In Which Jesus is Not Competing For Our Love
A sermon on Matthew 10:24-39
for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Steve Leisher on Unsplash
My family has a book that entirely consists of “Would You Rather” scenarios.
Questions like: “Would you rather… never be able to keep a secret OR never be able to lie?”
“Would you rather… be free of debt OR free of guilt?”
“Would you rather… always be crippled by self-doubt even when you know what you’re talking about OR be plagued by overconfidence even when you’re totally wrong?” (That’s a tough one, huh?)
We keep this book at the dining table and sometimes use it to prompt dinner conversations.
It’s really effective actually. We laugh a lot - at both the hypotheticals and also at our answers and reasons behind them - and we get to learn about each other and what we each think is most important.
At one recent meal, we considered this question:
“Would you rather… always win every game you play but not have fun OR always lose every game you play but always have fun.”
I’m not going to reveal who landed on which side of this would you rather, but I will share that it was 3 to 1 on the side of winning even at the expense of enjoyment.
We might be a slightly over-competitive family.
I say that with a bit of a cringe because, while I am very aware of my own competitiveness, it’s not something I admire in myself.
I’ve had too many experiences of competitiveness genuinely getting in the way of enjoyment… and damaging relationships… and causing very real harm.
And for all of those reasons, I find the last portion of today’s gospel reading genuinely confounding…because Jesus comes off as so competitive!
You better not love anybody else more than you love me…
Not even your parents…
Not even your own children…
If you do you are not worthy of me!
Seriously Jesus? What are you, twelve? Is this a Jr. High squabble about who is whose best friend?! Why in the world would the Savior of humanity be so insecure about whether we love anyone else as much as we love him? And isn’t he supposed to be all about love anyhow - love for God AND our neighbors? As in, BOTH kinds of love are vital? Not excluding ANYONE from love. This whole competition for love thing seems dramatically out of character!
Because, of course, it is!
If we read this scripture as a demand from Jesus to put everyone else in our lives second because he has to win the “most loved” competition it is wildly out of character.
It just doesn’t fit.
Jesus is the one who washed the feet of the men who were about to betray and deny him.
He’s the one who asked God to forgive the people who were actively executing him.
Jesus is NOT hung up on how much we love him.
There HAS to be something else going on here.
Whenever we run into a problem like this in scriptural interpretation - where the surface impression of a text does not seem to match-up with the larger themes and stories of scripture - It generally means that we need to look deeper.
So, in my studies this week I turned to Greek scholar D. Mark Davis. (Fair warning - I’m going to get a little geeky here, but I promise I will walk you through it, you all can understand this, and it will be worth it.)
Davis has a blog where he publishes his highly-annotated rough-cut translations of lectionary passages, complete with detailed analysis of the Greek source.
The product of his work doesn’t read as smoothly as published translations do, but that is an advantage. These more word-for-word, clunky translations offer an invaluable resource for investigating the kinds of questions that can get blurred by the decisions that translators have to make when they are creating English versions of the Bible.
They show phrases that repeat within a given passage, or word plays that only work in the original language.
And they help us to interrogate the kinds of associations we have with English words that might be artifacts of our culture, rather than elements of the biblical text.
In today’s passage, the clues that help us to understand what Jesus is really saying in verse 37 go back much earlier.
Davis first points out the link between Jesus’s argument in verse 25 about servants not being above their master and thus needing to expect the same treatment, with verse 36 and the challenge of division within the household.
As he explains, “In vs. 25, the assumption was that the householder and his household would be fated together…. Here (in vs. 36), that norm is upset, with the household rebelling against the householder.” He goes on to say, “It is important to remember that even within this (passage) itself, these difficult verses and their difficult relationships are not treated as the norm but as the exception to the norm.” (emphasis added)
That’s the first point: Jesus’s comments in the later part of this teaching are clearly about exceptional circumstances - according to the internal evidence of the passage itself.
Next, there is a connection we probably will not notice in the English between Jesus’s words about bringing a “sword” rather than peace, divisions within a family, and whether or not we acknowledge him before the people. (They seem like a pretty random, unrelated series of statements, right? Well, maybe not!)
In Davis’s translation, Jesus doesn’t talk about people who “acknowledge” him, he says, “anyone who agrees with me before the people, I also will agree with him before my father in [the] heavens.”
The Greek word here literally means “to say the same word.” In our tradition, that has evolved into talking about “confessing” Jesus, but it’s too easy for us to hear that in English as an expression of loyalty when really it’s about agreement. About confessing the same truth that Jesus teaches.
From there we move onto Jesus talking about bringing a sword rather than peace.
Swords are weapons, so, our minds jump to the opposition of peace vs. violence… but we have some consistency problems with Jesus’s larger message there as well!
AND, there’s another possibility: the opposition of the peace of agreement vs. the conflict of division.
After all, a sword is an implement that divides things, that splits them.
Then Jesus moves immediately to his words about division within households.
Again, our English translation of “setting-against” obscures the linguistic through-line, but that’s a matter of translation. Davis translates it as, “I came to divide a man against his father and daughter against her mother…(etc.)”
When we read it this way, we get Jesus NOT jumping randomly from one seemingly unrelated (confusing) topic to the next, but a logical flow:
Discipleship to Jesus means agreeing with him, and that means we are going to face situations where the truth Jesus teaches and demonstrates will be divisive. So divisive, that even the unity of families might be split apart… Not for the sake of division itself, but as a consequence of holding fast to truth.
That is the situation in which Jesus calls us to “love” him more than even our dearest family members.
When, as Davis puts it, “The members of one’s household are opposing one’s discipleship of Jesus and one is being forces to choose between them. In that case - again, an exceptional case - the choice should be to agree with Jesus.”
OK - geek-time over.
I hope that our deep dive into the original text helped to clear away the confusion that sometimes comes from translating an ancient, foreign text.
With this unpacking, we can see that Jesus is not making a petulant claim to be our number one.… Rather, he’s laying out the reality that in exceptional circumstances, following him, and remaining faithful to the truth he brings, may require us to be more committed to the truth than we are to relationships with people who actively reject truth.
And when I put it that way, I don’t know if I’ve really solved the problem for us with this long investigation… Because even though Jesus is not saying that such division is inevitable, or somehow required to prove our loyalty… he is raising the question of whether we might be facing such exceptional circumstances… where truth is up for debate, and we have to decide where we stand.
Given how much division seems to be a fundamental character of our current cultural moment, it’s a question we have to take seriously.
And also given our current cultural moment, it’s also probably a question that makes us a bit anxious.
But I think this passage does have some good news for us in facing that challenge, and even some good guidance for how we approach the very real possibility that our faith might result in some uncomfortable division.
The guidance is the reminder that this challenge is not about blind loyalty, and it’s definitely not about winning.
Jesus is NOT in fact competitive, and his call on our lives is a call of discipleship… of following his path which might involve getting called names, OR taking up a cross. No promises of power or glory here.
But the good news is the reminder that, even when we face painful divisions, Jesus’s way is still the way of truth and love. We don’t have to win every argument, or every election, or every culture war.
If we are walking the way of Jesus, our lives will be characterized by truth and love. And Jesus will be walking with us.
Thanks be to God.