Matthew 10 includes an account of Jesus’s instruction to his “twelve harvest hands” (MSG translation). Growing up, these passages were interpreted in the context of evangelism and missionary work: they were Jesus’s words of counsel for those going out to preach and convert others to their religion.
Recently, though, it occurred to me that Jesus wasn’t trying to convert Jews to Christianity, as Christianity was not a “thing” at the time. He was a Jew who commissioned other Jews to spread a message to his fellow Jews that the Jewish religious institutional authorities had become corrupt and that the Jewish religion needed to be freed from the layers of interpretation and authority imposed by the Jewish religious authorities.
What can we learn from these passages, interpreting the context of Jesus sharing counsel with those who go to share a message with others of their same faith community?
17-20 “Don’t be naive. Some people will impugn your motives, others will smear your reputation—just because you believe in me. Don’t be upset when they haul you before the civil authorities. Without knowing it, they’ve done you—and me—a favor, given you a platform for preaching the kingdom news! And don’t worry about what you’ll say or how you’ll say it. The right words will be there; the Spirit of your Father will supply the words.
Note here that “civil authorities” and “religious authorities” at the time were indistinguishable. While there was a difference, of course, between the Jewish and Roman authorities, the “civil” Roman authorities were still part of a theocracy whose god-king was the Emperor. “Don’t be upset,” Jesus says, “when the leaders of your religious community haul you before their councils.”
21-23 “When people realize it is the living God you are presenting and not some idol that makes them feel good, they are going to turn on you, even people in your own family. There is a great irony here: proclaiming so much love, experiencing so much hate! But don’t quit. Don’t cave in. It is all well worth it in the end. It is not success you are after in such times but survival. Be survivors! Before you’ve run out of options, the Son of Man will have arrived.
Notice that Jesus makes a distinction between God and “some idol” — in this context, the idol was the version of the religion being taught by the religious authorities. How many of us are tempted by ecclesiolatry or clericalism because it “makes us feel good”?
Also, “proclaiming so much love, experiencing so much hate!” Jesus was arguing that the Jewish institutional religion had let its focus on rules and obedience to tradition overpower its focus on the radical love of God. To question those rules and traditions threatens the power of the institution. No wonder they experience hate and fear.
24-25 “A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content—pleased, even—when you, my students, my harvest hands, get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, ‘Dungface,’ what can the workers expect?
26-27 “Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now.
There is no shortage of institutional religious communities in the modern world who tried to hide things, only to have them be discovered and brought out into the open for all to see. We might as well “go public now” because it’s all eventually going to be discovered.
28 “Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life—body and soul—in his hands.
Jesus’s community believed that salvation came through adherence to the Law and the performance of authoritative rituals in the religious buildings. Religious institutions often use the threat of eternal consequences in the afterlife or ostracism from their communities to coerce their followers into obedience. “Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies,” Jesus says. “There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being.”
For most of my life I thought that speaking “prophetically” meant seeing the future or speaking in the role of a divinely authorized leader of a religious institution. In Jesus’s context, though, prophets most often emerged not from the leadership of the institutional political or religious class, but rather from the people, and sometimes even from outside the religious community. They were tasked with calling the institution, its leaders, and its community to repentance.
Being a prophet, though, does not often win many friends, as Jesus clearly argues in Matthew 10.