We are in the middle of a difficult set of readings from Matthew. Jesus commissioned his disciples to go out and announce that the kingdom of God is at hand. In last week’s Gospel reading we saw that the description of Jesus’ ministry matches almost exactly with what he empowers them to accomplish: healing the sick, raising the dead, preaching the good news. He sent them out with the bare minimum of supplies, they were to rely on the hospitality of the people. If they were rejected, they were to shake the dust off their feet and move on.
Today’s story is a continuation of that commissioning – Jesus is giving more advice to the disciples before they set out on their mission. Some of it may sound a little old-fashioned – for example, in our society we are not as accustomed to a system of masters and apprentices. Until the Industrial Revolution, trades and crafts were passed down by personal relationships. People were inducted into a way of life by learning a skill or craft directly from a master until they could work on their own and eventually take on their own apprentices. In today’s automated, self-help world, the master-apprentice model seems quaint and antiquated. We can turn to YouTube do-it-yourself videos instead of signing up for a class with a master painter, plumber or carpenter. There are still some families who pass down skills, yet no matter how we learn, becoming a disciple of Jesus is of a different order than being a craftsperson. The costs are incalculably higher.
No matter our vocation, many of us can probably recall someone who helped and encouraged us to become who we are. We often form a very personal relationship with a mentor who helps us throughout the journey, from recognizing the calling to advising us on the necessary education or preparation, and then being there to offer advice and help once we get started in our vocation. We usually form a strong bond with that person. The intensity that a life of Christian discipleship demands will require a parallel intensity to the bond we have with Jesus. The idea that mission can simply be tacked on to church life or to our Christian “lifestyle” almost as an afterthought does not line up with Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew. According to Jesus, to become an apostolic witness is to experience the intensity of a relationship in which the teacher is, in a sense, reproduced in the student. That is what the author C. S. Lewis meant when he paraphrased the words of Martin Luther: “The Church exists for nothing else but to draw [people] into Christ, to make them little Christs.”
Jesus makes it clear that being his disciples cannot represent just a part of our lives, it must be for the whole. For those who accept the call, his words promise care and sustenance in the midst of that costly sacrifice. Jesus is very honest about the division, rejection, and suffering that his followers will face. Yet he also assures us that every hair on our heads is counted. Our lives, as fragile as they are, remain in God’s loving and capable hands. If God loves and values each little sparrow, two of which could be purchased with a penny, we should have no doubt about how much God loves and values us.
Kenneth Feinberg is the attorney who chaired the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, which gave money to the family of each person who died in the terror attacks in 2001. He was given a legal formula to follow which considered the victim’s age, their dependents, whether they had life insurance, and their income and earning potential. The value assigned to the lost lives ranged dramatically from as little as $250,000 for blue-collar workers to as much as $7.1 million for executives. Feinberg later reflected that as he met with the 9/11 families and wrestled with the issues surrounding the valuation of lives lost, he began to question this basic premise of our legal system. The law holds that no two lives are worth the same in financial terms, but Feinberg found the law in conflict with his growing belief in the equality of all life. It is clear from Jesus’ teaching that God certainly believes in the equality of all life.
Jesus is also honest about the divisions that will come about because of his ministry. Not everyone likes or agrees with his message. He pointed out injustice and the lack of compassion for the poor and the marginalized in society. He preached about inclusion rather than exclusion, about God’s love for all people, not just the chosen few. His message was just as threatening to the status quo and those in authority then as it is today. Jesus demands that those who follow him stand up for the marginalized, work for justice for all people and demonstrate authentic compassion for those who suffer, whether in body, mind or spirit. This can often cause division within families, communities, congregations, and denominations.
Jesus does not sugarcoat the call to discipleship. Believing in Jesus – really believing in what Jesus says, what Jesus stands for, and then admitting it – is risky business. Relationships will change. Relationships could very well end. That is, in part, what Jesus is saying. When we stand up for what we believe, nothing will be the same ever again. We can anticipate being unfriended, unfollowed, tried and trolled. We can all probably recall times when relationships have been altered because people did not agree with us when we shared what we believe in, or because of who or what we are known to stand up for.
After the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund had completed its work, Kenneth Feinberg received a call from the president of Virginia Tech, asking him to manage the fund that would distribute compensation to the families of the students and faculty killed in the 2007 mass shooting. He says that he wanted to approach this settlement as a human being rather than a lawyer. This time all the victims received the same compensation. Disciples of Jesus stand up for God’s peace. God’s peace expects justice. God’s peace asks for righteousness. God’s peace demands equal value and regard for all. This may not be popular, yet ultimately, it is God’s peace that will save us all. Amen.