Robert S. Turner
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 14, 2016
Jesus can be a tough guy to pin down. Just when you think you’ve got him figured out— he’s the one with the halo around his head and that mopey look on his face like the guy who plays him in the movie Jesus of Nazareth; he’s the one who goes around walking on water and doling out forgiveness like shiny copper pennies—just when you think you’ve got him pegged, he pulls the rug out from under your feet. He’ll come out with a blistering series of condemnations of his opponents, or tell people to pluck out their own eyeballs when they catch themselves looking with naughty intent at their neighbor hanging out the laundry in her Daisy Dukes.
Or take this doozy from today’s gospel reading: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (vv. 49–51). What’s up with this guy? What about all that talk about the Prince of Peace? This is hardly gentle Jesus, meek and mild, from the Sunday School flannel-board lessons of our youth.
As shocking as it may seem, it could be that the Sunday School and movie versions had it wrong all along. It could be that we took Jesus’s talk of love and mixed it with the moralism of Aesop’s fables, the romantic schlock of pop songs, and the magical fantasy world of Walt Disney to create something Jesus would find unrecognizable. The love Jesus proclaimed and enacted was a muscular kind of love—unsentimental, unromantic, rigorous, and yet ultimately life-giving. It was the kind of love that did not deceive with empty promises, but rather spoke the plain truth, knowing that only by acknowledging the reality of one’s predicament could one find liberation or healing. It was the kind of love that could say to the woman caught in adultery not only, “I do not condemn you,” but also, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:10–11).
Jesus was a prophet, after all, and one of the most important items on a prophet’s job description was to confront people with their sin so they could change their ways and escape destruction. Prophets sometimes singled out individuals, but mostly they directed their calls to repentance to the people as a whole, or at least to the leaders who were guiding the people down a path the prophets considered unfaithful to the nation’s covenant with God. The job of a prophet was, to use a phrase that has unfortunately become so overused as to have lost much of its original zing, to speak truth to power.
The prophet Jesus came to speak that kind of truth to the powers of his day, and to invite the people into a renewed covenant community that he called the kingdom, or reign, of God. Unlike many of the earlier prophets, however, he did not go to the seats of power—not at first, anyway—to proclaim his message of judgment and hope. Instead, he traveled around the towns and hamlets of Galilee, concentrating most of his attention on the fishing villages on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He did not go to the court of Herod Antipas the tetrarch, but rather to the house of Simon the fisherman. He did not hobnob with the nobility, but rather camped out with unwashed peasants. The New Testament gives no evidence that Jesus ever so much as set foot in either of the two large cities of Galilee, Sepphoris and Tiberias. His stories and sermons did not regularly feature priests and kings, but tenant farmers, shepherds, and day laborers.
But the message he delivered in his homespun parables and the actions he took with those nobodies out in the boondocks certainly did reach the ears of the powerful. How could it not, when his reputation grew so much that he couldn’t even enter some towns because of the crowds who had come out to see him? How could the powers not take notice when his every action seemed to be a deliberate thumb in their eye? He broke the sabbath, ignored the ritual purity code, offered healings outside the established channels, told people not to pay their taxes, excoriated the scribes and priests at every opportunity, accepted women as disciples, and shared table fellowship with every Tom, Dick, or Levi who came along. How could the powers not be annoyed at and more than a little nervous about this constant irritant, this thorn in their collective side?
Unfortunately, centuries of flannel-board depictions and movie versions have served to domesticate Jesus so that it’s hard for us to understand the extent of the ruckus he stirred up. We have been told so often that Jesus’s mission was to die for our sins, that his concern was for the saving of souls, that he essentially ignored public affairs to focus on individuals and their needs, and that above all he took an entirely apolitical approach to his ministry, that one could be pardoned for feeling puzzled when someone like me keeps harping on what a polarizing, divisive figure Jesus actually was.
Nevertheless, I’m going to say it again: Jesus was a polarizing, divisive figure. He says so himself in verse 51 of today’s passage: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” He was divisive precisely because his ministry had a social impact, and it had a social impact precisely because he was political. Not that he was running for office (as if that was even a thing then), or that he was plotting an armed uprising or anything like that. He was political in the way Harold Lasswell defined the term in his book Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. Jesus was intensely concerned with these matters, and when he took action to ensure justice in the process of deciding who got what, when, and how, he brought not peace but division.
In the world Jesus inhabited, the vast majority of people were shut out of that decisionmaking process. As a result, they got whatever crumbs the decision-makers magnanimously let fall from their table and they were supposed to be happy about it or else starve to death and stop being such nuisances. The powers who ran the temple state fenced them in with oppressive rules, wore them down with enforced tithes, and used their supposed identity as the agents of God’s will to keep them in their place. The powers who wielded the sword of state, from Emperor Tiberius in Rome to the garrison in the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem down to Herod Antipas’s local thugs and enforcers in Magdala and Capernaum, played their roles as well. They identified wealthy collaborators who would keep the peasantry in check; they taxed the people so heavily that they could never get ahead; they “[kept] them on the hook with insupportable debt,” in the words of Bruce Cockburn; and they ensured their docility through constant humiliating reminders of their status as people living under occupation.
Actually, when you think about it, if you updated the names and locations, you could make a strong case that the very same abuses are going on in our world today. Funny Page 3 of 4 how things don’t ever seem to change much. Of course, now, instead of the war eagle of Rome, in many cases it’s the bald eagle of the American Empire that sustains and enforces the system of oppression and inequity. It seems the world still needs divisive, polarizing figures like Jesus to stir things up.
Ironically, it was Jesus’s practice of overcoming divisions that proved so divisive. His new community included people from all walks of life and every level of society. Tax collectors, freedom fighters, rabbinical students, and fisherfolk made up his band of apostles. Wealthy women supported the group financially. The community welcomed those who had been ostracized by society, the ceremonially unclean, prostitutes, lepers, and those with mental illnesses. Rich and penniless, collaborators and rebels, sinners and Pharisees, good, bad, and ugly—all found a place in the new community.
Jesus erased other boundaries too. The family, headed by the autocratic paterfamilias, was the basic unit of social cohesion, and an integral part of the broader pecking order of society. But he redefined family as those who enact the will of God, and removed the hierarchical distinctions of the traditional family. “Call no one your father on earth,” he tells his disciples in Matthew 23:9, “for you have one Father—the one in heaven.”
He also redefined gender roles. At a time when women were considered not much more than the chattel of first their fathers and then their husbands, Jesus rejected patriarchal marriage. He told the Sadducees who tried to trap him that in the resurrection people would “neither marry nor [be] given in marriage” (Mark 12:25). Presumably, given his dismissal patriarchy, he meant for the same practice to hold true in his new community as at the resurrection. On earth as it is in heaven, in other words.
Furthermore, Jesus gave women leadership roles in the community. He defended Mary when she chose to sit at his feet and learn Torah along with his male disciples, and he entrusted women with the first proclamation of his resurrection. “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me,” he tells the two Marys in Matthew 28:10. To our Southern Baptist friends I would say this: if that’s not ordination, I don’t know what is.
Another division Jesus took on had to do with table fellowship, which in that culture was one of the primary ways the social hierarchy got reinforced. To eat with someone was to declare that person one’s equal, so social climbers always sought to sit at the table with those higher on the ladder, and meticulously avoided situations in which they would have to eat with those they considered inferior. Jesus thumbed his nose at all this honor-and-shame nonsense by eating with anyone and everyone.
Jesus was a provocateur, but his provocations always served his broader purpose of proclaiming and enacting the reign of God, where hierarchies had no place and the power-with of equality took the place of the power-over of domination. That is why it is possible to call him both the Prince of Peace and the bringer of division. He understood that peace in the absence of justice is no peace at all. He understood that conflict can be a creative force, not just a destructive one. He understood that the moderate voices that say to slow down, don’t ask for too much, don’t rock the boat can be as much the enemy of progress and liberation as the puppet masters pulling the strings. He understood what Elijah meant when he challenged the people assembled on Mount Carmel to watch the contest between God and Baal, saying, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” (1 Kgs 18:21). One who wants to follow Jesus must take up the cross. One who puts the hand to the plow must not look back. One who wants to be on Jesus’s side must stop limping about and plant one’s flag.
Jesus was and is a polarizing figure. As he told his opponents in Matthew 12:30, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” You cannot sit on the fence when it comes to Jesus. He came to bring fire to the earth, and that fire is kindled each time someone comes face-to-face with the choice whether to be part of the reign of God or to continue to live under the Domination System. The fire is kindled in one’s inner being as one struggles with that choice. The fire may be kindled in one’s family or workplace or circle of friends when one’s choice butts up against prevailing attitudes and mores. And the fire has the capacity to sweep through the streets of one’s city when one chooses Jesus and commits oneself to a community of persons who have made the same choice.
It is a cleansing fire, this fire Jesus brings, but it shares with other kinds of fire the characteristics of wildness, unpredictability, and danger. The fire of the Spirit swept through the upper room on the day of Pentecost and set loose a small group of newly empowered people who were before very long being accused of turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6). Jesus wants to kindle that same fire in this community of faith today. Jesus wants to send this fire first to burn away our dross and ready us for action. Then he wants us to carry the fire to burn down all the structures of sin and injustice that keep a few at the top of the heap and all the rest at the bottom. He wants this fire to burn down racism, sexism, homophobia, blind nationalism, xenophobia, and all the other isms and phobias that keep us alienated from one another. After the fire has torn through and devoured everything that stands in the way of the reign of God, one object will remain unscathed—a banquet table at which we can all sit down together.
It’s an exciting vision, and a scary one, to tell the truth. It can be especially frightening to those of us who have always been comfortable and satisfied wrapped in our fluffy blanket of first-world privilege. It can be scandalous to those of us who feel we have played the game the right way—followed the rules, paid our taxes, gone to church—and are pretty sure we neither want nor need any fire to come our way. It can also be scary because Jesus lays it on the line. He does not offer us some fantasy from the Age of Aquarius where everyone sticks a daisy in a gun barrel, grabs a candle, joins hands to sing, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” and lives happily ever after “in perfect harmony.” He says that if we really implement his program, the result will be division. Conflict. Disharmony. The ultimate result will be a peaceable kingdom, a Beloved Community governed by justice, freedom, and equality. But in the short term, Division!
The choice is set before us this morning. Will we opt for the reign of God or the Domination System? Will we go on living in the Matrix, or will we unplug and join the Resistance? Will we choose the comfortable blanket or the cleansing fire?
Each of us must make the choice for ourselves. I for one choose fire.