There’s a great saying in the South that goes like this: “That preacher’s just gone from preachin’ to meddlin.” Have you tuned into a Masterpiece Theater series that a friend recommended but you’re watching season two and feel a bit disoriented? That’s kind of like what’s going on today with the Gospel we just heard. Actually, it’s something we face on many a Sunday. We’re hearing a piece of a narrative out of context or without reading the back story.
This collection of verses in Matthew’s Gospel is the continuation of the scene that immediately precedes it—Jesus sending his disciples out and commissioning them to carry out the ministry that he began: to proclaim the good news of God’s Kingdom. It’s their orientation course for what to expect and a warning about the challenges they will encounter along the way.
It’s a bad news/ good news story. Bad news? They can anticipate the same trials that Jesus endured. They’ll be slandered and accused of acting by the power of Satan. Good news? Don’t be intimidated because the truth will come out and lies will be exposed. Bad news? They’ll risk physical harm. Good News? God loves them so much that even the hairs on their head are numbered.
Much of what we hear in Matthew’s Gospel today is directed more to the first century disciples who were the first to hear these words—people who were exposed to persecution because of what they believed in and stood for.
I wonder what someone who walked into church for the first time this morning would think about what we just heard in this Gospel. Maybe someone who has not been to church for a very long time or who has been hurt by religion or someone who never went to church before—someone who just got up this morning and decided to give it a try. I wonder about that because this text is not easy to take. The fact is that this gospel contains some of the harshest words Jesus reportedly spoke. So how does someone who might appear in church this morning for the first time react to it? How can we possibly sell them on the belief that this gospel is “Good News?” Well, for that matter, how can we sell ourselves on it? I think you and I have come here today because we think of this as a place of comfort and assurance. We live in such a fast paced and turbulent world. I expect we’re looking for a message to be preached here that helps us get grounded as well as to calm our anxiety. Most of the time we get lucky, and Jesus comes through for us on that score, providing the preacher with just the right stuff. Then there is the random Sunday like today.
We wrestle here with this text because it seems so strange and because exaggeration was and still is a rhetorical device in the Middle East. We’re not a part of that culture so we don’t always get it and, quite frankly, taken at face value, the text might well evoke the response, “So why bother? Who wants to follow that kind of Jesus?”
I think that this difficult passage is primarily about clarity. It is not aimed at making us miserable or scaring us away from following Jesus. In first century Palestine, it was Jesus’ attempt to get his point across to a bunch of uneducated, shlemiels. He needed to resort to the device of great exaggeration. For us, it is about making us think, raising our awareness about how we should value the kind of life Jesus wants us to live, challenging us to examine and, perhaps, re-order our priorities if they need to be. That’s really what finding our life means.
In a word, Jesus wants us to choose life. He knows that families can nurture us, promote our growth, and foster our dreams. But, if a relationship is in some way stifling our growth or keeping us from experiencing the fullness of the life God calls us to, Jesus suggests that we need to recognize the toxicity and unhealthiness that might be the cause of it. Yes, we may need to lovingly, even regretfully, distance ourselves until time and grace have restored it.
The sum of it all is that Jesus came to us to show us what the face of God looks like—to let us experience God’s love. He wants us to know a God who is most interested in producing life, not just biological life but abundant life—life that soars toward the kingdom of God because of the choices we make and the priorities we set.
Jesus certainly is exaggerating in these seemingly harsh words. Yet he's making clear that discipleship is costly. And asking us to close the gap between what we say we believe and the way we live. Hard stuff, indeed. I suspect we all struggle with this message. I don’t think Jesus means we have to take it literally, but I’m sure he wants us to take it seriously. We not only need his preachin.’ We need his meddlin’ as well. The life to which he calls us is not for everyone, but we can find our consolation in the promise that God never gives up on us—no matter what. And I, for one, am very grateful for that.