‘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!
Translation: A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above his lord. Enough for the disciple that that one may become like his teacher, and the slave like his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more the ones of his household?
Background and situation: The book of Matthew has five major sections, each one featuring an extended teaching by Jesus. (These five teaching sections mirror the five books of Moses.) The Sermon on the Mount is the first major speech; the discourse on missionary activity in chapter 10 is the second.
At the beginning of chapter 10, Jesus gave the twelve disciples authority over unclean spirits. The disciples are then named, and sent out. Verses 5-23 have to do with mission strategy and facing opposition.
Versions of some of the verses in this text appear in Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas. The section from 10:26-33 has a parallel in Luke 12:2-10; 10:34-36 has a parallel in Thomas. Verse 39 has a parallel in Mark, Luke, and John.
Slave not above his master: Our lection this week begins with two proverbial sayings, the purpose of which seems to be to inform the disciples that followers of Jesus should not expect different treatment than what Jesus himself received. Jesus faced persecution, and, therefore, it should not be surprising that his followers will face persecution as well.
Matthew was writing around AD 80-85, which means that this is post-war literature. It follows the devastation of the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-70 when blood ran in the streets of Jerusalem and the Temple was destroyed.
During and after the war, significant numbers of Jerusalem residents fled to the northern regions (Galilee, Syria) in order to escape the siege of Jerusalem. In the north, pharisees tended to dominate and took the lead in organizing and settling these war-time refugees. With the Temple now destroyed, the local synagogue and local rabbis became the focal point of Jewish life.
Matthew was trying to hold together a Jewish-Christian community in a situation that was extremely difficult. Paul's mission to the gentiles was having a discernible impact on fledgling Christianity, and Jewish Christianity was steadily losing ground within the Christian movement.
Moreover, the split between Jews and followers of Jesus had reached a tipping point in the late first century, and tensions between the (now) two groups had grown difficult. It was during this time that followers of Jesus were being exiled from the synagogues in northern Israel.
The dynamics of first century religious development are complex. The view that Christianity emerged out of Judaism is considered simplistic today. Rather, the first century produced several religious sparks--Jesus followers, pharisees, zealots, and many others. It wasn't that Christianity emerged from Judaism, but rather that both Christianity and pharisee-influenced rabbinical Judaism were two new strains that emerged out of the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 and the fall of the heretofore dominant wing of Judaism, the Sadducees.
Matthew is writing at a few years remove from Mark, who wrote during or just after the devastation in Jerusalem. While Matthew's over-all mood is not as dark as Mark's, it is clear that Matthew's church saw themselves as fragile, vulnerable, under threat, and beset with difficulties. If Jesus himself has been accused of being a demon--"they have called the master of the house Beelzebul"--then this charge is likely to be levelled also at Jesus' followers.
Incidentally, Beelzebul is a Hebrew word that means "lord of lofty abode." Beelzebul was an ancient Canaanite deity. (Sometimes, Jews changed the word to Beelzebub, which was considered a slam.)
John Meier says that the phrase related "master of the household" and "Beelzebul", is a pun in Aramaic. If so, that would add a touch of light-heartedness to a very serious condition, and that could well have been Matthew's intent.
Matthew's message seems to be: The situation is quite serious. There are persecutions. People are hauled before magistrates. One's life may in danger. Nevertheless, there is, ultimately, nothing to fear. Therefore, be bold!
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.* 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.
Translation: Therefore, do not fear them, for there is nothing that has been covered which will not be revealed, and a secret which will not be known. What I say to you in the dark, speak in the light, and what you hear into the ear, proclaim upon the housetops. And do not fear the ones killing the body, but are not able to kill a life. But fear more the one able to destroy both life and body in gehenna. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore. You are of more value than many sparrows.
The disciples of Jesus are encouraged not to fear three times in five verses. This is a message for people who feel themselves under seige.
Yet, despite their difficulties, their movement cannot be stopped, Jesus tells them. Even if you go to prison, even if you are oppressed, the message will be revealed and "become known"--ginosko, known in the most intimate way.
Jesus continues to speak to his beleaguered community--"what I say to you" is in the present tense--even if "in the dark." This would indicate a community that must speak in whispers to each other, under threat of real violence from those who can "kill the body." Nevertheless, keep spreading the message--"tell in the light."
Do not be afraid of the Romans, but do be afraid of the devil because the devil has the power to destroy both body and "life"--psyche. Literally: "Fear much more the one having power to destroy body and life in Gehenna." ("Gehenna" was a burning trash heap in the valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem.)
The one who is able to "destroy both body and life"--the devil--means that the struggle of Matthew's community should fundamentally be seen as spiritual. Yes, they were enduring political and social oppression. Yes, they were under the boot of Rome. Nevertheless, these earthly powers are doing the devil's work.
Then, the discourse turns more positive. Sparrows were the cheapest edible birds. Two of them could be bought for an assariou, which is one-tenth of a drachma, or one-sixteenth of a denarius. Yet, "not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father."
The verb is in the future tense--"will fall"--indicating that these sparrows are alive at present, but even when they die, they will not be "without"--aneu, apart from--your father." Matthew reminds his readers of God's providential care of all creation, including them. Again, the exhortation is not to be afraid because--Matthew wryly notes--you are of more value than many sparrows. Therefore, be bold!
Not peace, but a sword:
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.
Translation: Therefore, all who will confess me before human beings, I also will confess in that one before my Father, the one in the heavens. But whoever might deny me before human beings, I also will deny that one before my Father, the one in the heavens.
If Jesus' followers "acknowledge" him--omologesai, literally "speak the same word"--in front of others, then Jesus will do the same on behalf of them "before my Father in heaven." Note that "your Father" has now become "my Father." This hints at Jesus' son-ship, and indicates that it is precisely through his son-ship that his followers also become sons and daughters.
Yet, with the olive branch, there is also a threat: Those who "might deny" Jesus--a middle subjunctive--"will be denied" by Jesus to his Father. As John Meier notes: "Failure to witness before the earthly tribunal will mean disgrace before the heavenly tribunal, where Jesus will disown the weak disciple as not being truly his brother and therefore not truly a son of the Father."
34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35For 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;
36and 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;
Translation: Do not assume that I came to throw peace upon the earth. I came not to throw peace, but a sword, for I came to divide a person from his father, and a daughter from her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and enemies of a person of one's own household. The one loving father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and the one loving son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
"Do not assume that I came to throw peace upon the earth. I came not to throw peace, but a sword." (The verb balein implies a stronger action than "bring." "Throw" or "cast" would be better.)
Matthew ratchets up the tension a notch from the parallel in Luke. In Luke, Jesus is said to bring "division." Matthew adds color and force by referring not to "division" but to "a sword," and, moreover, one that is about ready to strike.
Jesus is quoting from Micah 7:6--"for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household."
Jesus is not advocating violence, of course. He is a bringer of peace, and his disciples are to be "peacemakers" (5:9). It was also true, however, that, especially in the period in which Matthew was writing, there was considerable division within families due to the Christian faith. Will Willimon likes to refer to letters from Roman families that talk of their concern because their son--Celsus, let's say--has run off to join some outfit called the Christians.
Called to the future: Note also the generational pattern of the division. In each case of comparison, it is the younger generation which is at odds with the older generation. This is hardly unusual. In the history of the world, generational perspectives are quite often different and in conflict.
What is surprising is that Jesus offers no palliative for this situation. Indeed, he makes it worse. Jesus has come to sever the ties between a man and his father, and a woman and her mother. (The word is dixasai, which means to "divide" or "cleave in two.")
Jesus was never much on "family values," the way we understand them today. One's earthly family is not particularly important since Jesus will go on to say, in chapter 12, that one's true family is the new community of Jesus.
The message of Jesus is about being formed by the future. The kingdom of heaven is coming, a kingdom in which all relationships will be equal, not heirarchical, as in a family. Traditional power relationships will be upended, including that of the family where father and mother stand "higher" than son or daughter. ("The first shall be last, and the last first.")
To be dominated by one's family, on the other hand, is to be dominated by the past. Indeed, considering that a person's DNA goes back hundreds of thousands of years, we are--in a manner of speaking--in "bondage" to our family and in "bondage" to our past in quite literal ways. The deference we show to father and mother is, partly, the homage we pay to our past.
To the one who had said he wanted to bury his father before he could follow Jesus, Jesus said, "Let the dead bury their own dead" (8: 22). Jesus would not let people be dominated by their past. They are to step out from their past, with its heirarchical power relationships and its "bondage" to tradition. These are "old wineskins" and not able to hold the "new wine" (9:17). To love one's family "more than me" is to be in love with the past, with one's progenitors. To "love son or daughter"--your own gene pool--"more than me" is also to love the past.
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.
Translation: And whoever does not take up their cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. The ones finding his life will destroy it, and the one losing his life because of me will find it.
Literally: "and whoever does not take hold of his cross and follow after me is not..."--and here it gets tricky. The word is axios. It means "like," "befitting," or "congruent." The sense of the word here seems to be "tried and found wanting." The sense is one of "measuring up."
Most translations of axios wind up with "worthy", which is appropriate, though one should avoid the sense of moral judgment that typically accompanies it. "Worthy" here does not mean moral worth, but rather "foxhold worth," i.e. hanging in the movement despite tough times. "Tried and found wanting" seems to be the sense that Matthew intends.
Jesus has set an example of suffering for the cause. Disciples are not greater than their master and difficult situations may come to any follower. In spite of the difficulty, followers should continue to expound the Way of Jesus, and follow it. If they do not, then they are not at the level of their master.
Verse 38 is, incidentally, the first use of the word "cross" in Matthew's gospel. The phrase is ton stauron autou--literally, "the cross of him." It is not entirely clear to whom the "him" refers. It could mean to take up the cross of Jesus, and this has often been a typical interpretation.
Or, it could mean the disciple taking up "their own cross." We might think of "taking up his cross" as referring to taking up the burdens faced in the follower's own life. In either case, in the context of first century Christianity, taking up the cross could, indeed, mean the cross of Jesus.
More broadly, in whatever time we live, taking up the cross means living according to the way taught by Jesus no matter what one's condition or circumstance. For our time today, following Jesus may not mean being executed on a cross. It may mean trying to live as a Christian in the context of wealth and privilege. Conversely, what does it mean to live as a Christian in the context of mental illness, or disability, or militarism?
Image: His eye is on the sparrow, quilt made by Judy Hand Pitts.