by Ellen Sims
texts: Jeremiah 20:7-13; Matthew 10:34-39
In a scene from the movie The American President, Michael J. Fox plays Lewis, one of the President’s advisors, who’s calling members of Congress to support a bill the President is backing. Lewis is working the phone bank in a room with other staff, and he’s trying to get a Congressman Jarrett on board. Others in the room begin to notice that Lewis’s tone is growing impatient and then angry with the man he’s supposed to be courting for his vote:
But we’re not gonna stay at 41. The numbers are gonna go back up.
But they’re gonna go back up.
All right George…
Look George, listen to me… it’s crunch time. It’s personal. This is one of those moments. It’s just you and the President. Now what’s it gonna be? Yeah.
[shakes his head as he listens]
All right George, can I tell you something? We’re gonna win this thing. We’re gonna get the votes we need and we’re gonna win this thing. And you know what I’m gonna do after that, I mean that very night, I’m gonna go to Sam & Harry’s, I’m gonna order a big steak, and I’m gonna make a list of everybody who . . . . Well just VOTE your conscience, you little ****. [Slams the phone down]
[Turns to the room] We lost Jarrett.
[Another staff member pauses and then responds] I hope so. ‘Cause, you know, if that was an “undecided,” then we need to work on our people skills.
Don’t we all. And from a superficial reading of today’s Gospel text, it seems even Jesus needed to work on his people skills. What we just heard come out of Jesus’s mouth in today’s Gospel reading was not politic, not at all the way to win people over. I mean, what kind of leader brags he’ll bring division and conflict and elicits a loyalty pledge placing their allegiance to HIMSELF over their family?
Why would anyone follow Jesus after that? Surely those who had heard him preach his lovely list of beatitudes were wondering, “What happened to the Jesus who blessed the peacemakers and the meek? He used to be such a nice Jewish boy.”
Imagine the cognitive dissonance in the disciples’ minds after hearing the man who’d previously instructed them to turn the other cheek saying he was NOT coming to bring peace but a sword! Instead he was going to pit one family member against another. And as if that’s not scary enough, he concluded this speech by saying that his followers would have to follow him all the way to the cross. And then carry their own crosses.
Dear God, it’s a suicide mission.
You need to work on your people skills, Jesus. Cause that kind of talk WILL send you to the cross.
So let me try to connect the Jesus of the Beatitudes to this Jesus of the Attitude.
First, recall that Jesus is living in a highly patriarchal society. Within the family exists a clear pecking order with the father at the top, and this system is reproduced throughout the political and social sphere, even within the Greco-Roman pantheon of greater and lesser gods and goddesses. The Jewish people also worship a God who is the ultimate patriarch, and they revere their ancestral patriarchs, beginning with Abraham, as recorded in their holy scriptures. Although formed in that culture, Jesus’s anti-patriarchal rhetoric here undermines the injustices that an uncritical allegiance to patriarchy fosters. He challenges his followers, who think they’re dutifully following the obligations toward patriarchy, to call only God as their Parent. We owe ultimate allegiance to the God whose power is Love.
Matthew’s Jesus early on tips his hand about the anti-patriarchy theme. In this Gospel there are only two earthly fathers explicitly named as fathers. The disciples James and John were named as “sons of Zebedee,” for whom they worked as fishermen in the family business. When Jesus called them to follow him, Matthew says they immediately left their boats and left their father, perhaps leaving Zebedee unable to make a living. Disciples may have to leave their fathers—or what fathers represent—to follow Jesus.
The other father Matthew identifies very early as a father is King Herod—who slaughtered the innocent children in an attempt to kill the child he feared would unseat him. And indeed it is this larger system of patriarchy that Jesus is working against. Matthew’s Jesus, whose theme is the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Herod, is reconstituting the family—from a patriarchy ruled by the father—to a new kind of family in a new kind of Kingdom/kin*dom ruled by God.
Later on in Matthew Jesus will reinforce his primary fidelity to the God of Compassion rather than the Patriarchs of Power and Privilege when he remarks, “Whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother (Matt. 12:50). He does not include “father” in that list of family. Because no one will be Jesus’s father but God. Because God’s ways must hold sway. Because God is father to all, which means all are equally children of God. Privileging ends in this new family.
Another way to understand this passage is to recall that Matthew’s Gospel was written within a generation after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem as Jesus followers are starting to become too distinct a sect within Judaism to remain inside that religion. So there’s a good bit of infighting. Matthew here may be addressing his situation more than reporting words Jesus said 50 to 60 years earlier. If so, Matthew’s purpose is to explain to the present day followers of Jesus why they’re being pushed out of the synagogue and why their divergent form of Judaism is not being respected by family members. This is the consequence of your allegiance to Jesus, Matthew is saying through the voice of Jesus.
However, there’s also very good reason to believe that Matthew may not be taking much poetic license here. The scholars of the Jesus Seminar believe that some of the most incendiary words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are probably the most authentic–since the more redacted/edited works usually show a softening of Jesus’s sayings. We know Jesus DID provoke the people in power—the patriarchs who represented the Temple and the Empire. Why else would he have been crucified? He’s believed to have been an effective speaker who sometimes used startling images. His exasperation and exaggeration were eloquent. So it’s also likely that he intentionally shocked his listeners to make this point: there is only one “father” to whom we owe ultimate allegiance, and it’s not the father of your family or the empire or the fathers of your religion. Rhetorical extremism was needed to expose the problems in a patriarchal system so pervasive no one really knew of any other way to construct a cohesive society. Patriarchy so saturated his culture that it must have seemed the only way human society could function.
Jesus was not against fathers. He was against a pervasive injustice that fathers participated in and that fatherly privileging symbolized. He was against a system that gave power to the “patriarch” while ignoring the plight of the poor and women and slaves and children.
But here’s the thing. Jesus is not just playing with words. The commitment to God’s compassionate and equal kin*dom does have consequences here and now–even for those of us who don’t anticipate facing crucifixion because of our religious beliefs. In fact, if you and I don’t feel some push back or criticism about how we confront the injustices in this world, we might be doing this whole Christian thing wrong. And I’m not talking about the way people in the majority claim they are persecuted because, for instance, laws have been passed to help end discrimination against LGBTQ people. Having to sell a wedding cake to a same-gender couple does not constitute a cross you have to bear. It does not. Not being able to hear your high school chemistry teacher lead you in a Christian prayer at the start of your class does not constitute religious persecution. Say your own prayer.
I’m talking about the pain some experience when family members refuse to attend the wedding of a same-gender couple out of a blatant prejudice that the wedding boycotters try to dress up as Christian morality. I’m talking about the hurt church attenders experience upon arriving for worship but having first to walk past obscene signs and shouts from Westboro Baptist members protesting along church property. I’m talking about the fear that Open and Affirming church members feel when their rainbow signs of welcome are defaced and their building is spray painted with threatening words.
I talking not just about persecution but about ways you yourselves choose a harder road in order to follow Jesus—-by, for example, subjecting yourselves to a challenging, discomfiting curriculum in our 9:30 class and by hearing new ideas in sermons that lead you to do soul searching. You have chosen a harder road when you have to rearrange some of the furniture in your brain and heart and spirit.
None of that gets any of us anywhere near the suffering of the Christian martyrs, of course, nor the depth of suffering much of the world endures just getting through their normal day.
But sometimes your allegiance to Jesus’s Way can cost you important relationships in your life, can cost you the respect if not the love of family members, can cost you lots of spiritual, mental and physical effort and angst.
Of course, sometimes we’ve been brave and faithful despite ourselves. The God who came to the prophet Jeremiah has “overpowered” us, too, at times until our “people skills” (people pleasing) fall away. As a result, we, too, become “a laughing stock” when we speak out. We are overcome by the Spirit of justice and compassion. Like the prophet Jeremiah, we may try not to “speak any more in God’s name,” but there’s “something like a burning fire shut up in [our] bones” and we get “weary with holding it in.”
In times like that, Jeremiah tells us to “sing to the Lord.” In times like that, we can let the niceties of our “people skills” take a back seat to compassion. And we rest in the assurance of Jeremiah that God delivers the life of the needy!
One Sunday at a time, one day, one moment at a time, let us again readjust our allegiance to our Holy Parent who leads us toward justice and loving kindness.