Monday, January 30, 2012

Jesus and the Suffering of His Followers, Part 2

Last week I posted a piece designed to cast light on Christian suffering and persecution by invoking the very words of our Lord himself. There I turned to what I consider to be the most significant Gospel text on this subject, viz., Matthew 5:10-12, which present the eighth and ninth of the "Beatitudes" that open Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount. Far from being the occasion for resentment and self-pity, persecution heneken emou ("on account of [Jesus]," Matt 5:11) should cause the follower of Jesus to "rejoice and exult" (Matt 5:12). Why is this? In a word, theology. Theology, properly understood, is no mere branch of esoterica that, if anything, hinders the pursuit of holiness (the common pietist stereotype). Instead, theology is the most existentially-significant element by which a Christian must understand his or her experience in the world.

The theological rationale Jesus provides for his apparently counter intuitive exhortation is to be found in the fundamental New Testament notion of inaugurated eschatology. The kingdom of God, which (still) awaits its full manifestation in the future, has made its beachhead in the hostile "present evil age" by means of the Gospel events of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Jesus' followers, in the here and now, are the beneficiaries of the spiritual blessings of this kingdom. In particular, they experience the transforming ministry of the Holy Spirit who produces in them the "righteousness" that both will occasion their future entrance into the consummated kingdom (Matt 5:20) and now serves as the occasion for their persecution (Matt 5:10). This "righteousness" of the kingdom inverts the world's value system and, so I argued, invariably arouses the opposition of those with a vested interest in the world as it is. Such opposition thus serves, paradoxically, as a sign of God's favor. Given this perspective, kingdom citizens are able to transcend their present circumstances in the sure hope of future divine vindication.

Inaugurated eschatology has another element that is not as often recognized, but which also sheds needed light on the persecution of Jesus' followers. This element becomes clear in Jesus' so-called "Missionary Discourse" in Matthew 10. The placement of this discourse in Matthew's narrative effectively interprets the commission it records as an extension of Jesus' own teaching (Matt 5-7) and healing (Matt 8-9) ministry. In this discourse Jesus sends his disciples on a short-term mission into the harvest field of Israel (Matt 9:35-38) to spread and embody the good news of the kingdom.

Matthew 10 raises a host of literary-critical issues that need not detain us. What is significant, however, is the juxtaposition of two apparently incongruous elements. First, Jesus explicitly limited the disciples' mission to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 10:5-6), so much so that they were prohibited from even taking roads leading to Gentile cities (eis hodon ethnōn mē apelēthēte, Matt 10:5). Second, Jesus anomalously speaks of the disciples testifying before Gentile "rulers" and "kings" (Matt 10:18), and envisions their mission as continuing until the "coming" of the Son of Man (Matt 10:23; whether this enigmatic phrase refers to the events of A.D. 70 or to the distant "parousia" or "second coming," or in some sense to both, is irrelevant to the point). This second observation is strengthened by the further observation that Matthew, in contrast to both Mark (6:30) and Luke (9:10; 10:17), never records a return of the Twelve from their short-term mission.

Matthew was a very skillful storyteller, and so these two elements of the discourse can hardly be an amateur contradiction. A moment's consideration leads to an inescapable conclusion: Matthew has apparently "telescoped" the historical mission of the Twelve to the Jews of Galilee with the post-Easter mission of Christian disciples to all nations, for which the former serves as a paradigm (cf. Matt 28:18-20, the so-called "Great Commission"). What is immediately striking is the predominant role persecution plays in the discourse, both in terms of its inevitability (10:16-23) and the perspectives (10:24-42) necessary for the disciple to persevere through persecution so as ultimately to be "saved" or delivered into the life of the kingdom (10:22).

Once again, eschatology—more precisely, inaugurated eschatology—provides the rationale for persecution's inevitability. Consider the following. First, Matthew's literary source for verses 17-22 (which includes the climactic "And you will be hated by all for my name's sake; but the one who endures to the end will be saved") is Mark 13:9-13. These verses, of course, are part of Mark's so-called "Eschatological Discourse" (cf. Matt 24, which reproduces and adapts large portions of it), and immediately follow the description, in Mark 13:8, of the "beginning of the birth pains." This image of "birth pangs" is frequent in the Old Testament (Micah 5:2-4; Jer 30:5-9) and in Second Temple Jewish literature (1QH11:7-10; 1 Enoch 62:4-6) to refer to the so-called "Messianic Woes" or Tribulation, the time of unparalleled judgment out of which the Messiah would come and the anticipated messianic kingdom would be established. The significance of this should not be missed. Matthew, by placing the text of Mark 13:9-13 in the context of the post-Easter mission of his followers, thereby interprets the present age as a whole in terms of the expected "messianic woes."  Christian persecution thus partakes of an "eschatological" character, the inevitability of which is essential to the drama of salvation-history.

This perspective illuminates two further texts in the discourse that speak of interfamilial strife as the expected lot of Jesus' followers:

Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death (Matt 10:21, ESV).
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 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 a person's enemies will be those of his own household (Matt 10:34-36, ESV). 

The significance of these texts was brought home to me in a fresh way by the young Roman Catholic scholar Brant Pitre in one of the most significant works I have read in recent years (pp. 198-216, 259-61). Most telling is Jesus' quotation of Micah 7:6 (LXX) in verses 35-36. The prophet Micah locates this period of interfamilial strife immediately prior to the ultimate restoration of Israel in a New Exodus (cf. especially Mic 7:12-15), a restoration that would be witnessed by the nations and result in their eventual conversion (7:16-17). This strife, in prophetic context, is thus part and parcel of the times of tribulation to which it conceptually belongs.

These "messianic" woes also inform the counter intuitive, paradoxical proposition that Messiah Jesus came to bring a "sword" instead of peace (Matt 10:34). "Peace," of course, is one of the defining characteristics of the promised kingdom (e.g., Isaiah 11:6-9). Yet the "Prince of peace" (Isa 9:6-7; Zech 9:10) himself declares that he did not come to establish the anticipated utopia. His coming would instead result in division and hostility even at society's deepest and most fundamental relationships, those of families themselves.

In terms of theology, we might articulate the significance in this way: Inaugurated eschatology brings the blessings of the kingdom, but not the full-fledged, eschatological era of peace for which the Jews longed. It has instead brought the preparatory period of eschatological tribulation. This is the nature of the present age in which Jesus' followers live today. Is there any wonder why they (ought to) find themselves despised and persecuted by those who don't share their kingdom citizenship?

Persecution is, therefore, theologically inevitable. And it is only those who persevere in discipleship (10:22) and acknowledge Jesus before human tribunals (10:32-33) who will be "saved" and acknowledged by Jesus himself at the last assize. How, then, should the follower of Jesus respond? The richness of Jesus' teaching in this chapter precludes discussion in any detail. Nevertheless, I would like to summarize Jesus' major points under three headings.

First, Jesus' disciples should expect to share in the suffering and persecution of their master (10:24-25). Jesus does not demand of his followers anything more than what he has endured on their behalf. It is of course true, as Matthew will go on to explain, that Jesus' own sufferings have a ransoming and expiatory character that the sufferings of his followers, who benefit from Jesus' sufferings, cannot by definition have (Matt 20:28; 26:28). Nevertheless, the truism holds: slaves cannot expect treatment better than that received by their master.

Second, disciples must not fear their persecutors because God, the ultimate Judge of all, is absolutely sovereign (10:26-31). The doctrine of God's sovereignty isn't mere speculation. It is a doctrine that breeds fearlessness in those who believe it. Faithfulness to Jesus can, and often has, cost disciples their lives. But the follower of Jesus confesses that God alone is the judge of all, and that he alone has the power to "destroy" both body and soul in Gehenna, the ultimate judgment. One who thus confesses God's sovereignty likewise knows that martyrdom, even if it should occur, not only results merely in the destruction of the body, but also lies under the providential control of God, for whom even the demise of a lowly sparrow is not a random event.

Third, disciples' loyalty to Jesus must supersede loyalty to family and to self (10:34-39). These verses, I suppose, record the ultimate "hard sayings" of Jesus. Father, mother, son, and daughter describe the closest of human relationships. Yet, Jesus says, one who loves any of these more than he or she loves him is not "worthy" of him. Discipleship, in other words, must take precedence over all human relationships (10:37).

Jesus saves the hardest for last, however:
And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt 10:38-39, ESV).

Nowhere does Jesus' perspective conflict with the world's more than here. His point is crystal clear: disciples must love Jesus more than they do their own lives. No one has articulated the point of this saying more profoundly than the 20th century martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die ... (p. 99).


According to Jesus, life lived in the pursuit of "self-fulfillment" is a vain one indeed—so futile, indeed, that such will result in the "loss" (apollymi) of the very life one sought thereby to enhance. Such "loss" describes a fate worse than the physical martyrdom that taking up one's cross might entail. It speaks of the very eternal death to which Jesus refers in Matthew 10:28. Dick France has expressed the thought well: "Discipleship is not a matter of life and death—it is much more serious than that" (p. 411).

If, then, true discipleship entails a cross-bearing that results in persecution, suffering and, at times, martyrdom, I have one question to ask myself as well as other self-proclaimed "disciples" of Jesus: Why don't we do it?

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