[Jesus said,] “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25 it 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. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 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. (Gehenna) 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So 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; 33 but 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. 37 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; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Standing up for what you believe in, standing up for the right thing, can cost you.
When Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter dash in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, they stood on the awards podium with their black-gloved fists raised in what the press called a Black Power salute to call attention to the ongoing fight for civil rights in the United States. Tommie Smith and John Carlos called it a Human Rights Salute. Standing with them on the podium was the silver medalist, a white man, an Australian named Peter Norman. Norman didn’t raise his fist but he did something else that brought down the whirlwind. In solidarity with Smith and Carlos, he wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his uniform.
After the race, Carlos and Smith had told Norman what they planned to do during the ceremony and Norman encouraged them. They asked Norman if he believed in human rights. He said he did. Then Smith and Carlos asked Norman if he believed in God. He said he believed strongly in God and that what they were about to do was more important than any athletic accomplishment. And then he said, “I’ll stand with you.” On their way to the medals ceremony Norman saw the Human Rights badge being worn by Paul Hoffman, a white member of the US rowing team and asked if he could borrow it for the ceremony. He didn’t feel it was appropriate to raise his fist because that particular symbol belonged to the people whose civil rights were being denied. But he could wear the patch.
That moment of solidarity was costly for Peter Norman. He never returned to the Olympics. Back in Australia he became a figure of controversy and got somewhat lost in his own life. “If we were getting beat up,” said John Carlos years later, “Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.”
“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it 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!” says Jesus in today’s gospel reading. In other words, if they’re going to call Jesus himself the devil, don’t be surprised if they call you worse.
This comes near the end of a long section where Jesus is sending his disciples out on their first mission to proclaim the Good News—remember the good news? the Reign of God is arriving?—but now he’s telling them that this Good News, this news that people have waited for for eons is going to be disruptive, and some people aren’t going to like that.
People are funny. We can pray week after week, day after day, year after year “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But when it gets down to actually working to make that happen, people get cranky because then we actually have to change things—our politics, our religious practices, our structures and systems…even ourselves. “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” makes a lovely needlepoint but it can turn everything upside down when you actually put it in practice, especially the do justice part.
Don’t be afraid, says Jesus. Do not be afraid of opposition. You know it’s coming so just face it. If you trust me, if you believe in what I’ve been teaching, then live by it. Proclaim it. Act on it. Shout it from the rooftops. What’s the worst they can do to you? Kill you?
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. (Gehenna)
Okay, two things here, and I’ll take the last one first. Hell. Hell isn’t hell. The actual word here is Gehenna which was a valley just outside Jerusalem where all the city trash was dumped and burned, including the carcasses of dead animals. It’s not the Hell of popular imagination. Think city dump. So, fear the One who can toss your whole self into the trash heap.
The second thing: Soul. The Greek word here is psyche. Soul is one translation. It can also mean life. In this context, though, maybe think of it as your true self. Jesus is saying don’t be afraid of those who can only kill your body. Save your fear for God who can completely undo you. Remember in Isaiah chapter 6 where Isaiah stands before the throne of God and says, “Woe is me for I am lost.”? The Hebrew word there which we translate as lost is nidmeti. It can mean lost or silenced. It can also mean unmade. It’s the same idea here.
Fear the One who can destroy both body and soul. Fear the One who can destroy your true self. God is one of only two entities in the universe who can unravel your true self. And, spoiler, God won’t. God will not. God loves you with a passion. God may work furiously to reshape you, to rid you of poisonous thoughts, ideas and attitudes, to smooth certain rough edges, but God will not destroy you.
God may, however, let you destroy yourself. God loves you enough to give you free will. And you are the only other entity in the universe who can destroy your soul, you should be careful and thoughtful with that gift.
One of the reasons, I think, that Christ gives us the high honor and calling of announcing and building the beloved community is to help steer us away from the numerous rabbit holes of self-destruction we could dive into, and also to give us trustworthy companions for the journey of life. But, to take us back to where we started, Jesus knew that doing this, announcing that it’s time for a systemic do-over, would bring opposition and confrontation.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
There’s a similar passage in Luke 12 where Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled.” I don’t think that Jesus is saying in these passages that he is intent on creating conflict. I think he is simply acknowledging that conflict is inevitable when we proclaim the kingdom and work for it because the whole and healthy society that God envisions, the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God is very much at odds with business as usual in the earth of empires and economies.
There will be opposition. There is opposition. And some of it is brutal. That’s why Jesus said, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
Scholar and theologian John Howard Yoder points out that the cross was “the standard punishment for insurrection for the refusal to confess Caesar’s lordship.” The phrase ‘take up your cross’ was commonly used by Zealots when they were recruiting. It was a call to stand in defiance and opposition to Rome and the systems of empire that perpetuated oppression.
But there was another dimension to it. Roman citizens could not be crucified. If a citizen was guilty of a capital offence, even insurrection, they would be beheaded. Crucifixion was reserved for those of lesser stature, the invisible non-persons of the empire who opposed it. “Take up your cross” was not just a call to stand in defiance of Rome, it was also a call to identify with the people on the margins. It was a way of saying “Stand with the poor, the downtrodden, the nobodies.”
“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” And here we find the word psyche again in the Greek text, this time translated as life. Life. Soul. Self. This is such a cryptic saying from Jesus. Here’s how I understand it: If you go looking for yourself, you’ll lose yourself, but if you lose yourself in the life of Christ, you’ll find yourself.
I think maybe Jesus is saying stop worrying about the meaning of your life or what, exactly your soul is, or even who you are deep down in your soul. Let go of all those esoteric questions and lose yourself in the business of the reign of God. Work for equality and equity. Feed the hungry. House the homeless. Take care of the sick. Bring hope to the hopeless. Stand with those who need you to stand with them. Act on your faith. It may cost you. There will be opposition. Don’t be afraid. The reign of God, the kingdom of heaven is in reach. In Jesus’ name.