Stand up and be counted

Meriam Ibrahim and her two children in jail

Meriam Ibrahim and her two children in jail

Pentecost 2 – 2014

Matthew 10:24-39

Marian Free

 

In that name of God who constantly reminds us that there is more to our existence than this life alone. Amen.

It is impossible not to be touched, saddened and outraged by the situation of Meriam Ibrahim a Sudanese woman sentenced to hang – ostensibly for abandoning her Muslim faith. Meriam’s Father is a member of the Islamic faith and her Mother is a Christian. Meriam claims that she has always been a Christian and that therefore she has not abandoned Islam and is not guilty of apostasy. Her claim however appears to be falling on deaf ears and it seems probable that the Mother of two small children will hang for refusing to renounce her faith. Half a world away, in the comfort of a country that has been primarily Christian since its inception, it is difficult for us to imagine the courage and the faith that would lead a young woman to risk her life rather than to deny what she believes.

We are nearly half way through the year and only now are we able to really come to grips with Matthew’s gospel. In fact, even though it is the year of Matthew, it has been three, nearly four, months since our consecutive reading of this gospel was interrupted first by Lent and then by Easter. It is then, a good time to look at the gospel as a whole so that we can begin to appreciate its parts. The Gospel attributed to Matthew appears first in the New Testament, however most scholars agree that Mark was the first to be written. The consensus is that Mark was written first and that Matthew used Mark’s work to write his own. Evidence for this is found in the fact that basic content of Matthew is the same as that of Mark. Matthew has filled out the material used by Mark in two ways. In the first instance, the author of this gospel appears to have had access to some teaching that was circulated widely enough to be known by both Luke and Matthew – they both include sayings that are not found in Mark. Secondly, as some material appears only in Matthew, it seems clear that he or his community were privy to teaching known only to them – including the parable of the ten bridesmaids and the parable of the sheep and the goats[1].

Matthew’s gospel stands out from the remainder as it is the most Jewish of the Gospels and the one that most clearly identifies Jesus as the one who fulfills the Old Testament. In Matthew Jesus is first and foremost a teacher which may be the reason that Matthew organizes Jesus’ teaching into five sermons the best known of which is the Sermon on the Mount. It is almost certain that Jesus’ preaching did not consist of a string of unrelated sayings, but rather that Matthew gathered them and placed them together. Apart from the introduction (the birth narrative) and conclusion (the passion and resurrection), Matthew’s gospel is made up of five parts each of which consists of a narrative section and a sermon. In other words, the story that Matthew is telling about the life of Jesus is punctuated with blocks of Jesus’ teaching.

Today we are reading a portion of Chapter 10 – the sermon which concludes part two of the gospel – Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. To set the sermon in context, we need to remember that at the beginning of this chapter Jesus has set apart twelve of his disciples and given them authority to cast out demons and to heal. Having done that he sends them out to proclaim that the kingdom of Heaven has come near. In other words, Jesus has shared with the twelve both his authority and his ministry. This is an enormous privilege, but it comes at a cost. If the disciples are to be Jesus’ representatives, they must expect that, like him, they will experience rejection and persecution. (“If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” Jesus says.)

The sermon in chapter 10 is addressed not to the crowds, or to the disciples in general – but specifically to the twelve. If they are to share his ministry they must expect to share the consequences of that ministry. Jesus says: ”I am sending you out as sheep amongst the wolves.” This does not mean that they should be timid or afraid – the Holy Spirit will give them words to say and Jesus reminds them how precious they are in the sight of God. If they remain true they may lose their life, but nothing can kill their soul – not even death can separate them from God.

For generations Jesus’ warning has seemed to be directed specifically at those early disciples or to those in the early church who faced persecution and martyrdom. How comforting it must have been to know that the Holy Spirit would be with them when they faced their accusers, that whatever situation they confronted, they were so precious to God that even the hairs of their head were numbered and that if martyrdom was to be their lot they would lose their body, but not their soul. Words such as these must have provided comfort then and they must surely offer hope and consolation to Meriam and to others in her situation today.

Times are changing. In an increasingly secular and multi-cultural Australia we can no longer take for granted the privileges and benefits that have accrued by virtue of our belonging to the predominant faith. There are challenges to our practices and beliefs on a number of fronts – religious education, the presence or not of Santa Claus in kindergartens, the presence or not of Nativity Scenes in public places and whether or not churches that provide social services are to be considered charities and receive the tax breaks associated with such practices. In some places the Christian faith is met with ridicule, in others with indifference and in yet others with outright hostility.

In a nation in which loyalties and beliefs are changing, it may be that there will be a time when we will have to defend what we believe. At best we may have to stand up and be counted and at worst we may have to consider what is more important – security in this life or in the next. Should we, like Meriam, be put to the test, let us pray that we will heed Jesus’ words to his disciples and find the strength and courage to hold fast to our faith no matter what oppositions confronts us and no matter how tempting it is to try to save our skin.

[1] An interesting exercise is to place Matthew, Mark and Luke side by side to see how they have used material known to them all, what sayings occur in Matthew and Luke and what is unique to Matthew or to Luke.

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