Somewhere along the line, we got the idea that Jesus was a spineless Goody Two-Shoes.
Maybe it was all those pictures was saw in Sunday school when we were children…the Jesus with the nice white robe, curly light brown hair and sparkly blue eyes with the little lamb curving around his shoulders. The Jesus smiling gently as he touched a group of little children who were dressed remarkably like what children in 1958 or 1948 or 1938 were wearing. The Jesus of the soft words and the soft hands.
We thought Jesus was someone who would always turn the other cheek.
We may have interpreted that as a sign that Jesus was always sort of…well, you know…SOFT. Wimpy, even.
We were wrong.
Think about Jesus’ mission. His task was to fix the broken relationship between God and God’s people, the one that had gotten lost in the morass of rules and laws that the Pharisees were talking about.
That’s not work for a weak person. That’s hard work.
Broken relationships are like broken porcelain teacups – it takes skill and patience and a whole lot of the right kind of glue, plus a little bit of force in the right direction, to mend them. You can’t just put the pile of shards on the table and wish them back into wholeness.
Therapists who work with couples whose relationships are broken know this. It’s a slow process, rebuilding relationships. You’ve got to figure out the whole story, and get the two parties not just to vent, but to really hear each other and understand what happened. Sometimes one partner will tell their version of what happened, and the other partner simply says “No, that’s not right. There he goes, embellishing again!” and the first person says “She always dismisses what I have to say,” and then they’re off to the races once again. And in the midst of this exploration of relationship, occasionally a therapist will have to say hard words to get the parties to really pay attention to what is going on. “She will not trust you if you promise you’ll never take another drink, because you’ve promised that before and broken the promise. Only time will make her trust you again.” “He doesn’t believe that you will open up to him and be warm, because all he’s heard from you is criticism.”
It’s a form of professional tough love, I would imagine, using strong words, hard words, when you’re working on trying to mend a broken relationship. It’s hard to listen to if you’re on the receiving end, but sometimes it’s necessary.
And in today’s Gospel, Jesus is delivering some of that divine tough love. He isn’t sugar-coating it. He isn’t patting the disciples on the head and saying “there, there, now, it will all be okay in the end.”
No, he is saying, “Look, we’re running out of time here. I’m running out of time, and you still don’t quite get what I’m talking about. This new way that I’m preaching will set the established order on its ear. Folks will end up fighting over it. You cannot fundamentally change the way you see the world and expect that it will all go nicely and smoothly. It will not be heaven on earth.”
And as if they haven’t already been shaken up by these words, he calls them hypocrites. Says they can see which way the wind blows but cannot see the coming storm.
Now I don’t know about you, but if my preacher said things like that to me, I’d be nervous and perturbed! If I thought my preacher was supposed to be teaching me and comforting me and patting me on the head, I’d be out looking for a new preacher right about now.
Jesus knew that what he was talking about would cause disputes. Why? Because it meant change, and even in bad times, we don’t like change. We like the status quo, for better or for worse, because we know how to deal with it. And Jesus was most definitely talking about changing the status quo.
Here’s Jesus’ recipe for living in a healthy relationship with God: love God. Love the wonderful world that God has given us and show it by taking care of it. Live lightly on the land. Don’t love money, or power, or status. Don’t love having the right kind of car, or living in the right kind of neighborhood. Love your neighbor. Love that neighbor whether or not his skin is the same color as yours, whether or not she speaks with an accent, whether or not she belongs to the same church as you, whether or not he belongs to the same political party as you. Love the neighbor who lives next door, and love the neighbor who lives in China or Afghanistan or Chile or Nigeria.
Now imagine how that recipe sounds to you if you are a disciple, if you are hearing those words directly from Jesus’ lips. You’ve been under the thumb of the Romans your whole life, taxed until you have nothing left to give. You’ve watched your religious leaders get co-opted by the Roman Empire, and they haven’t necessarily had your interests at heart. You’ve had to make offerings at the temple, but you couldn’t use the regular coins you had, since they had the picture of the emperor on them, so you had to exchange them for temple coin, and of course that cost money. You couldn’t bring one of your own birds to offer, you had to buy one at the temple stalls, and they were expensive. You’ve got this firebrand teacher here now, and he’s been telling you that the old ways are no good, that you need to do things in a new way to please God. And a lot of what he says means that you’ll get treated a lot better than you have if everybody does these things. And now he is talking about bringing down fire! Now he’s talking! Can he mean that we should revolt against the empire? Will he lead us in such a revolt?
You and I, we know how the story goes, and we know that Jesus is not leading a revolution in the political sense. He is talking about something wonderful and new in the heavenly kingdom, and the work we have to do to be a part of that heavenly kingdom, the hard work of relationship with God.
The sad news is that, time and time again, human beings do precisely what Jesus predicts. Father against son, son against father, mother against daughter…nation against nation. Church leader against church leader. Discord, battle, schism. Jesus tells us it will happen again and again until Jesus’ work is completed.
Our humanity leads us to believe that we know best, that we are the ones who are right, that those who disagree with us are wrong. Sometimes we have seen horrors in history when leaders have convinced people that others are so wrong that they must be cast out or subjugated. The Holocaust. Genocide in Rwanda, and in Sudan. And yes, even here, in this country at its founding, in the enslavement of African people to work the fields.
And the saddest part of each of those horrors is that people saw which way the wind was blowing. They could predict the weather. But they couldn’t predict the current time. Jesus’ message is simple, but we human beings twist it to our own ends, for reasons of power, or politics, or money. We allow ourselves to ignore the deepest meaning of the message as the venal and the power-hungry even dare to twist the Gospel to try and make us believe that it is right to cause harm to God’s creation and to our neighbors, wherever they may be.
This is not a new story. Since the beginning of time, human beings have battled to have dominion over each other or over the earth, claiming that religion gave them that right. And none of those battles have brought the kingdom of God a single inch closer to us.
So we remember Jesus’ righteous fury today in this Gospel, an impatience with our unwillingness to hear what he has to say to us, his frustration that we choose to only see and hear what is comfortable to us, and we ask ourselves: “can I open my ears and my heart to hear the WHOLE Gospel, not just the parts that I can easily accept?”
If we are not asking ourselves that question, we are not his followers, we are mere pretenders. And if we are asking ourselves that question, what are we going to do about it?