String of Pearls: Reflections on Matthew 10:24-39
June 22, 2014
Lloyd Watson, the tenth of fourteen children, grew up on a farm in southeast Oklahoma. He was drafted in 1943 at age eighteen. His unit crossed the English Channel into France in December 1944 and he was soon thrust into combat in the Alsace region. They relocated to Belgium with his unit when the Battle of the Bulge began. Sgt. Watson was a mortar platoon leader, battling the aggressive German offensive. He recalls how, under heavy shelling, he and a fellow Oklahoman began digging their foxholes, getting their first glimpse of the horrors of war as they began noticing body parts lying on the ground around them. ("Greatest Generation Member Recalls Historic Battle," Garrett Cook, Allen American, June 12, 2014)
Watson recently spoke at our local Allen, Texas public library about his experiences. He credits his growing up on a farm for being able to survive the German attack. "My dad was a strict person, not severe, but strict. He would send us out to do a job, and we didn't dare come back in and say this happened or that happened, or I just couldn't get that done. We used our ingenuity to overcome the problem and see that the job got done."
In our passage for today Jesus sends the twelve out into the mission field where he warns them they will face opposition and even violence. He expects them, despite opposition, to get the job done. Matthew shapes this discourse to speak to the early missionaries from his Jewish-Gentile congregation who go into the world and meet with abuse and rejection as they spread the message that the kingdom of heaven has come near in Jesus (10:8). Jesus' message in 10:24-39 is a bad news/good news send-off speech. The bad news is that they will face opposition and violence (10:16-18, 21-23). The good news is that God will give them the words to speak (10:19).
Jesus in 10:9-10 strictly instructs them to travel light. No gold, silver, or copper. No bag. Just one tunic, no extra sandals, no staff. Then Jesus launches into a lengthy advice session for the journey, nuggets of advice he most definitely wants to be on our packing list. His send-off speech takes the form of a series of proverbial observations about life, alternating with admonitions based on those observations. This passage reminds me of the rabbinic form of teaching or preaching called the "string of beads," a series of brief proverbial observations and admonitions strung together along the thread of a single theme. They all seem to have to do with what the disciples are to know and remember to get the job done. The thread will become clearer as we explore the beads strung upon it.
By definition, a proverb—a short sentence of ethical guidance—is anonymous. When we come upon a saying that is proverbial in form but whose author we know, it is called an aphorism. So technically speaking, the brief sayings in these verses are aphorisms of Jesus. In some of them Jesus seems to be echoing common wisdom about life. In others, he is making a statement about the consequences of accepting or rejecting him for our futures.
Here are several aphorisms Jesus utters in his send-off speech. He seems to be saying that remembering these truths and acting accordingly is how the disciples can face into opposition and get the job done.
"A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master" (10:24).
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.