“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Matthew 10:26-31 (NRSV)
The very important key to this passage is keeping in mind the context. That may seem like a trivial thing to point out, but a reasonably large amount of exegesis of the pieces of this passage is done as if each sentence were some atomic saying that Jesus just spontaneously said one day.
Everything in this passage is occurring within a little preparatory talk Jesus is giving to his disciples before they go out doing what he’s been doing and saying what he’s been saying. The main theme is that they should expect fierce opposition and even persecution, the vast majority of which will come from the authorities in the Jewish religion at the time. They will be tempted to surrender, give up, fall back in line, get back to their old lives to end the suffering, but Jesus encourages them to press on.
This passage falls mostly under the “press on” part of the talk.
Jesus encourages them with the idea that, up till now, he has been working and teaching subversively, staying under the radar, but the time has come for the truth to be revealed in big, blazing signs. This is, in fact, what will precipitate the steeper opposition that Jesus has already warned them about. The true nature of the corrupt leaders will be revealed, and the true nature of faithful Israel will be revealed.
In explaining why his followers should not be afraid of this persecution, he contrasts his age’s power structure with God.
This is where the helpful English translations may point us in the wrong direction.
First, we need to look at the word “soul.” The Greek, here, is psychen, and you probably recognize that word as the root of some modern English words like “psychology.” Because of our theological framework, we probably think of the “soul” as an immaterial, immortal representation of ourselves, and while that is a possible reading, the word is generally used in Scripture to mean something more along the lines of “identity” or even just “life.”
For example, in Matthew 2:20, an angel tells Joseph that it is safe to return to Israel because “those who were seeking the child’s psychen are dead.” Later in this same chapter, in Matthew 10:39, Jesus says that “those who find their psychen will lose it, and those who lose their psychen for my sake will find it.” This is repeated almost word for word in Matthew 16. In that same chapter, Jesus asks, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their psychen?” The last appearance of this word in Matthew is 20:28, where Jesus explains that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his psychen as a ransom for many.”
Those are all the appearances in Matthew, but the pattern is similar throughout the New Testament. Soul/psyche is much closer to something like “you as a living person” than “the immaterial, immortal component of your identity.” A soul can lost or given up. A soul can be preserved or taken. Perhaps the most direct counter to the use of the word as something immortal is the LXX translation of Ezekiel 18:20 – “The psyche that sins shall die.”
The reason I’m going on about this is, when we are looking at this contrast, it is unlikely the point of contrast Jesus is making is that humans can only kill you, but God can torment your immortal being for eternity.
The other word that tends to send us on this trajectory is the English word “hell,” but once again, the Greek is Gehenna.
Gehenna is an actual, physical location outside of Jerusalem. You can go there, today. You can literally have a picnic in Gehenna.
Gehenna occupies in Jewish theology a location as a special place of God’s judgement, beginning with what we learn in Jeremiah 7:30-34:
For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.
That “valley of the son of Hinnom” is Gehenna. It is a location where Judah worshipped idols and sacrificed their children in flames. Because of these horrible practices, God will slaughter them and fill the valley with their corpses and destroy the city of Jerusalem.
This is repeated with some more detail and an object lesson involving breaking a pot in Jeremiah 19, where the prophet actually delivers this pronouncement from the actual Gehenna. Again, for their idolatry and unfaithfulness, God announces a great tribulation and disaster He will bring upon Jerusalem.
One must acknowledge that, in Jewish literature, this idea grew beyond its historical roots. Gehenna became a metaphorical stand-in for God’s judgement. One writer spoke about how Gehenna was so wide that the sun never went down on it. Others, that it was the mouth of the grave. As you flip through the ages of Jewish writing on God’s judgement, both on individuals and nations, Gehenna becomes a powerful image. It is a place where God will judge you now and, if you happen to be a tyrant, after you die.
It is because of some of the relative fluidity of the imagery of Gehenna that I will say that the idea that Jesus is talking about God punishing an immortal soul in a spiritual location of torment is a possible reading. And, given the contrast, there’s a certain logic to it.
However, I do not think this is the most likely reading.
Jesus’ reference to Gehenna takes the warning of Jeremiah and brings it into his own day. Judah’s kings have led her astray into new kinds of idolatry and dissolution. Jerusalem has become a site of infidelity. A judgement to set this situation to rights is coming, and Jesus is announcing this to Israel. Jeremiah foresaw this destruction coming at the hands of Babylon; Jesus foresees it coming by Rome. Jeremiah was persecuted for his warnings by the priests of Israel, which is exactly what Jesus is warning will happen to him and his followers.
Very illuminating is the prayer Jeremiah makes in chapter 20, praying against his persecutors. In this prayer, he describes the people who seek his life and make him wish he had never even been born, but he knows the Lord will defend him and rise against them.
This, I would say, tells us what we need to know to understand Jesus in his context.
Those who remain faithful to proclaiming the message God has given them through Jesus will experience opposition and persecution. These people may torture the body. They may even kill it. But the faithful will not be destroyed, but live. God will deliver them from their imprisonment, judge their tormentors, and even if they should die, they will rise to reign with Christ in the next age when God has broken the power of these oppressors and brought a new way of life to His faithful.
It is because of this that his disciples should not fear their persecutors. It is the same hope that kept Jeremiah going, saying he could not contain the warning because it burned like a fire in his bones. He had to proclaim it, and the suffering he experienced made him actually angry with God for putting him in this position, but he also knew God would vindicate him and save him. Your body may die, but you will have saved your psychen.
By contrast, God is about to bring judgement once again on Jerusalem. Gehenna will once again be filled with corpses as the pagan invaders raze the city. The people who fall in this judgement will not live. They will not be vindicated. They will not reign with Christ. They will not rise again. The grave will be the end for them… if they’re lucky. They will have lost their psychen.
The contrast Jesus offers is that it is far better to suffer and die at the hands of the persecutors and commit your faithful life into the hands of a vindicating God than to die in the judgement God is bringing, after which is no hope, no vindication, no salvation – only death, destruction, and loss. Forever.
It is the same, pivotal choice Matthew has presented to us throughout his gospel, over and over again on different occasions. You can conform to the powers of this age and die with them in the coming judgement, broken forever, wiped from the pages of the Book of Life, or you can identify with the poor, suffering, bedraggled faithful, and find yourself exalted. And even if you die, you will not die, but live! Live through this age into the next and endless ages to come.
Jeremiah made his decision. Jesus made his decision. His followers have to make that decision, and what they do with the rest of their lives will tell the tale.
But Jesus does not simply let the choice hang. In one of the more touching and beloved passages of the Church, Jesus reminds them that this is not just some issue of cosmic accounting or the fallout of the clash of nations. Jesus reminds them that God cares about them as individuals!
To those of us steeped in American evangelicalism, maybe this is old news. We make the individual the center of the universe and the highest point of God’s attention, desires, and plans, so this is probably no big deal to us because we already think everything God is, does, or wants revolves around our individual lives.
But this perspective has more to do with our modern ethos and American values than it does the Bible’s world, which overwhelmingly emphasizes the collective. God loves a people, calls a people, saves a people, justifies a people, and glorifies a people, and you are either in that people or not, and your destiny is carried by that larger vessel.
In the grandeur of the Bible’s perspective, we find very few nods to anything describing God’s relationship to individual, nameless believers throughout history. But here is one. Jesus comforts his disciples by assuring them that God even superintends the life and death of sparrows, and how much more important to God are the disciples than sparrows! And just to make sure they understand the point, Jesus tells them that even the individual hairs on their head are noted by God.
I’ll admit it – I struggle with the notion that God cares deeply for me as an individual. I intellectually agree with that idea, sure, but I struggle to truly internalize it as a deep belief that I walk in (to use a handy evangelical phrase). But here is a bold proclamation of Jesus that God attends to even the smallest of things. If He is interested in the lives of sparrows, how much more does He attend to my life? How can He know the hairs on my head if He pays no attention to me as an individual?
Granted, Jesus is making a speech and using expansive imagery. Granted, Jesus is talking to the people in front of him and not to everyone throughout time. But the logic he uses does not seem to be able to be constrained only to the local audience. If that deal about the sparrows works for them, for instance, it works for everybody. It is unlikely God only cared about the sparrows within earshot of Jesus. Jesus’ whole point is that God’s care and attention knows no bounds and no concept of insignificance. There is nothing He has created that He does not attend to and have intimate knowledge of, and that scope includes you and me. And birds and hairs, apparently, but Jesus lets us know that disciples rate higher.
And this truth about God’s regard is also meant to comfort the disciples. When they are dragged into the synagogues and commanded to stop preaching. When they are brought into courts under false charges to shut them up. When they are in prison. When they are beaten. When their bodies are being burned. However much they may hate it, the one thing they cannot think is that God has forgotten them, that God does not care, that God will let this situation go unanswered. The timing may not be yours, and the form it comes in might not be yours, but He is there, He knows, He cares, and He will not take it lying down.
And why? Because of His love. His love for those poor, lost, wayward, dirty, poor, sinful sheep of Israel. His love for the Gentile doofuses who believed in Jesus and are all ready for the Bible study as soon as they get back from the orgy. His love for brokenly, uproariously, sinful fools who know nothing, but for faith, love, and hope continue to open their arms to God and walk forward as best they can.
People like you and me.
- What is our message to our world, today, concerning this creator God. Who is He and what is He doing? How do we get that message across, and who is likely to want it to stop?
- Jeremiah is incredibly resentful toward God in chapter 20 as he prays because of what he is suffering, and he feels that God will not allow him to stop. This doesn’t seem to diminish God’s regard for Jeremiah in the least. Do you ever resent God because your attempts at faithfulness just seem to land you in deeper suffering? Have you ever told Him?