your minds back a whole week to last Sunday.  Can anyone remember what we celebrated last Sunday?   That’s right – it was Father’s Day.   A bit of a modern invention that one.   They say it was a bright idea hatched up by the greetings card firms in America some years ago that has now caught on and is celebrated here each June.  Why not?  In these days of equality, we have Mother’s Day so why not Father’s Day.   We deserve our day too!

 

Now it’s fortunate that the compilers of the lectionary managed to avoid having this week’s gospel reading last week as it would make a sermon on Father’s Day a little tough, remember:-

 

I have come to set a man against his Father

 

It’s not exclusively anti father because it goes on:-

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

And one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

 

Wow!   Thank goodness that wasn’t last week’s reading.   To be honest, when you come to prepare a sermon and you read something like Matthew 10, 24, your heart sinks and you cast a beady eye on the Epistle, the Old Testament reading and even the Psalm in the search for something a little easier to preach on, a little less contentious and a little more comfortable.

 

But our faith isn’t meant to be comfortable.  It should challenge us and so, we’ll stick with Matthew’s gospel with all the uncomfortable messages it contains.  Jesus wanted us to hear this so why should we ignore it.   Let me remind you of a bit more of that gospel and you’ll see what I mean.

 

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth;

I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

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

And one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

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; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

 

Uncompromising stuff.   How do we reconcile this with our popular view of Christ, the loving God, gentle Jesus meek and mild, Jesus the peacemaker.   All this talk of swords and fights, setting families against one another.  This sounds like Old Testament sabre rattling rather than New Testament love doesn’t it?   Well let’s take a closer look.

 

Firstly, let’s put the reading into the context of Matthew’s gospel.  The 10th chapter of Matthew focuses almost exclusively on discipleship.   He gathers the chosen 12 together and he lays out for them, what he expects them to do, the resistance that they should expect to encounter and what they should do to counter that resistance.

 

This starts with his ‘Great Commission’ to go out to the lost sheep of the tribes of Israel.  He tells them to explain to the people that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.   He gives them the power to heal the sick, to cast out demons and to raise the dead.   Now by this stage, the disciples must have been feeling pretty good. 

 

Here they were, the chosen few being given power and dominion to go out and preach the message of salvation and along with that the power to work miracles.   They would be the equals of the Old Testament prophets that they had grown up learning about.  They must have felt 10 feet tall.   But then comes the twist in the tale that brings them back to earth with a bump.

 

First of all, Christ tells them that they’ll be doing all this as penniless itinerants, cut off from family and comforts and dependent on the charity of those they meet.   If that’s not bad enough, he then tells them that they’re going to be like lambs amongst wolves.   Their message is not going to be universally welcome, they need to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.   He tells them that they will be hated of all men for my names sake.

 

That’s where we pick up with today’s reading.  It’s a continuation of the ‘reality check’ for the disciples lest they should go out into the big wide world under a misconception that this ‘Great Commission’ is going to be easy.   So, in today’s reading, he starts out with some reassurance, having got the disciples worried about what lies ahead.  

 

He tells them that whilst men can harm their bodies, they cannot harm their souls.   He tells them that God loves them and knows them and that nothing happens in this world without God’s hand.   He knows every hair on your head, he will protect and keep you.  

 

He then warns them that their families may turn against them and this is the bit that we often have most difficulty with.   How on earth could God want to set a son against his father or a daughter against her mother – how can that be a Christian thing to do?

 

Well, there is a biblical context that we need to understand.   A tradition in which Jesus is living and a tradition that his audience has grown up with.   The concept of family was central to Jewish society at that time.   It referred not to the nuclear family that we think of today but to a wide extended family, so large in some cases that it can be thought of as a clan.   A fundamental tenet of the society was allegiance to the clan and the leader of the clan or family – the father who commanded ultimate authority.

 

Jesus has to change this mindset.   He has to get people to understand that the rewards of life and afterlife with God can only be achieved at a price and that price is a willingness to submit absolutely to the authority of God above and beyond all else.   No more, can a Christian Jew look to the head of the family as the ultimate authority.  No more can he or she have their actions guided by the will of their family or its leadership.   From now on, only God has the authority over a Christian’s life, an authority that overrides anything that a mere human can command.

 

Now this is revolutionary stuff in 1st century Palestine.  It undermines the basic fabric of society and it’s not going to be popular.   So a Christian Jew is going to meet with fierce resistance and the first place that the resistance will manifest is within the believer’s own family.   A true believer needs to accept that when that confrontation comes, they will come down on God’s side, not on the side of their father or mother or brother or sister, busy trying to dissuade them from following this radical path.

 

The other problem that we have with this concept of putting love for God above love for our families is that we can’t visualise how that could be.    Most of us have been fortunate to know the love that exists within a family; the love between a husband and wife, the love between a mother or father and their child. 

 

That love can be all consuming, a massively powerful force.   People talk about laying down their lives for their children and we can all imagine that.   That’s how powerful a familial love can be.   So how on earth could our love for God supplant that love for our children.   How could Jesus have the effrontery to ask us to divert love from our family towards God.

 

Well, of course, this approach treats love like a commodity.   We only have so much love to give and we need to ration it out.   If God wants his share then, by definition we need to withdraw it from somewhere – presumably from our families.   We think of our love like money in a bank.   If we want to deposit that love with God, then we withdraw it from our children.

 

Of course, love is not like that.  It is not a finite commodity.   If it were then presumably, when we have a child, we would have to withdraw our love for our partner in order to give it to the child.   If we have a second child, then we would either have to transfer the love from the first to the second or halve the love for the first in order to give the second a share.   Love grows, it is boundless.

 

Jesus is not asking us to love our families any less in order to follow him.   What he is saying is that the love that we feel for God should be all consuming.  He gives us a benchmark.   He says, “Listen, you know what it feels like when you look at your wife or your Son or your daughter?   You know what that love feels like?   Yes?   Well, what you should feel for God is even more than that.

 

Now, that is a message from the New Testament – a message of love, so pure and so extreme that it becomes the most powerful force in our lives.    There is a legend, which is probably apocryphal but is nonetheless a good illustration, so let me finish with that.  

 

It concerns a rich man in the 1st century who had heard stories of a legendary preacher called Paul and his message of love and redemption in Jesus Christ.  He scoured the Mediterranean trying to find this great man but to no avail.  On his travels he met Paul’s young disciple Timothy and Timothy agreed to take the man to Rome to visit Paul where he was in prison.  

 

"Entering the jail cell, the merchant found a rather old man, physically broken down. The merchant was amazed at Paul's personal peace and serenity . .. they talked for hours. The merchant left with Paul's blessing and prayer ... Outside, the merchant inquired, 'What is the key to Paul's power? I have never seen anyone like him in my entire life.'

"'Haven't you figured it out?' asked Timothy. 'Paul is in love ... Paul is in love with Jesus Christ.'

 

"The man looked even more confused. 'Is that all?'

 

"With a smile on his face, Timothy answered, 'Ah, but that is everything."'

 

Tom Crotty