Reflection: Choosing the Gospel

Reflection for Western Heights
21st of June, 2020

Matthew 10:24-39 and Refugee Week

I have to confess that the Gospel according to Matthew is my least favourite. (For those interested, my ranking of the canonical gospels is Luke, John, Mark, Matthew.) The gospel that the Matthean Jesus preaches often seems to me to be the opposite of ‘good news’. Today’s reading is full of examples of his severity: ‘Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell’; ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’; ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’. On first reading these do not seem to be the loving words of the One who told his disciples to ‘love one another as I have loved you’. The sayings only start to make sense when we stop reading them from within our own context, and try to hear them as Matthew’s first audience did.

Today’s reading is part of the teaching Jesus gives as the Twelve are sent to proclaim the good news to Israel. So far in the Gospel we’ve seen people respond to Jesus’ message eagerly, and seek him out for healing and teaching. There’s been no suggestion of rejection or persecution. Jesus’ warnings don’t make sense in the light of what has happened so far or indeed in the light of what happens to the Twelve when they do go to teach and proclaim Jesus’ message at the end of this discourse. But it does make sense in the light of the experience of the Matthean community for whom the gospel was first written. Everything that Jesus warned the Twelve would happen, has already happened to the group who first read this gospel. There’s no evidence that Jesus’ disciples experienced violent persecution during Jesus’ lifetime. But there is evidence that there were angry reactions to the post-Easter gospel.

Jesus says that he comes to bring not peace, but a sword. The teacher who told the people in the Sermon on the Mount ‘if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also’ (Matt 5:39) isn’t talking about a literal sword. Jesus has not come to bring warfare. But his coming brings division, because it forces people to choose between the gospel and their everyday life. Matthew’s community would include people who had had to make a choice between their family and their faith. By Matthew’s time people would be aware that Christians had been crucified in Rome. Jesus’ demands of his followers would have placed a sword between them and their families; them and the Jewish faith; them and Roman society. The Matthean community who first read this gospel would have already experienced the sword. This passage is written to offer them comfort.

The centre of the entire passage is the command, repeated three times: do not fear; have no fear; do not be afraid. If reading this passage frightens us, we’re reading it wrong. What the passage offers are reasons for confidence, for standing firm in the face of danger and difficulty. When Jesus says: ‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell,’ he offers encouragement to Christians hearing of the martyrdom of apostles like Peter and Paul. When Jesus says: ‘For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household’ he offers encouragement to those who have already been rejected by their families for joining this new movement within Judaism. Matthew’s community are not being told to look for a cross to take up or to seek to lose their lives. They’re being offered comfort when they’re threatened.

These words still have an immediate relevance for many Christians today. Persecution is not our experience in Australia but it is the situation for many other people. For those Christians, living lives as dangerous and difficult as those of the first generation, the assurance that ‘those who lose their life for my sake will find it’ is a comfort, not a threat.

What does this reading mean for us, who aren’t facing similar persecution and death for our faith? The reading does make demands of us, reminds us that we, like the Twelve, like the early Christians, are called to live out our faith. Even in Australia, this can place a sword between us and some parts of Australian society.

Refugee Week logo colour

June 20 is World Refugee Day, and the past week has been Refugee Week. According to the United Nations more than 70 million people are currently displaced by war, conflict or persecution. More than 25 million of those are people found to be refugees by the UN, and there are 3.5 million asylum seekers. We all know that while Australia is very proud of resettling the refugees it has chosen from offshore asylum seekers, our treatment of people who seek asylum ‘onshore’ is among the worst in the world. Over the past few decades both major political parties have tried to convince Australians that we’re under attack from onshore asylum seekers, who they call illegal boat people. Offshore mandatory detention of everyone who arrives in Australia seeking asylum by boat is still the policy of both the Government and the Opposition. But over recent years there has been one change for the better.

Six years’ ago over 1000 children were kept in mandatory immigration detention. Now the government proudly proclaims that there are no children in detention, although the Department itself says that there are five left in ‘Immigration Residential Housing, Immigration Transit Accommodation and Alternative Places of Detention’ and 284 in community detention. (The five include Kopika and Tharunicaa, the Australian-born daughters of Nades and Priya, whom the town of Biloela want to welcome home again. They are now all living in detention on Christmas Island, which the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, reopened at a cost of $185 million after Medevac legislation was passed. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he only reopened the detention centre as part of a scare campaign against Medevac, which the government repealed as soon as possible, and that Kopika, Tharunicaa, Nades and Priya were only transferred there in an attempt to justify that reopening.)

While it is appalling and wrong that any children are detained, I want to emphasise that change from over 1000 children being held in detention centres, to five, because I believe Christians have had a great deal to do with it. Neither the Government nor the Opposition would acknowledge this, but when members of the Love Makes A Way campaign started occupying politicians’ offices and praying, hundreds of children were in detention. Now they are not. There are still many things wrong with Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, including the fact that many people living in the community do not have access to Medicare or Centrelink, both vital during this pandemic, and that people in immigration detention remain in what health care workers describe as a high risk environment for COVID19 transmission. But I believe that the fact that nice middle-class Christians from many different churches were willing to break the law has led to at least one improvement.

Christians were willing to risk arrest because we follow the One who was crucified, and we know that we are called to imitate him. This can lead to rejection: ‘If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!’ Christians involved in Love Makes A Way have been laughed at and told that we are naïve. This is unsurprising; Bill Loader writes that where Jesus was taunted with the name Beelzebul, the master of demons, the names used to disempower Christians today are ‘bleeding hearts, leftists, welfare lobby, Aboriginal industry, and the like’. But this week, Refugee Week, is a reminder that sometimes those of us who follow Jesus have no choice but to follow the promptings of our ‘bleeding hearts’ if we do not want Jesus to deny us before his Father in heaven.

‘Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ This is not literally true for us in Australia, as it was for Matthew’s first audience. But it is still something for us to keep in mind if we claim to follow Jesus today. Amen.

Things you can do this Refugee Week:

Donate to Uniting.

Donate to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Get involved in the ‘Home to Bilo’ campaign.

Contact your local MP to ask that asylum seekers be considered in Australia’s response to COVID19.

[1] Brendan Byrne, Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church Today (Strathfield: St Pauls Publications, 2004), p. 89.

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