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Biblical Studies

The Cost of Discipleship: Understanding One of Jesus’ Anti-Family Sayings in Context (Matthew 10:34-39)

Originally presented at ETS National Conference 2015 (Atlanta, GA)

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”1 These words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer point to the radical, cost-counting nature of ultimately following in the way of Jesus. This cost of discipleship is articulated with particular vividness by Jesus Himself in Matthew 10:34–39, near the conclusion of Jesus’ Missionary Discourse to His disciples. In this short passage, we find that following Jesus will lead to division in the family, taking up one’s cross, and even loss of life for those who like Peter, Andrew, James, and John respond to Jesus’ call to leave their nets and “follow Me.”2

Of particular interest for this paper in the context of this year’s conference theme, is the radical “anti–family” sayings of Jesus in this pericope. The general thesis I am proposing is this: Jesus’ words here present not a diminishment of loyalty to the family in the life of the follower of Jesus, but rather a reprioritization of that loyalty. Taken within their broader biblical-theological and social contexts, Jesus’ radical anti-family statements in Matthew 10:34-39 are best understood as presenting a new priority structure in the life of the disciple. In this priority structure, the previously ultimate kinship loyalty to the family is rendered secondary (and sometimes in conflict) to the ultimate loyalty of the follower to Jesus and his or her new kinship in the family of God.

To demonstrate this thesis, this paper will first, and primarily, perform an exegetical exposition of the passage at hand with special attention to its literary context in Matthew’s gospel and its broader biblical–theological context. This paper will propose that the literary context and the biblical-theological context (particularly Jesus’ use of Micah 7:6) present a reality in which families are now divided along the lines of their belief or rejection of the Messiah at His coming. This division is a prophetically fulfilled result of the climactic appearing of the Messiah, prophesied in Micah 7:6. Further, this division is a persistent, necessary conflict in the life of the disciple due to the relativization of loyalty to kinship family to the disciples’ new and greater loyalty to the family of their greater brother Jesus.

To flesh this reality out further, this paper will secondly place this passage within its social context by building upon the work of Joseph Hellerman in Jesus and the People of God (2013). As Hellerman has argued, Jesus’ anti-family sayings are best understood in light of the widespread ultimate loyalty to kinship family in the first-century Mediterranean world. Taken within these twin contexts (biblical–theological and social), Jesus presents the conflict of loyalties introduced by his coming and the ultimate commitments of all who would be His disciples.

1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), 11.
2 Matthew 4:19.

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