Posts Tagged ‘persecution’

What does it take to be number among the disciples?

June 24, 2017



Pentecost 3 – 2017

Matthew 10

Marian Free


In the name of God who notices a sparrow fall and who has numbered the hairs on our head. Amen.

You no doubt know that there are tricks to public speaking that are used to gain and to keep the attention of the audience. In the first century only about 1% of the population was able to read, so the gospels were not written to be read, but to be heard – (often in just one sitting). The gospel writers did not simply pull together a life of Jesus. The gospels and their component parts are very carefully structured in such a way as to ensure that their listeners would be gripped by the story and continue to focus on what they were hearing. Because few people could write, it was equally important that the stories about Jesus’ life and teaching were told in such a way that they would be remembered.

We heard last week that the author of Matthew’s gospel carefully structured Jesus’ teaching into five sermons or discourses each of which contained material that had a similar theme. Within at least two of these discourses is an internal structure that aims to unify and emphasise a central theme.

The technical term for this structure is a chiasm. In simple terms a chiasm is the repetition of ideas in reverse around a central theme. A chiasm is used for emphasis and for clarification. It serves to draw attention to the central point that is the focus of the passage and which gives meaning to the whole. One way to think of it is an arched bridge. The footings on either side are the same and the spans on either side mirror each other and hold up the central arch. A simple example of a chiasm is found in Luke chapter 4 – Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth. Jesus stands up, receives the scroll, unrolls the scroll, reads the scroll, rolls up the scroll, hands back the scroll and sits down[1]. The reading of the scroll and its content is the central point surrounded by actions in reverse order.

Matthew 10 is an example of a much longer chiasm. The chapter is complex and repetitive, but it begins to make sense when we see that Matthew draws his material together around a central point. The use of a chiasm bolsters and supports this key point in the same way as the footings and spans support the arch of a bridge.

The best way to understand what I am saying is to see what it looks like in practice.

After Jesus calls and names the disciples, the following structure unfolds

A. vv 5-15: The sending out of the disciples: how they should travel and find hospitality; how to respond to acceptance/non-acceptance

B. vv 16-23: Prediction of persecution; being brought before the courts, inner-family betrayal and encouragement in the face of these.

C. vv 24-25: This is because they can expect to be treated in the same way as Jesus.

 D. vv 26-31: Exhortation: “Have no fear.” They are worth so much to God that they can depend on God. (In this        section the disciples are told 4 times that they need not be afraid.)

         C’. vv 32-33: If they confess Jesus on earth, he will confess them.

     B’. vv 34-39 Division in families is to be expected; family loyalties must take  second place to the following of Jesus.

A’. vv 40-42 Those who welcome them will be richly rewarded because they are actually welcoming the risen Lord who is sending them, and ultimately the one – God – who send him[2].

Seen in this light, it is relatively easy to see that the central point around which the remainder circles is the exhortation not to be afraid. At the extremes we have comments about the disciples being accepted or not. The second and second last point warn of divisions (even within families) and the third and third last point stress a believers relationship with God to whom, the centre assures them they are of such value that God knows even the hairs on their head.

It is important to remember that this gospel is, as I mentioned last week, being written after the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple. It is a time of change and trauma, a time in which both Jew and Christ-believing Jews are trying to work out and to establish their identity in a new and vastly different environment. For those who believe in Jesus there is the added confusion and pain associated with the increasing intolerance of difference and exclusion that is directed towards them from their fellow Jews. This may well have extended to their expulsion from the synagogue. What this means is that those who consider themselves to be the disciples of Jesus are being increasingly isolated from their ancestral faith, from their fellow Jews and ultimately from their families and their friends. Ideas of acceptance and rejection and division even among families would have been extremely pertinent.

These words, addressed to the Twelve in the gospel, must have brought great reassurance and comfort to those who were experiencing the very things that Jesus predicted. To understand that they were just as likely to be rejected as to be accepted, to know that they their experiences united them to the one whom they followed, that their loyalty to him would be repaid by his to them and above all to be reassured that they had no need to fear because they were so valuable to God would have helped them not only make sense of their experiences, but would have given them the courage to stand firm in their faith and to continue to proclaim the gospel in the face of any and all difficulties.

The sort of fear that must have gripped these first Christians, may be matched by those in places such as Egypt and Nigeria today in which simply holding the faith is enough to place one in mortal danger. To know that their persecution is part and parcel of being a disciple must surely give them strength. To know how precious they are to God must help them to understand that there are worse things than death.

We who have no knowledge of such terror and who practice our faith in security and comfort must ask ourselves why it is that we do not draw attention to ourselves, why it is that we do not illicit a negative reaction from those around us. Is it because we have accommodated ourselves so well to our surrounding culture that we no longer stand out as being different? Have we watered down our faith to the point where it is no longer offensive to non-believers? Or is it just that we avoid conversations in which awkward questions might be asked or in which we might be asked to defend our point of view?

Whatever the reason, it is important to consider (20th century disciples of Christ) whether we are so far removed from the situation of the first disciples that Jesus’ instructions and words of encouragement mean nothing to us, or whether we have removed ourselves so far from the risks and dangers of discipleship that we can no longer really call ourselves disciples.

What does discipleship really mean and what will it take for us to be numbered as one?



[1] The longest and most complex chiasm is the entire book of Revelation.

[2] Adapted from Byrne, Brendan, Lifting the Burden – Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church today. NSW, Australia: St Paul’s Press, 2004, 87.


Stand up and be counted

June 21, 2014
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.

Safe in the hands of God

October 19, 2013

Pentecost 22

Luke 18:1-14

Marian Free

In the name of God who raises up the humble and puts down the mighty and who never abandons us to face our trials alone. Amen.

When the weather is good, Michael and I like to eat outside. Not only is it a pleasant environment, it also gives us a chance to observe the natural world. Among other creatures that inhabit our garden are some rather large, but harmless ants. Needless to say they are very much in evidence should anything fall from our table. On one particular day a rather large crumb was picked up by two of these ants. We watched as they moved it somewhat awkwardly across the cement amazed that they should think that the trouble was worth it. Because the ground slopes, the concrete has a large crack in it – too wide for the ants to cross. The two of them spent ages trying to manoeuvre the crumb down one side of the crack and up the other. If one ant dropped an end, the other clung tightly until the first had regained its hold – a process repeated over and over again. They did not seem to be discouraged no matter how often they had to repeat the process. It was hard to believe that one small crumb warranted such persistence – especially when there were others, more manageable, to be had.

Today’s gospel consists of two parables which, at first glance, appear to have nothing to do with each other. A closer look however reveals that they are both about faith – a relationship of trust in God that persists in difficult circumstances and that is built on openness to God in prayer.

To understand the parables, we have to understand the context in which they are being told. The Pharisees have asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God will come. Jesus’ response was to tell them that the coming of the Kingdom would not be observable by outward signs. Indeed, he says, the Kingdom is already among them. It is just that they have failed to recognise it. Jesus concedes the world is not yet perfect. It is full of uncertainty and suffering which will only come to an end when God’s rule is firmly established. Jesus warns his followers that they are to expect difficult times – and the letter to Timothy indicates that the believers do experience persecution and suffering. The disciples and the church live in this in-between time. They are aware of God’s rule in their own lives, but conscious of how far from the ideal of the Kingdom the world still is. They accept that in this still unperfected time that their life will not necessary be one of peace and ease.

The parables are told to encourage the disciples to remain faithful even in difficult times and to trust God to vindicate them against those who oppress them. Jesus is responding to the unasked question: How are the disciples to live, how are they to pray in this time after Jesus coming and before the realisation of God’s rule over all the world?

Even though it seems to be taking a long time for things to change, the disciples are to persist in prayer, confident that God will respond. They are not to abandon their faith at the first sign of difficulty, but to preserve against all odds. God is not like the judge who has to be worn down before he will act, and then only acts in his own self-interest. God’s loving goodness has the disciples’ interests at heart, and though the Kingdom seems long in coming, they are not to be discouraged even when times are tough. Jesus urges them to continue in prayer and to remain faithful, confident that even if God does not act as quickly as they would like, God will respond.

Having told this parable, Jesus tells another – about two people at prayer. The Pharisee, confident in his own goodness is keen, not so much to pray, but to tell God just how good he is in comparison to everyone else. Certainly, he is living in a way that is consistent with the law and he is observing the spiritual disciplines expected of him. However, he cannot see that even though he fasts twice a week, gives ten percent of his income away and does not earn his living by collecting taxes for the Romans, his very arrogance, self-centredness and lack of compassion place him as far from God as every other sinner. His belief in his own perfection has blinded him to his own faults and shortcomings. Worse than that perhaps, he has made himself judge, thus standing in God’s stead and doing God’s work for him! He might think that he believes in God, but in fact by his attitude he demonstrates that he doesn’t need God. He can be judge and jury all on his own.

The tax-collector on the other hand, is only too aware that by circumstance or design, he falls far short of the ideal of perfection. In fact, he is so aware of his failings, that he cannot hold his head up high, nor can he wait for God to pass judgement on himself but beats his breast as a form of self-punishment. Unlike the Pharisee, the tax-collector knows only too well how much he depends on God for anything like a good outcome at the judgement. He hopes against hope that God will overlook his present situation – his role as tax-collector – and that God will restore him to a relationship with God. The Pharisee does not need God to tell him how wonderful he is. The tax-collector, knows how much he needs God if he is ever to be declared wonderful.

This is the difference that Jesus wants us to observe, and why he commends the tax-collector who, to his contemporaries is a traitor and one of the worst kinds of sinners. What matters, Jesus implies, is our relationship with and dependence on God, our recognition that we fall far short of godliness and our belief that, despite our faults, God will vindicate us if only we trust in God and not ourselves. The widow’s persistence and faith in God teaches us to persevere and not to be discouraged. The tax-collector’s humility in prayer teaches us to trust in the mercy of God even though we are far from perfected.

Today, we continue to live with the tension that faced the first century church. Like them we might wonder why God who sent Jesus to save the world, continues to stand back, to hold his hand when a baby dies every three seconds, children starve in Syria because adults cannot agree on how to bring about peace, millions of people languish in refugee camps, Christians are persecuted and killed and people’s homes are destroyed by fires so ferocious that they are almost unimaginable. We do not and will not have the answer to this question, but Jesus tells us that we must not be discouraged, we must not give up. We must continue to pray, confident that God is not only listening, but that God has everything in hand and in God’s own time God will respond.

So we must continue to pray, and when we do, we must be honest with ourselves and with God. We must recognise that if the world is not perfect, it is in part because we are not perfect. When we ask God to change the world we must first ask God to change us.

We are to have faith in this in-between time when Jesus has come and the world is still not perfected. We are to keep the faith even in the most difficult and trying circumstances. We are to understand that faith does not consist of doing the right thing, but first and foremost consists of a relationship with God which is honest and transparent, which is open and responsive to the presence of God and willing to be transformed by that presence.

Persistence and humility are two characteristics, two attitudes that should inform and support us in a world that is far from saved. Persistence in prayer prevents despair when our circumstances seem impossible. Humility in prayer acknowledges our solidarity with (rather than our superiority over) the world around us. Both evidence a trust in God which places our future and that of the world firmly where they belong – safe in the hands of God.

Triumph of good over evil

September 28, 2013

Michael and All Angels – 2013 

Revelation 12:7-12a

Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals to us far more than we can understand and yet is as familiar as a breath. Amen.

The first time I was taken to see a Shakespearean play, my father gave me a synopsis to read so that I would be sure to understand it. Shakespeare’s English and time are sufficiently different from ours that my father thought that I would be lost without some guidance. It is still the case, that for some productions at least, the programme provides an outline of the story so that the attendee does not get lost. It is a shame that some such guidance is not provided for modern readers of the book of Revelation which was written for a time vastly different from our own and in a form and language that many of us find difficult, if not impossible to understand.

From the beginning the book of Revelation was controversial. Until the fourth century many did not even include it among the books of the New Testament. Revelation is a colourful, even lurid description of what will happen at the end of time to those who oppose God and persecute those who believe in Jesus. It can be a difficult book to understand because it is full of symbolism which we no longer use or understand. In parts it reads like a collection of Old Testament quotes simply cobbled together. In other places there are descriptions of heaven and elsewhere there are fantastical stories, like the story of the woman giving birth and the red dragon which has seven heads and ten horns and a tail that can sweep the stars out of the sky.

Some of the symbolism is lost to us, but some can be interpreted. We know for example that numbers are significant in Judaism. Seven is the number of perfection, twelve represents comprehensiveness and four refers to the four corners of the earth. We know too that letters were used as numbers in both Hebrew and Greek – so for example the letters in the name David added up to 14 which is significant for Matthew’s genealogy. This information helps us to determine that 666 (the number of the beast in Revelation) is almost certainly the numerical value of the name Nero – a particularly violent Emperor, who by the time of the writing of Revelation was dead, but was also rumoured to have returned to life. Colours also have some significance for the readers of this type of literature. The four horses of the apocalypse are coloured – red (for war), green (for death), black (for famine) and white (for the crown, the conqueror).

Without a code breaker, Revelation is almost impossible to understand. Without an understanding of its background and purpose, it is easily misinterpreted. It can become to the uninitiated a book of judgment when it is intended as a book of comfort and grace.

As the introduction implies, Revelation is directed at seven churches in Asia Minor. Members of these churches were experiencing some form of persecution or social exclusion and isolation. Having become Christians they could not participate in the worship of idols nor could they be involved in the Emperor cult. This in turn would have excluded them from the social, ritual and business life of their society. If they could not worship idols, they could not belong to the trade guilds and their ability to earn a living would have been severely reduced. Added to that was the fact that after the Jewish war they had lost the protection of the synagogue and the respect that was afforded to the Jews throughout the Empire. They were vulnerable and not recognised by the state as a religion.

What these people needed then was encouragement to keep the faith and an assurance that they would be rewarded for their steadfastness – if not in the present then at least in some future life. They needed to believe too that those who opposed them would get their just desserts. The book was not written as a prediction of cataclysmic events in a distant future. It was written to address a particular situation sometime towards the end of the first century. It cannot be used to interpret our present, but rather as a tool to try to understand an aspect of the past.

Scholars approach the book differently, but one way to read the book is to see it as a drama which consists of seven scenes.[i]. Five of the scenes are bordered by descriptions of heaven and four of the scenes contain a group of seven – there are seven seals, seven trumpets, seven visions and seven bowls. Before the seventh seal and seventh trumpet there are interludes or digressions which introduce a different theme one of which includes the brief account of Michael the archangel, who with his angels, throws Satan, with his angels, out of heaven. The heavenly drama is described in only one verse. If we read on, it appears that any victory over God’s opponents has been won as much by believers on earth as it has by the heavenly hosts and that the battle in heaven is a vivid and dramatic way of describing the actual situation on earth.

Satan is not necessarily a being, but is personalized here to make a point about the battle between good and evil, chaos and order, law and lawlessness. The context tells us that Satan in this account is not the tempter of Genesis but the accuser, the devil’s advocate of the book of Job. We deduce this from verse 10, which suggests that one of the forms of persecution experienced by Christians is that their fellow citizens have been accusing them before Rome (12:10) – possibly informing the authorities of their refusal to take part in the Emperor cult. However, even at the risk of their own lives, the believers have remained firm. In this way the believers themselves have exposed how ineffectual Satan really is. Perhaps more importantly, there is no longer anything for which believers can be accused – they have remained faithful. This means that there is no longer a role for Satan (the accuser) in heaven.

Believers are thus assured that while the present may be filled with difficulty and the threat of persecution, their steadfastness in the face of opposition is essential to the triumph of heaven, the victory of good over evil. How comforting those words must have been then and how much they must mean to the Christians experiencing hostility and violence in places such as Pakistan and Nigeria today. Not only are they assured that their steadfastness will be rewarded, they are also being reminded that their very faithfulness will contribute to the triumph of good in the world.

Our experience, in 21st century Hamilton, is vastly different from those for whom the book of Revelation was written. That said, we still live in a world in which there is a great deal that is outside of our control, in which bad things happen to good people and in which no one can escape grief and suffering. For all its complexities, the Book of Revelation is a reminder that no matter how bleak our situation or our disastrous the outlook for the future, we can believe that God is on our side, that good will triumph over evil and that at the end, God will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev 21:4).

[i] Fallon provides the following breakdown of the book.

a. Introduction                                                 1:1-3

b. Opening liturgical dialogue                     1:4-8

c. Prophetic commission                              1:9-11


Scene 1 Letters to the 7 churches             2:1-3:22

Heaven                                                   4:1-5:14

Scene 2 Six seals are broken                       6:1-7:9

Heaven                                                   7:9-8:6

Scene 3 The sounding of six  trumpets            8:7-11:14

Heaven                                                11:15-12:12

Scene 4 Forces for good and for evil      12:13-14:20

Heaven                                                 15:1-8

Scene 5 The seven bowls                            16:1-18:24

Heaven                                                19:1-10

Scene 6 The final struggle, victory          19:11-20:15

and judgement

Scene 7 The Church of God on earth     21:1-22:5

a. Guarantee of prophecy              22:6-7

b. Concluding liturgical dialogue    22:8-17

c. Conclusion                                                22:18-21

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