Thought for the day
Our times have an air of instability and everyone feels the sense of upheaval and unpredictability. Fear is perfectly understandable. Something similar may be said of our lives as believers. From a “church” point of view, we wonder who will be in church in the coming years and who will preside at the Lord’s Supper. From a personal point of view, familiar faith affirmations seem no longer as tenable as they were. And yet, at the centre of the faith project stands not my condition or even my faith, but all that God did for us Jesus’ death and resurrection. As Paul exclaims who will (or can) separate us from the love of God in Christ?
I love you, Lord, my rock, my fortress, my refuge. Help me to take hold of the hand you stretch out in Jesus.
Matt 10:26 “Do not be afraid of them, for nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light, and what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. 30 Even all the hairs on your head are numbered. 31 So do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.
Matt 10:32 “Whoever, then, acknowledges me before people, I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever denies me before people, I will deny him also before my Father in heaven.
In these unstable times, fear is an understandable reaction. This can be true in society in general— the economy, politics, climate change. It can also be true within the community of faith. As we go through a time of intense pressure and overt opposition, it would be easy to lose heart. If there were a prophet among us, s/he would say to us “this is the very time to lay hold of your confidence and your joy in believing.” Even Matthew moves from opposition through fearlessness towards the rewards of believing.
Kind of writing
Our reading today forms part of the Mission Discourse in Matthew’s Gospel. The Discourse unfolds in several moments.
10:1-4 Authority for mission
10:5-16 Core instructions
10:17-25 Future opposition
10:34-39 The cost of discipleship
10:40-11:1 The rewards of discipleship
It happens not infrequently that passages of collected sayings have been laid out in a concentric pattern. This is true here, as follows:
v. 26a Frame
vv. 26b-27 Two sayings
v. 28 Central double saying
vv. 29-30 Two sayings
v. 31 Frame
The physical centre is usually also the centre of meaning. The mention of father in v. 29b prepares for the full mention (twice!) of father in heaven in vv. 32-33.
Old Testament background
The reader will notice that three times Matthew says not to be afraid (marked in italics above). There is an enormous background to this in the Bible. Statistics (as we know!) are not everything. Nevertheless, the admonition not be afraid occurs at least seventy times across the whole Bible. Just to notice only the book of Genesis: Gen 15:1; 21:17; 26:24; 35:17; 43:23; 46:3; 50:19. Everybody who is anybody is told at some point not to be afraid. One may conclude immediately that there was good reason to be afraid — some kind of opposition or threat or harassment. With equal force, an unconditional reassurance is given. Both realities are constantly present.
It seems fitting to illustrate from Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” (Jer 1:8)
Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor is it in them to do good. (Jer 10:5)
Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, as you have been; do not be afraid of him, says the Lord, for I am with you, to save you and to rescue you from his hand. (Jer 42:11)
The triple admonition not to fear is found also in Ezekiel.
And you, O mortal, do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words, and do not be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. (Ezek 2:6)
New Testament foreground
Both Matthew and Luke incorporate the Sayings Source (Q) into their texts. It means that the material substantially pre-dates Matthew.
Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.
I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God. (Luke 12:2–9)
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we encounter death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us! For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35–39)
Verse 26 These verses follow on from vv. 17-25, which portrayed the opposition to be expected. As noted, the general admonition not be afraid is regular and in this text is expressly used against rejection and even persecution. The word for “revealed” is from the verb apocalyptō, suggesting an eschatological or end-time vindication. Finally, the teaching is expressed using the parallelism of Hebrew poetry and may very well go back to Jesus himself.
Verse 27 Here Matthew reformulated positively what the previous verse expressed negatively. Perhaps we are meant to think of the nocturnal meetings of the Matthean community. In no way is this religion (must less its proclamation) a private matter!!
Verse 28 With this verse, Matthew addresses the question of martyrdom. Perhaps surprisingly, in contrast to the Lucan version above, Matthew uses the Hellenistic categories of body and soul. Without going down the route of a separation of body and soul, the evangelist’s point is clear: human agents cannot destroy the life from God within. Hell is “gehenna”, a valley running south south-west of Jerusalem. It was notorious for the cult of Baal and Moloch. In the first century ad, it became a metaphor for the place of judgment by fire for all evil people, that is, hell.
Verse 29 Matthew is not trying to frighten people into conviction or action; instead, the teaching of v. 28 leads to a renewed trust in the Father. A penny is literally an assarion, a very small Roman copper coin. Its value was one-sixteenth of a denarius or less than 30 minutes wages. Sparrows were the cheapest edible bird and yet God has each one in view. Cf., Can a woman forget her baby who nurses at her breast? Can she withhold compassion from the child she has borne? Even if mothers were to forget, I could never forget you! (Isa 49:15)
Verse 30 A quite tedious, perhaps impossible task unless hair loss facilitates the counting! Cf. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. (Matt 5:36)
Verse 31 The summary repeats the injunction not to be afraid. There must be some level of wit intended in 31b. To be worth more than many sparrows is, we may hope, a class of understatement! Cf. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. (Ps 84:3)
Verses 32-33 Again, these verses illustrate the tendency towards saying the same thing twice, positively and negatively. Notice the change from “your Father” to “my Father.” We are indeed God’s sons and daughters, but only in and through Jesus, son of Man and Son of God. The situation being addressed might sound quite contemporary: the temptation to be ashamed of one’s faith. One may also notice a subtle distinction. Jesus did not preach himself but the kingdom of God. After his death and resurrection, the disciples proclaimed both the message and the person of Jesus. Finally, implicit in these two verses is the role of Jesus in the final judgement.
Pointers for prayer
1. ‘Do not fear’ is the unifying theme in this passage which is set in the context of a mission sermon by Jesus, preparing his disciples for what lay ahead. He urges them to have courage in speaking his message and living his message, drawing strength from their trust in the Father whose care for us exceeds his care for hundreds of sparrows. How has trust in God been a source of strength in life for you?
2. The body/soul terminology presupposes an anthropology in which the soul represents one’s real self and the body is the perishable shell. For Jesus the important thing is to be true to one’s real self, even if this does involve some material or physical loss or pain. When you have had that kind of courage, what was it like for you?
3. There is no such thing as secret discipleship. It is in declaring their allegiance to Jesus that his followers will find life. They will be the losers if they hide their discipleship. Does this resonate with your experience?
True and faithful God, you give courage to the fearful and endurance to martyrs.
Sustain us as followers of your Son Jesus that with boldness and conviction we may acknowledge him before the world.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.