START WITH SCRIPTURE:
This mosaic of Simon of Cyrene carrying the Cross of Christ is in Aberdeen’s Catholic Cathedral. It is by Gabriel Loire of Chartres.
[photo & description by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.]
CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM
The ministry of Jesus has reached a turning point. He has been discipling the twelve through teaching and example, but now he has set them apart to go out into the mission field themselves:
He called to himself his twelve disciples, and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every sickness (Matthew 10:1).
Jesus then began to teach them what they were to teach, to whom they were to go, what they were to take with them, etc. In our current passage, he continues to prepare them for their mission — and he is warning them of the hardships that are to come.
He advises them that:
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his lord.
They are deeply linked to Jesus as his followers. What this means is that they will face the same kind of name-calling from his adversaries that he faces; but they will also be protected by God in the same way he is protected:
If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more those of his household! Therefore don’t be afraid of them, for there is nothing covered that will not be revealed; and hidden that will not be known.
To be called Beelzebul is a profound insult — especially for the Messiah, as we know Jesus to be! Beelzebul is literally The Lord of the Flies, which is slang for the Devil. In fact, just before Jesus set apart his disciples and began to prep them for their mission, the Pharisees denounced him:
By the prince of the demons, he casts out demons (Matthew 9:34).
This is nothing less than blasphemy! We note that the Pharisees weren’t questioning whether Jesus was a conduit for power —they were questioning the source of his power.
But Jesus tells the disciples not to be afraid, because the truth will come out!
What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in the ear, proclaim on the housetops.
And his assurance to them goes even deeper than the promise that the truth will be vindicated. He makes it clear that there are spiritual forces at play here that are far more powerful than mere human authorities:
Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.
The question we must ask here is, who is the one who can destroy both soul and body? Is he referring to Beelzebul, or is he referring to God?
Gehenna, historically, is the Valley of Hinnom (Ge Hinnom) which is a valley on the border of Jerusalem. It had earned a reputation for infamy as the place where children had been sacrificed to the Canaanite god Molech in the days prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. According to archaeologists, it had also become a kind of town dump even in Jesus’ time. It was a place of filth, where the bodies of animals and criminals were burned. As a dump, fire and smoke rose from its heaps constantly. Jesus is obviously speaking metaphorically — Gehenna must refer to Hell itself. Therefore, it seems clear that he is warning them to be afraid of the one who presides over this place of filth — Satan.
Jesus is offering encouragement and inspiration to his followers:
Aren’t two sparrows sold for an assarion coin? Not one of them falls on the ground apart from your Father’s will, but the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows.
Jesus is assuring the disciples of their inestimable value to the Father. He uses an interesting analogy, reasoning from small things to greater. He speaks of sparrows, which are sold in the market at the rate of two for an assarion — according to notes this was a small bronze or copper coin with a Greek name that was in current use in the Roman empire. It was one of the smallest denominations of coins, approximately equal to the wages for a half hour of farm labor.
And yet, Jesus says, these two sparrows, so cheap in the market, don’t escape the notice and will of the Father. Therefore, the disciples need to be assured — they are made in the very image of God, and are of much greater value to him. Jesus uses a very similar metaphor in his Sermon on the Mount when he teaches his disciples not to be anxious about anything:
See the birds of the sky, that they don’t sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you of much more value than they? (Matthew 6:26).
Jesus then makes a decisive application in regard to the loyalty of his disciples to him:
Everyone therefore who confesses me before men, him I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven.
The good confession is a phrase that becomes extremely important in the early church. To confess is to declare one’s faith in and allegiance to Jesus. The public confession in the presence of witnesses becomes one of the key criteria necessary for inclusion in the church, along with faith:
If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart, one believes unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation (Romans 10:9-10).
Likewise, Paul also writes:
Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you confessed the good confession in the sight of many witnesses (1 Timothy 6:12).
But the flip side is also very serious — cowardice and faithlessness in the face of opposition and persecution are not rewarded. Jesus describes what happens when he is repudiated:
But whoever denies me before men, him I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven.
After these assurances to his disciples, Jesus also adds warnings. Some of what he says may be called “hard sayings:”
Don’t think that I came to send peace on the earth. I didn’t come to send peace, but a sword.
Those who have concluded that Jesus is weak and timid haven’t considered the whole Gospel record. John the Baptist had prophesied:
Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you in water for repentance, but he who comes after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:10-12).
And Jesus seems to make reference to John the Baptist’s preaching a little later in the Gospel narrative:
From the days of John the Baptizer until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12).
The truth is, Jesus is not always a unifying and peaceful figure. He warns the disciples that people must make a choice, either for him or against him, and the consequences can even affect the most intimate family relations:
For I came to set a man at odds against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me.
Note that Jesus doesn’t say that family members are not to love one another — what he does say here is that love for him must supersede even love for family! This may be a reference to the prophet Micah, who wrote in the 8th century B.C. in Judah. He was warning the people that their faithlessness and idolatry would be punished, and he denounces the apostasy of the people of Judah. He declares that in these times there is only one sure thing that they can trust:
Don’t trust in a neighbor.
Don’t put confidence in a friend.
With the woman lying in your embrace,
be careful of the words of your mouth!
For the son dishonors the father,
the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.
But as for me, I will look to Yahweh.
I will wait for the God of my salvation.
My God will hear me (Micah 7:5-7).
Jesus seems to be saying something very similar to his disciples — that parents and in-laws and children may turn against them, but they are to love him. He won’t fail them.
Finally, he forecasts the adversity and persecution that is to come:
He who doesn’t take his cross and follow after me, isn’t worthy of me. He who seeks his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.
This paradoxical statement can only be understood in the light of Jesus’ own mission. This is the first time in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus has brought up the cross, but it won’t be the last (see Matthew 16:21; 17:12). He becomes increasingly vocal about the death he himself is to die as they approach Jerusalem.
And he is telling the disciples that they must take up the cross, as he will tell them in more detail:
If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life? (Matthew 16:24-26).
Following Jesus requires the ultimate sacrifice — giving up loyalty to family as one’s priority, and even giving up one’s own life. And yet the reciprocal reward is disproportionately abundant. The disciple who gives up his own right to himself not only finds life — he finds his true life.
And, for the purposes of balance, Jesus does offer immense rewards to those who follow him without reservation. He says to the disciples, who are bewildered at the rich young man who declines to follow Jesus because he had great possessions (Matthew 19:16-22) that those who have left everything for him will receive far more than they have given up:
Most certainly I tell you that you who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on the throne of his glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Everyone who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive one hundred times, and will inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:28-29).
Jesus is aware that his disciples are going to experience adversity as they enter into the mission field. He is, we might say, offering them an immunization against darkness by warning them and preparing them ahead of time. And yet he is also reminding them of their inestimable value to God. Jesus is also strengthening their courage — but he reminds them that their confession of faith in him only really works if they commit themselves completely to him. Half measures and lip service won’t do.
These are stark words for many Western Christians where it is reasonably safe to follow Jesus. Christians in Egypt, Syria, China, Indonesia, and many other lands have personal experience with the kinds of conditions that Jesus describes. They resonate deeply with the warnings and the promises Jesus makes. They know from experience what it means to face name-calling and even death because of their faith.
But even for Christians in the safer west, where religious freedom is generally respected, there are key points here:
- We are to be as much like our teacher, Jesus, as we possibly can be.
- We are of incalculable value to God.
- We are to openly confess Jesus as our Lord, no matter the consequences.
- Our first loyalty, above all others, is to Christ.
- If we are to take up our cross and follow Jesus, we are to choose self sacrifice and self-denial over security and safety.
These are uncomfortable words for Western Christians. They are uncomfortable words for me. I may console myself that some 37 years ago I entered into full-time Christian ministry, which meant that I went where my Bishop sent me — whether I liked it or not. It sometimes meant having to make hard calls, and go into places and situations that have been uncomfortable and sometimes (though rarely) a little unsafe.
But I can’t say that I have really “suffered” as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Let me be clear — I don’t think that Jesus demands that we suffer. What he asks is that we follow him and be willing to take up our cross and follow him.
On Memorial Day recently I thanked my brother for his service in the Navy during a time of war. He reminded me that he never actually saw action in battle. I said that wasn’t my point. He was willing. When he took the oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, and received his commission in the U.S. Navy, he belonged to “Uncle Sam.” They could deploy him wherever they chose, and he was obliged to obey every lawful order.
In a sense, Christians must see themselves as soldiers, who have given up their right to themselves. But the rewards, as Jesus tells us, are immense — relationship and life with him, forever!
Lord, following you does have a cost. If we are truly committed to you, then other commitments dim in comparison. And sometimes we are called upon to make sacrifices. But if the trade-off is a relationship with the Lord of All Life, the sacrifice is worth it. Amen.
"Carrying the Cross with Christ" by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.