< June 22, 2008 >

Commentary on Matthew 10:24-39


Clarence Jordan is one of my all-time favorite Christians. He was an agriculture major at the University of Georgia and a Master of Divinity graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also earned a PhD in New Testament. Jordan founded the racially integrated Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia in 1942.

Just to be clear: 1942. You may be familiar with Jordan through his Cotton Patch translations of the New Testament or because the Habitat for Humanity movement originated from the Koinonia Farm.

To my mind, Jordan's heroism comes through in his sense of humor. Once accused of fraternizing with Myles Horton, a reputed communist, Jordan retorted, "I really have trouble with your logic. I don't think my talking to Myles Horton makes me a Communist any more than talking to you right now makes me a jackass."

Likewise, when the Koinonia community tried selling peanuts from a roadside stand the Ku Klux Klan dynamited the stand. Stubborn like most saints for justice, Jordan put up another stand. It got blown up too. Finally, the Koinonia Farm resorted to mail-order ads: "Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia."1

I begin with Clarence Jordan because if ever there was a text for militant Christians, Matthew 10:24-39 would be the one. Go out in the light, shout from the housetops. Not peace but a sword. Cling not to fathers and mothers but to Jesus, cling not to this life but give your life for the sake of Christ. No middle of the road, conciliatory Christianity here. No compromise, no accommodation, no middle path.

Beyond radicalism, there's the matter of persecution. Jesus invites his disciples to share his fate. This requires not merely social ostracism and the loss of family, but active hostility to the point of death. Early Christians knew the fear of violent resistance. Jesus encourages his disciples to live beyond fear. They know that God cares for them more than they can possibly care for anything themselves. They likewise know that their confession of Jesus wins them Jesus' recognition on the last day. These words have brought peace to many a Christian over the years. To me, however, they also bring fear and trepidation. Not once in my life have I found it comforting to be told not to fear. This passage is for those militant Christians who somehow enjoy confronting both fear and power.

But most congregations aren't made up of militant Christians. Most will find it difficult to identify with the disciples as we encounter them in Matthew. Sent out on mission, carrying nothing to provide for or defend themselves and warned of persecution, the disciples seem far removed from us. How may we connect our puny imaginations with the experience related by this text?

Our challenge isn't primarily exegetical. We understand why early Christians would see themselves as a vulnerable minority in a hostile culture. Jewish followers of Jesus, such as those envisioned by Matthew, would likely find comfort in the reminder of God's care for them. We understand these things, but we do not relate to them.

One way to connect with the disciples would invite us to extend our imaginations to fellow Christians in other global contexts. During a recent study trip to Thailand I met several Christians who experienced strained if not broken family ties when they converted to Christianity. I saw the site where two of the first four Protestant converts met their violent deaths. Perhaps one might explore a text like this through the experiences of other Christians.

Another path would recall our heroes in the faith, who have indeed endured opposition for the sake of the Gospel. One might begin light, with stories like those of Clarence Jordan. One might more seriously reflect on a hero like Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi voting rights activist who was beaten so badly in jail that she could not lie down. Yet Fannie Lou Hamer led a jailhouse choir.

Paul and Silas was bound in jail, let my people go.
Had no money for to go their bail, let my people go.
Paul and Silas began to shout, let my people go.
Jail doors open and they walked out, let my people go.2

One might even invoke the examples of people such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero, whose persecution ended with their violent deaths. Such a range of stories, from comic hope to mortal contemplation, calls the church to imagine the possibilities of faithful discipleship and the dangers that attend it.

Certainly we will not foster a sappy and sentimental glamorization of suffering for Jesus, the sort of "If we were really following Jesus, we'd be persecuted too," line of thinking. Matthew remembers people who abandoned home and family to announce the reign of God, in a time and a place where that could get a person killed. Yet that sentimentality bears a certain truth that merits exploration. Even in our society where religion is so effectively tamed, faithful discipleship does occasionally provoke resistance. Some among us do protest militarism, some speak out against de facto segregation in our communities, some express solidarity with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. Those persons often claim gospel grounds for their actions. They rarely experience violence as a result, but they know the scorn that comes from family and friends--often from their most churchgoing loved ones. One layperson in my seminary's Summer Academy shared losing a lucrative job when he protested the company's fraudulent practices. Others have lost the chance to purchase desirable homes by rejecting opportunities to undercut minority buyers. Without sentimentalizing the cost of discipleship as Matthew depicts it, we may name those places where the gospel calls us beyond the zone of comfort into the realm of risk.

1Both stories derive from Millard Fuller's foreword to Ann Louise Coble, Cotton Patch for the Kingdom: Clarence Jordan's Demonstration Plot at Koinonia Farm (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 11.

2See her story in Charles Marsh, God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).