Hard Sayings

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 10:34-38

Some things that Jesus said are hard to understand; others are hard to accept and follow. But everything he said is important!

If he had never done anything else in his life, Jesus of Nazareth would still be remembered as one of the world’s great souls for the sake of his sayings alone. Think of some of the memorable things he said, statements that are part of the religious heritage of western civilization and have shaped our collective conscience. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Or consider his stories and the characters that have become proverbial bywords—The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son.

But Jesus also said a lot of things that are difficult and puzzling. These sorts of statements are what prompted C. S. Lewis’s comment in Mere Christianity, that a man who said the kinds of things Jesus did must either have been a lunatic, or a liar, or the Son of God. We call them the “hard sayings” of Jesus. Some of Jesus’ hard sayings are hard because they are difficult to understand; some are hard because they’re even more difficult to accept. We find a series of them toward the end of Matthew 10.

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. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

vv. 34-38

Not Peace, but a Sword

Let’s start with the first of these hard sayings of Jesus, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And this from the man who said on another occasion, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). So which is it? Is Jesus a peace-giver or a peace-taker?

Let’s think about what Jesus meant when he said that he was bringing not peace but a sword. In the first place, he didn’t mean to be taken literally. Jesus is not advocating armed conflict for his followers. Despite the sinful examples down through the centuries of some who bore the name “Christian,” Jesus is not suggesting that his faith should be spread by violent means.

Someone was telling me the other day about St. Olaf, the 11th century king and patron saint of Norway. It’s said that he went about to the various bands of Vikings in Scandinavia offering them a choice: “Either convert to Christianity or I will kill you.” I’d say that’s pretty clearly not what Jesus intended as a method of church growth. No, Jesus uses “sword” here metaphorically, to suggest the divisions and disagreements that he provokes between people. Jesus made many claims about himself. Are they true, or not? Is he the Lord of heaven and Savior of the world? Some people say yes, and worship him. Others reject both his claims and Jesus himself.

Jesus also did not intend this statement to mean that his purpose in coming was to bring a sword, that his intention was to cause dissension and quarreling, as if those were good in themselves. There is a difference between an intention and a result. The fact that people disagree and even argue about Jesus is a consequence of his ministry, not its intended purpose. Sometimes the truth divides; even families can be divided, as Jesus says here. So Jesus forces people to make a choice about him, but his purpose is not to cause division. His purpose is always only to save.

Whoever Loves Father or Mother More

Here’s the second of the hard sayings in Matthew 10: “Whoever loves father or mother [or son or daughter] more than me is not worthy of me” (v. 37). Now that sounds like an invitation to reject your own family and turn your back on those you love the most. Some groups, especially among the cults, have used this saying to make people cut off all contact with family and friends, which is an evil and dangerous twisting of Jesus’ meaning. Anyone who teaches that should be avoided like the plague. Remember, this is the same Jesus who teaches us to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44). How much more then ought we to love our nearest and dearest.

No, what Jesus is doing here is expressing in dramatic fashion the need to give him first place in our lives, to set him and his love above every other love. Jesus has just been warning his followers about the divisions and opposition they were likely to face, even within their own families. Now he wants to encourage them to be steadfast in their commitment to him. Jesus isn’t telling us to reject our loved ones. He’s telling us that if our friends or even our families reject us because we have confessed our faith in him, then we must be willing to pay that price as part of the cost of discipleship.

Take Up Your Cross

Now for the last of Jesus’ hard sayings in this passage. “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (v. 38). This is a statement, a challenge, really, that Jesus made over and over. In fact, it appears no less than five times in the various Gospels. Usually when he said this Jesus appended a call to self-denial. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34, cf. Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:23).

“Let him deny himself.” Denying ourselves doesn’t mean giving up chocolate for Lent or waiting another year to buy a new car. Self-denial really means saying no, not to this or that thing, but to my self. I naturally prefer to indulge myself, to give myself whatever I want. Self-denial seems somehow quaint and old-fashioned, maybe even unhealthy. Nowadays we’re told to affirm ourselves, to love ourselves, reward ourselves. “Be good to yourself,” the experts urge us, “that’s the secret of health and happiness.” Self-discipline, yes, certainly; that makes you even healthier; that serves your self interest. But self-denial, saying no to personal ambitions and ego goals? That’s a foreign concept in our culture.

Deny himself and take up his cross, Jesus goes on. The cost of true discipleship involves not only denying self; it means dying to self. This word about taking up the cross is often misunderstood. We think it means to shoulder our share of troubles patiently. “That’s my cross to bear,” we say of some difficulty in life.

But Jesus’ image is much more shocking. Everyone who heard him that day had seen a man carrying his cross—actually not the whole cross but the cross beam, which would be fixed to a vertical post at the place of execution and from which the condemned man would be suspended. Forcing the victim to carry this himself was an extra humiliation the authorities added to the pain and shame of crucifixion. The sight of a man walking with a beam on his shoulder, escorted by Roman soldiers, meant only one thing. He was on a one-way trip to execution. A cross-bearing man in Jesus’ day was a dead man walking. And this is Jesus’ way of saying that we must die to self. Here’s how the apostle Paul put it eloquently, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). “Let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

After the negative descriptions of what discipleship means (denying self and dying to self) comes the positive. The reason we must so resolutely say no to ourselves is so that we can say yes to Jesus. The reasons the egos that we cherish and serve have to die is so that Christ can come to live in their place. Discipleship means following Jesus. As Bunyan’s old Honest put it, it means that wherever we see the print of his feet we attempt to place our own.

Jesus’ hard sayings contain a sober reminder of the importance of the issues at stake in discipleship. To dethrone self and follow Christ are difficult and painful, especially if that brings us into conflict and disagreement with those near to us. You might reasonably ask, “Why bother?” The answer is, “Because otherwise you can’t be saved.” Here’s one last hard saying that Jesus offers for our reflection: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (v. 39). If you try to find, or save, your life (in other words, live for yourself) you will lose your real life—eternal life. But if you willingly give your life to Christ, you will save yourself forever.

Think of it—your eternal destiny depends on whether you follow Jesus Christ or reject him, whether you believe or disbelieve in him, whether you identify with or ignore him. Are you ashamed of him? Then he says he will disown you before the Father (Matthew 10:32-33). Are you embarrassed to be counted one of his? Do you care more what people think of you than what God thinks? Oh may it not be so! Let me be ashamed of myself, of my unbelief, my cold heart, my reluctant witness, my stumbling discipleship—but never let me be ashamed of him!