A long time ago I joined the Peace Corps. In preparation for shipping out, we had a robust series of trainings: three days in Philadelphia; two weeks in Rabat, the capital of Morocco; and then a couple months in a regional capital as we improved our language and underwent intensive cultural preparation and acclimation. Having a guide to help you know what you’re getting into, particularly when something is new or strange, is profoundly important. In this week’s lectionary lessons, we have examples of undertaking a difficult new task with and without a seasoned guide to explain the process.
In Jeremiah, we have the cry of a young spiritual leader who faced all the issues that typically cause pastors and deacons to burn out. Jeremiah felt a loss of agency, as if he was being persuaded against his will into a call that he didn’t choose. When his unpopular message garnered poor reception, he became isolated. Indeed, Jeremiah faced such social disgrace that he became a laughingstock and target of taunting and derision. Even Jeremiah’s friends waited for him to fail and plotted against him. He was alone, discouraged and persecuted for speaking the word that God had given to him.
I wish I could say there was an abrupt turnaround and Jeremiah found happiness in ministry. This week’s reading does end on an assurance of salvation and praise for God. But then the next verse after the lectionary texts has Jeremiah cursing the day he was born. Indeed, Jeremiah faced all kinds of difficulty during his ministry, including being thrown into prison, kidnapped and smuggled to Egypt, where he died. Tradition holds that Jeremiah was stoned to death by people who just couldn’t stand his prophesies anymore. The prophet was faithful until the end, but he was also lonely and seemingly frequently confused by what was happening to him. Jeremiah didn’t have a human guide to accompany him.
In this speech, Jesus is a profoundly good guide. He explains what the disciples should do, the difficulties they will face and what their goals should be. He doesn’t just send out the disciples unaware, but thoroughly prepares them for what they would face.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to be confused or unaware about what happens to folks who speak for God. In the long speech to his disciples as he prepares to send them off to heal, resurrect and preach, he points out that they might receive a warm welcome in some towns but there will also be situations in which they would face persecution. They shouldn’t be surprised at all. If they called Jesus “Lord of Flies” or “Lord of Garbage,” what would they call his disciples?
Jesus insists that nothing can or should be hidden. The disciples shouldn’t be secretive about their message (there’s not much time for a so-called Messianic Secret in Matthew’s Gospel) because God knows, loves and protects them. At the same time, he mentions the very real threat of physical persecution that they would all face. Again, according to tradition, only one of the 12 escaped a violent death.
After warning his disciples and telling them what they were up against, Jesus lays out the choice they will face in their difficult ministries. Those who confess Jesus, Jesus would confess before his Father. Those who deny Jesus, Jesus will deny before his Father. This warning needs to be understood in the context of who Jesus is. Peter denied him three times, yet Jesus graciously received his disciple and restored him to a position of trust and leadership. It is good and beautiful to confess Jesus, and painfully sad to deny him. Yet, whatever we do, Jesus is still Jesus and is not willing that any should perish.
A final note, Jesus warns that he didn’t come to bring a negative peace of quiet and calm. Rather, he is OK with division, even among a family. We must see what Jesus is doing in quoting this passage from the prophet Micah. In the context of Micah 7, the prophet decries pervasive injustice and dishonesty. People hunt for opportunities to hurt each other. Politicians and judges ask for bribes. There is no safety in intimacy: close friends and lovers plot against each other, and even families seek to abuse each other whenever possible. Right after the verse Jesus quotes, the prophet says: “But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation” (7:7). The prophet says, I am not thinking of ways to hurt my neighbor. Instead, I am prepared to follow God wherever God leads. I think this is what Jesus is calling his disciples to in Matthew 10—and us today. In this speech, Jesus is a profoundly good guide. He explains what the disciples should do, the difficulties they will face and what their goals should be. He doesn’t just send out the disciples unaware, but thoroughly prepares them for what they would face.
It is frequently difficult to know the right thing to do. This is true even when we sense God’s call but don’t have clarity for where that call might be leading. Jesus is a good and faithful guide. Following Jesus is anything but safe and easy. But Jesus is trustworthy to show us the true path forward.