Fear or Freedom?
Gospel: Matthew 10:24-39
24 ‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it 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. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. [Greek: Gehenna] 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So 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; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
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.
37Whoever 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; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
We cannot read this text in isolation from last week.
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness… These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions… go … to the lost sheep …7As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”…. 16 ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.
I am reluctant to work with these texts. What do I know about violence and persecution? I only know about fear. The text says "have no fear… do not fear… do not be afraid." (10:26, 28, 31) It is in confronting my own fears that I find some way into the text.
Matthew tells us that persecution begins as a response to the healing work of disciples. (10:1, 8) At its best the church is healing, not judging or condemnatory. But it is the healing and the love behind it which triggers the persecution! Last week I showed the close connection of love to forgiveness. We cannot love without forgiveness, and forgiveness highlights the destabilising nature of love. I said,
James Alison says of the text, "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matt. 10:16)" that
rather than this being an instruction about prudence, as it is usually made out to be, I suggest that this is what acting out forgiveness in the world looks like: it looks like knowing that you are dealing with dangerous people, who are more than likely to be deeply destabilized by your innocence and because of that to seek to lynch you. On Being Liked
Why are we sometimes destabilised, as Alison puts it, by love and forgiveness? What frightens us so much? To love and forgive is to accept loss of privilege, power, and possessions, rather than seek reparation. It is easy to scoff at this idea, but if it is put into action, then to love and to forgive is to cut across the good manners of family loyalties and vendettas. It ignores and undermines the established hierarchies of power. Love and forgiveness sometimes frightens us so much that we cannot be healed. We can think only of self-preservation; that is, the maintenance of the false security that comes with privilege, so love and forgiveness does not bring peace to the earth but a sword.
‘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. (Matthew is quoting Micah 7:6 )
We usually underestimate what Bill Loader calls "the mighty power of family." In Jesus' culture there was such a sharp sense of "social stratification" that
… persons engaging in inappropriate social relations risked being cut off from the networks on which their social positions depended. In traditional societies this was taken with deadly seriousness. Alienation from family or clan could literally be a matter of life or death, especially for the elite, who would risk everything by the wrong kind of association with the wrong kind of people. (Bruce Malina, Richard Rohrbaugh, et. al., Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels pp65, quoted by David Ewart)
Even now, if we lose the power/privilege bought by money and a job, we suddenly discover our enormous dependence on our networks. Perhaps it is a measure of how little we love and forgive, of how much we stay in our own comfort zones, and of how privileged we are, that many of us do not see our current social straitjackets of conformity, let alone experience the disapproval of our peers for stepping across the boundaries. Although, closer to home, many of us know the bitter recrimination that follows breaking the unwritten rules within our own families.
Love and forgiveness threaten all these boundaries. This aspect of love and forgiveness was well expressed by Micheal Danner as he wrote about Matthew 10:34-39.
The best interpretation of this passage, in my view, comes from an atheist philosopher and cultural critic, Slavoj Zizek … Jesus isn’t saying that I have to love him more than my mom and my dad and my kids. Rather, mom, dad and child stand for the social structure of Jesus’ day, which is rooted in hierarchy, power-dominance relationship and patriarchy. The conclusion being that Jesus isn’t coming to wreck your family, he’s coming to wreck your society. He’s not coming to wreck your society for the sake of wrecking it, but for the sake of opening up new space for a new future, more in line with what God intended from the beginning. (Not presently online; use the Wayback Machine)
We need to open our eyes wide to what we are doing by being Christian; Christianity does not hold together— it is not a coherent way of living— without the total change of humanity; there is no being Christian without the Kingdom. But for all of us, there is a wrecking of our society, and our place in it, before we can see and taste the new future which we call the Kingdom of God. And those who benefit most from the old society will fear the wreck most sharply; they have the most to lose.
The text is a series of "proverbial observations," rather than a narrative. These serve to remind us of the inevitability of persecution— If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!—
and serve to encourage us if we suffer persecution— 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, for example.
Yet I have heard these texts quoted with a deep bitterness, with a kind of "You'll get yours" attitude. Rather than being texts read as the hope of vindication, or as the reassurance of God's love, they are sometimes spat out with bitterness as though the speaker is looking forward to the punishment of others. If this happens, the words become their own violence. The speaker may not resort to physical violence, but enjoys the thought of God's expected violence— albeit renamed justice, or righteousness— sometimes with something approaching hatred.
What preserves us from this?
One of my residual memories is of a bloke with whom I shared a fruit picker's hut many years ago. He had a deep and irrational hatred of women. As I learned to mine such lingering memories for information about my own being, I began to realise that what I had called hatred, was fear. At my worst, I do not hate you; I fear you, or I fear the things you bring back to mind. In this week's text, hatred is my fear spouting out the words meant for comfort. Hatred is what happens when I turn words of insight and hope into weapons, rather than face my fear.
So the first answer to my question is to decide whether I will live with fear which seeks to be healed, or if I will allow fear to drive me to hatred.
Alyce McKenzie has a wonderful image for considering this week's text.
Our passage is a series of alternating proverbial observations about daily life and admonitions. They are strung on a thematic thread. Jesus wants the disciples to wear this string of beads around their necks as they go out into hostile environments. Matthew wanted the Christian missionaries to wear this string of beads as they went out from the church community into the world…..
How would we describe the string or thread that holds these beads together? I think it's fearless confession of faith in Jesus in the world that, while risky, is well worth the sacrifice because it leads to the discovery of our true identity and purpose as individuals and as a church…
The text can be a string of memory beads for sustenance in times of trouble. It can be a litany for transformation or it can be a litany of hatred. It all depends what I do with my fear. Or perhaps I will not hate you; perhaps I will simply fob off your suffering, which so frightens me, with platitudes from Matthew 10.
On my first naïve reading of Matthew as a young man looking for some kind of meaning in the world, some of this week's text jumped out at me: 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
There was a deep, obvious logic to this, even though I had no idea how not to be afraid. Bonhoeffer said
Human beings should not be feared. They cannot do much to the disciples of Jesus. Their power stops with the disciples’ physical death. The disciples are to overcome fear of death with fear of God. Disciples are in danger, not from human judgment, but from God’s judgment, not from the decay of their bodies, but from the eternal decay of their bodies and souls. Anyone who is still afraid of people is not afraid of God. Anyone who fears God is no longer afraid of people. Daily reminders of this statement are valuable for preachers of the Gospel. (Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4) , 196). (Quoted by Bob Cornwall)
But how does one not be afraid?
I have found honesty with myself is paramount in overcoming fear. Growing older, I have been learning just how afraid I am, and always have been. Life seems most incredibly precious, and despite all its long years, suddenly very short. It seems that now I have discovered just how precious and wonderful it is, there is only time left to learn how to give it away. I mourn the loss of parents, and of old friends. I fear for, and grieve for, younger friends full of hope, knowing just a little of the pain which awaits them.
Owning up to this fear and grief has, first of all, opened my eyes to it. I realise how frequently I am tempted to shut myself off, and put up walls, to try to be safe; how often manners, and being polite, and doing the right thing, are all fear in disguise. And with each wall there comes condemnation of others; my self-constructed faux safety is always at the expense of someone, even if I keep the feelings unspoken in my mind. And there, of course, they corrode me!
Yet at the same time as the depths of my fearfulness sometimes leave me in despair, there is something in this honesty with myself, and in the sharing of it with others, which is profoundly liberating. Facing the fear of loss and grief somehow disarms them; it means the anger in me which is coiled ready to strike back, sometimes simply evaporates.
It's interesting that in this section of Matthew, he is not insisting upon love. The repetitive insistence is "have no fear… do not fear… do not be afraid." I often find that in times of great anger and estrangement, when love is impossible, that if I am somehow able to stop being afraid, then my whole attitude changes. Suddenly the pain, the being trapped, the seeing no way out of an impossibility, all disappear and are replaced by compassion— and with a speed which is astonishing.
But if I remain captive to the fear, I am captive to everything.
How do we get beyond simply acknowledging our fear? How does freedom from fear become actual? And how, if we have tasted it, do we cultivate this freedom?
One proverbial statement in Matthew 10 is this:
whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Only by risking the cross do we find this freedom. I mean actual risk, not just talking about it. In one of my better moments, when prudence might have called the police, I went to talk to a man who had entered our church. "The worst he can do is kill me," I said to the receptionist. Yes, the risk was slight. My main worry was how to talk with a clearly disturbed person; I'm not good at that, it frightens me. But the little taking of risks brings not only a surprising peace and freedom. There is a finding and a deepening of life which comes when we risk losing it.
This leads to a second proverb of Jesus which is not in this week's text.
For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. (Matthew 25:29)
This is the structure of the reality in which we live. We simply have to begin the process of loving, giving up, ceasing to fear… seeking first the kingdom of God, then all these things will be added to us. (Matthew 6:33) If we will not begin, we lose what freedoms we have!
These three things are enmeshed: love, fear, and the cross. I am nothing without love (cf. 1 Corinthians 13). Fear paralyses me. Love cannot flow and fear cannot be removed unless I give up the certainties and safeties I hold— which are mostly illusory, anyway— and risk death.
For someone like me, who lives too much in their head, giving up safety has not only revolved around the security of having things, it's also involved giving up the idea that I can know things with certainty. People like me have to give up control and certainty, and accept the essential agnosticism of being human. Other folk may not so much experience fear as an intellectual challenge, but all fear is, finally, a fear of not knowing; it is especially a fear of not knowing what will come. This is true even of the fear of death. If we had died before, then similar to going back for dangerous and painful surgery which we had before, we would know that death can be endured, and that it is life giving. Not knowing is the root of the fear.
Giving up on the idea that I can know, and accepting that I live in ignorance of what will come, I have experienced the most liberating insight. I am able to say about life, "None of this matters, and all of it is critical."
This is a huge freedom: it means the world does not depend on me. Who am I to think that God needs me!? If I am knocked over by a bus today, will God be thwarted? If Mandela and Tutu had been lesser men, the kingdom would no more have been prevented than it was destroyed by the death of Bonhoeffer. It doesn't matter: do not fear what can kill the body! Be free! What arrogance and what lack of trust could think that I am pivotal in all this?
Yet it all matters. For the man in the church, I was the angel sent. How dare I not answer the call? Who would help him, if not me?
I see no way to harmonise these two things. And I have found that letting go of the need to make them harmonise, has been the path into a great freedom. It's been one more letting go of my fears; in this case, the fear of the unknown and of mystery, and also the fear of not being enough.
So I went into the church, facing my little fears, loving him, and giving what I could.
19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
I have a hope that if worst comes to worst then these words would again be true. And if I fail, well, God forgives. God loves me. God will have God's way.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Previously on One Man's Web
Last Week: Intimacy, Fear, and Forgiveness - Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)
Matthew 10:24-39 - The work of Easter is begun : Continuing a Girardian analysis
Matthew 10:24-39 - The Cost of Life : A sermon with some reference to the UCA Anniversary
You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.