“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… a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10:35-36). These are not the kinds of things we expect to hear from Jesus. They certainly are not the kinds of things we want to hear from Jesus. We have seen enough family division. The breakdown of the family is the other (more fatal) pandemic of our generation. You know well the names and faces of its casualties.

If your congregation promotes and supports “family values,” you should be prepared to take this text head-on. Before doing so, it might be a good idea to spend a little time thinking about the state of the family in the contemporary American context. Conservative cultural observers, such as this one, are quick to point out that the breakdown of the family is a significant cause of many social problems. Others argue the problem is deeper than we think. This article takes a longer view, as does the brief response to it. The point of this research is to make sure, if you are going to address the current state of the family, you know what you are talking about.

But back to the text. Jesus speaks these words to His disciples at the end of the so-called “Missionary Discourse” in Matthew 9-10. He had just called the apostles. He was about to send them to speak only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:6). But what He says about their specific mission has general application for everyone He sends.

In last week’s text, Jesus addressed the things they should (and should not) fear. In this text, He discusses what they should (and should not) expect. Simply put, they should not expect peace. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword (v. 34).” Jesus is unambiguous. The disciples should expect their missionary work would bring about division, especially within families. This was not the purpose of their preaching, but it would be the result.[1] This is an important point because Jesus is not out to destroy the family. Instead, as He does with every aspect of life, He relativizes the family in relation to Himself and His cross.

Verses 37-39 provide the key. “More than me,” Jesus says. Anyone who loves family “more than me” is not worthy of me; mother, father, sister, brother, husband, wife, children, parents. We love them, and we should. But not more than Jesus. Likewise, we should not love our own lives “more than” Jesus. That is the point of our cross-bearing (v. 38). The message is clear: Jesus demands the position of primacy in our lives. This is not unique in His teaching. It is simply an application of the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38) to the family. This text reminds us of how the most dangerous candidates for idolatry are often God’s most precious gifts.

The message is clear: Jesus demands the position of primacy in our lives.

It would be natural (for Lutherans, especially) to point out that none of us is worthy of Jesus. This is true, of course. The Law convicts. But our inability to keep the Law must not excuse further disobedience. The Law also guides. In this case, it guides us to keep our priorities straight. Nothing—not even our family—is more worthy of our love than Jesus. In those terrible situations when one has to choose between peace in the family and reconciliation with God, there is only one option. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac comes to mind. You might invite your hearers to reflect on (and repent of) ways in which they are tempted to put their families ahead of Jesus.

Those who are sent to speak the Word of the Lord—apostles, pastors, missionaries, all Christians according to their vocation—should be under no illusion. Their faithful proclamation of the commands and promises of Jesus will not always work out nicely. Peace on earth will always only be partially realized. Divisions will persist and potentially increase. Still, the present evil age is on borrowed time. When Christ returns, all who have lost their life for His sake will find it (v. 39). True life and lasting peace for all who have found life in Christ will result. That is the promise in this text, and this promise is what creates a love for Jesus above all else.

*One more additional note: it is generally helpful in a sermon to choose a single, overarching problem to address. Some call this the “malady.” Working with a single problem helps keep the sermon focused. In this text, two potential problems present themselves. You could address hopes and expectations about achieving peace on earth. You could also address the temptation to love something or someone (especially family) more than Jesus. While the text invites both possibilities, it is best to identify the one which is most pressing for your hearers and limit the sermon to that single problem.
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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 10:34-42.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 10:34-42.

Lectionary Podcast-Prof. Ryan Tietz of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 10:34-42.