So, what’s up with today’s gospel lesson? When it was read, did you squirm in your seat just a little bit? Did you scratch your head and wonder what in the world Jesus is talking about? Did you secretly wish in your heart that Jesus didn’t say these things?
“If they call the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign you…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….Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
All this talk about being called Satan, going to hell, and preferring division over peace doesn’t sound like Jesus at all! What happened to the Jesus of last week’s gospel lesson who had compassion on the crowd because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd? What happened to the one who proclaimed the good news of the kingdom, cured diseases, and freed people from their demons? Did he get replaced by an imposter? Can we rip this page out of our Bibles and pretend it doesn’t exist?
Friends in Christ, today’s gospel lesson is not an easy one to understand. In fact, we really need to do a Bible study on it in order to do it justice. But here you are, and here I am. We’ve got roughly 12 minutes to make some sense of this text. Forgive me if I can’t cover everything but I think I can give you a framework that can help you make some sense of this difficult gospel lesson.
The foundation we are going to build on is verse 34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” I take this to mean that proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God is going to get us into a whole lot of trouble! It may be good news to some, but others won’t see it that way. It will even cause family members to come to blows with each other when the subject is brought up.
Let me give you a few examples. Try some of these discussions starters at your 4th of July cookout!
- If Jesus told us to take care of the least of these, including the sick, then isn’t universal healthcare a Christian value?
- Bishop Eaton wrote a letter this week on World Refugee Day, reminding us that “We are called to welcome the stranger and to walk alongside vulnerable refugees living in untenable situations.” I wish Congress felt the same way.
- We have a Muslim family who just moved into our neighborhood. I’m going to bake some cookies and go visit them. You want to join me?
Is it any wonder that Jesus said, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother…and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” When we believe and embody what Jesus REALLY taught, it’s going to get us into a whole lot of trouble!
Some people think of Jesus as the one who blessed little children, performed miracles, and fed the multitudes. They are correct in thinking this. However, it’s only part of the picture.
This same Jesus is also the one who said that he came “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” [Lk 4:18-19] He was not speaking metaphorically. These are dangerous words.
This same Jesus went to the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers. He told them that God’s house should be a house of prayer, but it had been turned into an economic machine that exploited people for profit. These are dangerous actions. [Mt 21:12-13]
This same Jesus told us “To love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us;” [Mt 5:44] To forgive those who sin against us not seven times, but 70 X 7.” [Mt 18:22]
So when Jesus says in our gospel lesson “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” He is not exaggerating. The good news of the Kingdom of God, is counter-cultural, subversive stuff. Make no mistake about it. As he sends out the disciples to proclaim this message, he is reminding them that they will not be well received everywhere they go. In fact, their very lives may be threatened.
This is the basis for his words in our gospel lesson. Even though our cultural situation is vastly different from 1st century Israel, this text rings as true today as it did back then.
When we feed the homeless at Pritchard Park, there are some who think we’re bleeding heart liberals who are perpetuating the problem. But Jesus taught us to feed the hungry, and feed the hungry is what we do.
When our Church says we welcome all people, and we name names in our church logo, there are some who think we are heretics for doing so. But Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. He didn’t add any exemptions to this rule.
You see, I feel like the real Jesus has been kidnapped in 2017. Someone has painted white-face on him and wrapped him up in an American flag. Those who do this are ignoring his basic teachings that are crystal clear if we take the time to read them. The real Jesus is neither Republican or Democrat. He’s not progressive or conservative. He is the one who consistently sided with those who lived on there margins of society. He saved his sharpest criticisms for those who used their religious and political power to exploit and take advantage of others. This is the Jesus we are called to proclaim.
But, Friends in Christ, make no mistake about it. This Jesus can get us into a whole of trouble. Not everyone will be receptive to the good news we have to share. It was true in Jesus’ day. It’s still true in ours. The values of the Kingdom of God are often in direct opposition to the values our society holds dear. When the two of them feel like they are in perfect harmony with one another, we better start getting a little nervous. If the teachings of Jesus don’t challenge us to become advocates for the poor and the oppressed, it’s time for us to open up our Bibles and read the gospels again. We might discover a different Jesus than the one that is being portrayed in contemporary culture these days.
Just in case you think our gospel lesson is all doom and gloom for those who preach the good news of the Kingdom, Jesus offers a word of encouragement: “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.”
Jesus challenged his first disciples to be fearless and risk everything as they went out into the world to make disciples of all nations. He told them that God even notices when a sparrow falls to the ground. Therefore, God, definitely has their back even if they are persecuted or killed because of the message they proclaim.
1st Century followers of Jesus needed to hear this word of encouragement. They faced hostility and persecution from Rome who had destroyed the Temple and taken over control of the nation of Israel. They also were being expelled from synagogues because Jewish leaders had little patience for fringe groups as they struggled to preserve their religious identity.
Matthew was written with these people in mind. It’s important to remember this cultural context when reading this gospel. It is a context that is vastly different from our own, especially in America where someone rarely dies for being a follower of Jesus. The murder of 9 believers at Mother Emmanuel in Charleston is a recent exception to this rule. However, for the most part, Christians are safe in America to attend church and say what they believe in public. Therefore, Matthew is sometimes a little hard for us to understand. But this doesn’t mean its message is not applicable to us.
When Jesus talks about God noticing the sparrows falling and numbering the hairs on our heads, it reminds us that God knows us better than we know ourselves. As we try to proclaim and embody the values of God’s Kingdom, we are going to make some mistakes along the way. We’re going to give into peer pressure or weaken our resolve because it’s easier. Thankfully, God is faithful and keeps a watchful eye on us. God encourages us when we remain strong and courageous. God forgives us when we we compromise and water down all that Jesus taught us to do.
Friends in Christ, I will be the first to admit that I don’t have everything in this gospel lesson figured out and sorted. It is a somewhat messy and complicated text. Hopefully, I’ve given you a few insights that will help you to understand it. Hopefully, I’ve encouraged you to dig deeper in your knowledge of who Jesus is and what he taught. Hopefully, I’ve inspired you to courageously embody the values of the Kingdom of God. Studying the Bible is not always easy. And today’s gospel lesson is definitely not an easy text to understand. AMEN.
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck