Fourth Sunday after Pentecost — June 25, 2023

Editor Teri McDowell Ott engages one of the notoriously difficult passages in Matthew where Jesus says, "I came not to send peace, but a sword."

Teri McDowell Ott's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.

Teri McDowell Ott reads her Looking into the Lectionary reflection.

Year A
Matthew 10:24-39

In 1960, Black student protestors daring to sit and request a cup of coffee at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, crossed the line of White America’s racist social ordering. This act of protest spurred harassment and violent attacks from those determined to uphold the social-political order at the diners. The students were heckled by White patrons, insulted, spat upon and arrested. In his book The Beloved Community: How faith shapes social justice from the civil rights movement to today, Charles Marsh describes the actions of these Black protestors as a “life affirming, socially transformative, and existentially demanding form of Christian discipleship.”

Matthew 10:24-39 is part of the “Missionary Discourse” — the second of five major speeches of Jesus in Matthew. Here Jesus is preparing his disciples for the suffering that will inevitably come – harassment, rejection, family conflict, personal sacrifices, and martyrdom – and that they are most likely already experiencing. As the opening verses (v. 24-25) of this passage point out, Jesus’ disciples will be persecuted as much or more than their teacher. The cost of following Jesus is clear. But he also reassures his 12 missionaries that they are not without help and hope.

No matter the indignities others inflict upon them, no matter the dismissive devaluing of their lives by the world at large, the disciples are to remember their value to God, who knows every hair on their heads (v. 30). Like the sparrows (v. 29), they will never be separated from God’s love and care. Jesus says the disciples will know the strength of the soul that, unlike the body, cannot be killed (v. 28).

Imprisoned for protesting injustices by his communist government in Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel describes the role hope played as a lifeline of soul strength. In his book Disturbing the Peace, Havel writes: “Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.”

The hope Havel speaks of, the soul strength Jesus bestows upon his disciples, orients us beyond current sufferings and persecution. More than mere optimism, this orientation gives disciples the strength and courage to withstand what is wrong because they know deep in their souls what is right.

The apocalyptic imagery Matthew uses of a great concluding war where Jesus returns not “to bring peace, but a sword” (v. 34) resonates with his Jewish audience’s eschatological vision of a divine order that will ultimately overcome the injustices of the world. The image of Jesus returning with a sword in his hand is difficult to reconcile with the image of Christ as our Prince of Peace. But oppressed people have historically turned to such victorious (and oftentimes violent) visions for help to survive their suffering. Allan A. Boesak, a South African anti-apartheid theologian, writes in his book Comfort and Protest that “[Apocalyptic literature] always appears against a background of persecution and suffering, during a transition from one period of history to another. It is always meant as comfort, encouragement, and inspiration for people in times of dire stress and great difficulties.”

In this missionary discourse, Jesus makes the sacrifices of following him clear. His disciples will get heckled, insulted, spat upon, arrested and even killed by those who want to uphold the world’s order. But orienting our souls toward what we know is God’s desire leads us to transcend the limits and injustices of this life. We will find new life and a new justly ordered world in Christ.

Have no fear, Jesus says. Those who kill the body cannot kill the soul. We have help and hope.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What thoughts, feelings, ideas or images come to mind as you read this text?
  2. When has your path of discipleship grown difficult? When have you felt called to stand in opposition to injustice?
  3. How has your faith given you hope or strength of soul during difficult moments of discipleship?

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