In this chapter of the Gospel of Matthew I hear Jesus saying to the disciples, “So, you want to be a follower of Christ?”
The chapter begins with Jesus giving the disciples’ ministry and mission, “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.” Then, Jesus tells them what might happen to them on the way, culminating in the instructions to flee to another town when they are persecuted. Jesus tells the disciples that because the culture opposes Jesus, it will also oppose them – they are not above the same treatment that their teacher encounters.
But, Jesus says, do not be afraid – bring what you have seen and learned in secret into the light and proclaim it from the rooftops. And God will know and value you for doing so. Not only that, but knowing what they are doing as followers of Christ, Jesus promises to testify on their behalf before God.
And, lastly, Jesus tells the disciples what they will witness in families and communities as they deliver the good news. The reaction to the good news of the gospel may not be good news.
“Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (The word being translated as “peace”, means accepting “harmony, order or acceptance in worldly ways”.)
Relatives will turn against relatives, and friends against friends. This is NOT as a declaration of Jesus’ mission, but as a statement about what will happen – the backlash.
In the decades following Jesus’ death, as the Christian faith spread, families and communities became divided – sometimes violently. We have ample accounts, from Biblical and non-Biblical sources, of what happened when one member of a family, or one family of a community, became followers of Christ. Because they were taking a radically different approach to life, an approach informed by their faith, Christians were ostracized, abandoned, rejected and even killed by their families and communities.
The gospel challenged traditions and social norms, and the upholders of those values struck out against those who challenged the status quo. Many times, the people striking out were parents, siblings and former friends – people who made the decision that the norms of the culture were so important to protect that even close family members could not get away with questioning them with the good news.
When faced with this kind of backlash, the new followers of Christ might be tempted to turn back – to abandon their faith to keep the family or social peace – to place more worth on the appearance of family or community peace than on the calling of Christ on their lives to take up the cross. So, Jesus said, “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; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
Two words stand out – the use of “more” and “worth”. This is a teaching about values.
Jesus does not say, “Whoever loves family instead of me…” Jesus says, “Whoever loves family MORE than me…” This teaching does not promote estrangement from family and community – that would indeed go against much, if not most, of the teachings of Jesus. This recognizes that, sometimes, what faith demands of us puts us in direct conflict with family and cultural traditions in everyday life. We don’t have to abandon cultural traditions and norms – unless they conflict with what Christ would have us do.
I believe, in essence, this says, “When you can honor the gospel and family and culture, do so. But, if honoring family or tradition requires setting aside the gospel – choose the gospel and you will discover worthy living.” This, of course, could bring us to the point of having to face being disliked, rejected or ostracized by our own family or culture – it could mean the end of living in harmony with community that values its way more than God’s way. And to this, Jesus adds, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
The other word is WORTH. What makes someone WORTHY?
I will very quickly stake my claim to not knowing the answer to that – because it is none of my business. Jesus said, “Whoever loves someone or something more than ME … is not worthy of ME.” The ME in this statement is Jesus – is Christ – is God. The worth being discussed throughout this passage is WORTH TO GOD, WORTH TO CHRIST. Jesus is staking a claim to be the one who ultimately determines worth, even to the point of Jesus testifying to God about a person’s worth.
Now, in real life my worth to family, community or society is determined, many times, by how I live into the norms and values each of these entities impose. And, Jesus says, this is not the worth I should be most concerned about.
We each know the consequences of standing against a popularly held social value or norm. It could be standing on either side of issues like war, abortion, torture, welfare reform, LGBT rights, capital punishment, or many other social concerns. If we have taken a stand on any issues like these, we know that it can cost us relationally – it can cost us family, community and cultural relations. And, sometimes, we take these stands because we believe fervently one way or the other.
But, I would offer, these issues that get the majority of attention are not the only ways that faith can call us to take stands – and to suffer consequences or backlash. In reality, there are many more mundane, daily decisions that should be informed by our faith values, and that can garner negative reactions from people.
I risk alienating myself from the culture around me, in some of those choices I have made and continue to make. I frequently make conscious decisions about what I buy and where I buy it. The prevailing culture – being a free market system – says it is a good and right thing to get the most stuff for the least amount of money.
An example of this is the insurance I have through the denomination. My insurance, like most, includes mail order drugs. Each of my prescriptions would be cheaper by using mail order drug services. Not only that, but my plan imposes a higher co-payment if I choose not to use mail order.
Prevailing culture would say, “This cuts costs for the insurance company and you. You’d be wise to use the mail order pharmacy.” But, there are other things to consider.
I know that for each person employed by a mail order pharmacy, there are six people employed by local pharmacies. I know at least some of those people would live in my immediate community.
I also know that a person who may not be able to afford going to the doctor can visit a local pharmacy and get some basic medical advice from the pharmacist – advice that is not available thru the mail order business. Sure, he or she could get online and find answers, but what if they are poor or elderly and don’t have access to a computer or the knowledge to use one. A local pharmacy is part of a local medical system – a system that becomes less accessible, especially to low income and elderly people, if the local pharmacy closes down.
So, I make a choice – I use the local pharmacy. For me, it’s a justice issue. I make this choice because my faith calls me to that decision.
With each buying decision, we get to choose between getting “more for less” or spending in a way that promotes the local economy – and promotes community wellbeing. Jenna and I try to go through a process whenever we make buying decisions. We try to shop first at the local hardware store and, only if they don’t have what we need, go to a big box store. We could do this more often. It’s sometimes a hard plan to live up to, but getting to know the owners and employees helps.
We choose to buy our plants at the local nursery and, if they don’t have what we want, we decide if something they do have will suffice. This became easier, also, as we got to know Robin and Mike who tend the plants.
I was raised with a strong work ethic – you work for what you need. Period. I know things like food pantries are necessary, because people can’t always control the events in their lives. But, I confess that I have an ingrained tendency to judge people who might use a food pantry. It is an attitude that was ingrained in me by my family and culture.
But, there are other things I know. I know that many small, local businesses go out of business because customers are going where they can get more for less. The desire for more, however, necessitates less for others. Fewer jobs. Less pay.
Of all the jobs created in the last decade, the vast majority have been low-paying. I know there are people working two low-paying jobs and not making it, especially with the increasing costs of gas and food. I know kids are going hungry. I know there are single mothers with two children who receive $16 a month in food stamps and some rent assistance, but who don’t have enough food to eat. I also know they may have made buying decisions I may disagree with.
Trumping my tendency to judge others worth because they use a food pantry is my faith and what I know about the larger issues of my culture that create the circumstances that necessitate the use of pantry in the first place.
The biggest thing I know is that I am not the judge of someone’s worthiness. So, my task as a follower of Christ is to set aside the judgments that my values might lead me to make, and to treat each person as a worthy child of God – as best as I am able – consciously and thoughtfully for Jesus’ sake.
I made the decision to move towards something of a choice system in the food pantry, a decision that has come with mixed reviews. But, my sense of being called by Jesus, calls me to err on the side of showing respect and being loving to all. Sometimes this is a battle between what I value from my upbringing and what I value because of faith.
A story was told in the Wednesday bible study about just this kind of battle. A story about how this conscious decision between social values about sexuality and faith values played out for one of us – and it was a powerful witness to God’s way.
There are myriad other examples we could think of and share with each other this morning. Maybe we could do this during the week.
Daily we make decisions in which cultural values may run up against faith values. The quickest way out of the discomfort may seem like we should rely only on social, family or cultural norms to the exclusion of faith values. Jesus says consider faith and culture. And, Jesus said, they sometimes will and should conflict.
“Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
I think Jesus is talking about us. We are faced with competing values, and the decisions we make are faith issues. As Jesus counsels and we have experienced, this can feel very un-peaceful at times. It is worth it. It is worth it as we live our very lives for Christ’s sake.