Matthew arranges the sayings of Jesus into five major sermons or speeches. The most famous of these is the Sermon on the Mount, in chapters five through seven. In chapter ten we are in one of the less well known collections or sermons: Jesus’ sayings to the inner circle of disciples as they go out to do their mission.
The passage we have today ends at verse 39. The entire speech itself ends with verse 42, so the ending has been cut off. And the speech begins in verse 5; so much of the beginning of the speech has been cut away as well. But what we have in the third reading this morning is probably the core of the speech.
Jesus seems to be making three points in this speech. Negative responses are to be expected. Negative responses are not to be feared. And finally, in a world of conflicting loyalties and responsibilities, faithfulness is the most important thing.
Let’s take a look at each of these points as we live out our lives. Negative responses are to be expected. We live in a time and place where expectations run very high. More than ever people are critical of things and each other. This is true in all dimensions of life. Pastors over the years develop a thick skin. Why? Not at St. Johns, but in many places, people can say some pretty harsh things about issues that really don’t matter that much. But I don’t think pastors actually bear the brunt of the incivility and demanding nature of our society. Police officers, social workers, and teachers all face daily criticism. And we love to criticize our politicians. We especially seem to be negative about anyone who can be called a bureaucrat. But I think those who bear the biggest burden of the public’s wrath these days are those who work in retail. It’s not a good time to be working in sales.
And woe to the person who suggests a change or something new or a different approach. Well, let’s just say that negative responses are to be expected. As Jesus says, people are going to think that Jesus himself is of the devil. How much more so will they heap insults on his followers. And look at that first reading. Jeremiah has had it up to here with his detractors and naysayers. He is frustrated beyond belief. He calls for divine wrath upon his enemies. Yet in this speech of Jesus to his inner core of disciples, negative responses are to be expected. They are a part of life.
But the speech continues. Negative responses are not to be feared. Now Jesus and Jeremiah take different approaches to the negative feedback they receive. Jeremiah wants God to smash his enemies to smithereens. Jesus is more laid back, and wants the disciples to develop a thicker skin. Let the criticism be like water rolling off a duck’s back. Of course we all sense the value of Jesus’ approach. That’s the way to go. But sometimes you just need to let it all out, like Jeremiah. If you keep it in, being nice, over and over, you’ll eventually explode. Rather than exploding, go to a quiet place all by yourself. Take a deep breath, read this passage out loud with passion, and maybe yell and scream a bit. Then take another deep breath, and go back to work. It’s all ok, God understands.
Still the approach of Jesus is the way to go. And this part of the speech offers two suggestions to help with that. The first is to remember that eventually the right and the true will come to the surface. It always does. Remember that unfounded criticism often rather quickly fades as people sense the value of what you are doing, even if they cannot express appreciation. The true, the right, the best will always come forth. Stand for those things, even in the face of the negative.
And then secondly, Jesus seems to realize the impact of all that negativity on the human spirit. He reminds the disciples that despite all of the criticism they receive; they and we are valuable to God, are precious to God, and are loved by God. You know whenever Jesus gets into sparrows and talks about the birds, he is reminding us of how precious we are. God loves you. St. Paul in Romans says that in a deep theological way this morning. But when you feel discouraged, according to Jesus, just go outside and look at a bird, preferably an ordinary, little, brown one that no one seems to care about. And then remember that God loves that bird, and that God loves you. No matter what others think of you, God loves you. Tweet. Tweet. Tweet. Negative responses need not be feared. The right will come to the surface. God loves us.
Then the speech reaches its third point. In a world of conflicting loyalties, sort out the important things and remain faithful to them. When the speech was written, disciples were facing criticism from their families for becoming Christian and persecution from Roman authorities and criticism from other faith traditions. And in all of this there are conflicting loyalties. We are family members. We are citizens. We do ground ourselves in the Hebrew tradition. All of that is important. But in this speech of Jesus, when we are criticized by others, and we seem to be beaten down by all the demands on us to be better than we are, Jesus reminds us that what matters is to recall the important thing—the love of God, and to focus our conscience on that one thing, and then to live it out in our lives. Oh we can get caught up in so many things. But in the end, when focused on the love of God, the truth of that love, the beauty of that love, the service of that love; eventually the criticism becomes a faint echo of voices clamoring in another far away room, as we draw closer and closer to the God who loves us and who calls us through this life into the next – even if something thinks we’re a worthless bureaucrat or we work in retail. Amen