How does a squad leader send his troops into a firefight in which he knows most of the soldiers will die? How does a captain send his firefighters into a blazing building from which he knows most of them will never return? How does a terrorist convince a suicide bomber to give up his life in order to advance their cause against the enemy?
I have never had to deal with life-and-death circumstances like those. The most I ask people to give up is the first ten percent of their income or their Sunday mornings as a volunteer teacher. I’d like to believe that, if I believed strongly enough in a cause and was convinced that such action was absolutely necessary, I could send others to their death. And, if I had to do that, I think I’d start by reminding those people that we believe in something that is even more important than our lives. We are part of a cause that transcends even our own individual lives. I wouldn’t lie about the prospects. I wouldn’t pretend that things weren’t dangerous. But I would appeal to the individuals’ sense of transcendent good.
In Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 10:24-39), Jesus warns his disciples that, as they carry his message to the ends of the earth, they will face of persecution, torture, and even death. By the time this passage was written, the Christian community had suffered persecutions under Nero and Domitian. As followers of a strange, new religion, they were not tolerated until the Edict of Milan was issued in 313 by Constantine. Many were killed. Public worship was forbidden. Evanglism was outlawed. Those who worked to spread the good news of Jesus very well may have been executed for their efforts. Still, Jesus sent them out, and he did so with powerful yet frank words of encouragement.
When it comes to scripture, I’m not a fan of paraphrase. Give me the straight, unadulterated literal, word-for-word translation and trust me to figure out what the euphemisms are supposed to mean. But this passage seems to contain enough scary words to make the whole thing sound scary. But Jesus wasn’t trying to be scary. I think Jesus was trying to be overwhelmingly affirming. So here’s what I’m hearing Jesus say.
Guys, don’t be surprised if they treat you badly. They’ve been calling me Beelzebul, so you can expect the same—if not worse. Don’t be afraid. Eventually, the truth will come out, and the world will see who is right and who is wrong. They’re going to hurt you, torture you, and kill you, but do not be afraid of them. The only thing you should be afraid of is the one who has the power to send you into hell. As long as you remain true to me—even in the face of your persecutors—I will remember you in the next life. Compared with the life that is to come, this life means nothing. The only thing that matters is the life that waits for us. It’s so important than even the most important things in this life—like the love of your family—don’t matter. Stay focused. Yes, it’s a tough job, but being a part of me and my kingdom requires sacrifice. Those who give their lives for the cause will find a life far more blessed than they could ever imagine.
I don’t want to make this passage out to be a lesson in brainwashing. It’s not that. But it also isn’t a passage of warning. Jesus isn’t using these words to scare would-be-disciple-pretenders away. He’s urging them to stay faithful—even in the face of struggle. This is good news. It is THE good news. Because of Jesus, even death itself has no sting. We can give ourselves to the cause—even our whole lives. No, we usually don’t risk torture or death for our beliefs, but we can give up everything we have and everything we are for the sake of the gospel. Yes, the path of discipleship will be difficult at times, but isn’t it worth it?