A Provocation: Third Sunday after Pentecost: June 21, 2020: Matthew 10:24-39

     24     A disciple is not over the teacher
              Nor is the slave over his master.
25               It is enough for the disciple
                        that he become like his teacher,
                        and the slave like his master.
                   If they called the master of the house
                        Beelzebul
                   how much more the members of the household?
26     So do not fear them:
              nothing is hidden
                   that will not be revealed;
              nothing secret
                   that will not be known.
27                    What I say to you all
                             in the dark,
                                  you will say in the light.
                        What you hear into the ear,
                             proclaim on the house.
28     Stop being afraid
              because of those who kill the body,
                   the life they are not able to kill.
         Continue to fear more the one who is able
              both life and body to destroy in Gehenna.
29     Aren’t two sparrows offered for sale at 1/2 penny?
              One of them does not fall on the earth
                   without your father.
30          Of you even the hairs of your head
                   all are counted.
31     Stop being afraid.
              You are worth more than many sparrows.
32     Anyone who agrees with me
              before people
         I also will agree with him
              before my father
                   my father in the heavens.
33     Whoever denies me before people,
              I also will deny him before my father
                   my father in the heavens.
34     Do not suppose
              that I came to throw peace on the earth.
                   I did not come to throw peace,
                        but rather a sword.
35                    I came to divide 
                             a person against his father
                             a daughter against her mother
                             a bride against her inlaws.
36                    A person’s enemies?:
                             the members of his household.
37                              The one who loves father
                                       or mother
                                  over me
                                       is not worthy of me.
                                  The one who loves son
                                       or daughter
                                  over me
                                       is not worthy of me.
38     Who does not receive his cross
              and follow after me
         is not worthy of me.
39     The one who found his life
              will destroy it;
         the one who destroyed his life
              because of me
         will find it.

The easiest thing to do is to cause division. The second easiest thing is to scold people for causing division.

All you have to do to cause division is to begin with the assumption that you understand more than anybody has ever understood. This takes several forms. If you are old, you can begin with the assumption that anyone younger than you is simply too green, too naive, too idealistic to really get it. If you are young, you can begin with the assumption that your intense experience of the current chaos has everyone as baffled as you are. If you are progressive, you can begin with the assumption that anyone less passionate than you are is refusing to respond to the crisis of racism in this country. If you are conservative, you can begin by assuming that anyone who says Black Lives Matter is a violent terrorist of the sort that your favorite “news” outlet warned you about. If you argue that it is time to defund the police department in Minneapolis, you can begin by hearing questions about policy and procedure as obstructionism. If you object to proposals that call for defunding, you can begin by refusing to listen to the nuanced arguments that are offered under the “defunding” slogan, which did indeed catch your eye.

You will have noticed that I structured each of these instances as a two-sided opposition: either this side or that side. If you look at the world as if it were always and only a two-sided opposition, it is even easier to cause division. Binary oppositions require you to choose sides, and they do NOT require you to listen.

It is easy to tear the world apart if you don’t listen.

And so now we can commence scolding each other for tearing the world apart. That is easy. And we love to do it.

I think the scolding is more dangerous than the picking of sides. The scolding too often comes down to just wanting everything and everyone to settle down and just let things go back to normal. This is easiest to see when the scolders are comfortable and privileged.

I am old enough to have seen many waves of impassioned calls for root-level reform sweep through our politics.

I am old enough to have noticed a pattern:

  • At first the calls are ignored.
  • If the calls for reform do not go away, timid proposals are offered.
  • If these proposals to make cosmetic changes are rejected, then politicians become increasingly passionate themselves.
  • Senators who had scoffed at the initial calls for reform go on the record as recognizing the life-changing crisis of the moment and promise to convene task forces and working groups.
  • Sometimes those groups even come forward with proposals.
  • And occasionally those proposals are even substantive and are implemented.
  • And then those serious attempts at root-level reform are weakened, step by step, by executive orders, or disingenuous signing statements, or by the stubborn efforts of entrenched powers.

You can study the decades-long history of attempts at reforming the police force in Minneapolis to see every part of this pattern. Real, substantive reform is finally blunted and blocked by entrenched privilege and power.

And then we go back to scolding people for demanding change.

In this scene from Matthew’s story, Jesus promises division. He promises even violence, since a sword is never a metaphor.

He promises violent division because he, as messiah, is engaged in the work of turning the world right-side-up.

That needs to be thought about carefully. If turning the world right-side-up were simply the work of ideology, then it would be impossible to distinguish the messiah from all the binary-opposites who refuse to listen to each other. There will be the usual violence between partisans, sometimes set off by instigators who have been waiting for such a moment to start their own private revolution.

I think the work of the messiah is more important, and more difficult than that. The work of the messiah pushes always for justice. The work of the messiah recognizes always that privilege and power will attempt to wait out and overturn anything that is inconvenient. And the work of the messiah refuses to stop pushing for justice, for equity, and for an end to any system that holds people as slaves, or tries to pretend that such things never really happened.

That is why there will be violence.

When it becomes clear that it will not work to wait out the demand for reform, those in charge of protecting power and privilege will work to stamp out what they cannot wait out.

This is where all this becomes difficult and dangerous. The easiest thing is to choose sides and go to war. And the second easiest thing is to scold for choosing sides.

The work of the messiah is harder than either of those options. The work of the messiah honors the complexity of the problems we face, and refuses to let that complexity be the pretext for, once again, doing nothing while pretending to make valiant efforts. The work of the messiah begins by listening to people whose experience of the world we cannot understand. My grandparents came to the United States in the belly of a boat, in steerage, but their experience of desperate hardship does not compare to the experience of people who were captured, chained, and sold.

My mother’s father was scorned and called a “Bohunk” who was stealing jobs from real Americans, but his experience does not compare to the experience of people who have to learn, over and over, that white men who murder people during a church Bible study survive (and are even taken out to eat), while black men who are accused of passing a phony $20 bill, or of selling loose cigarettes, or who are jogging down the street, are murdered, and the murderers historically go free most all of the time.

My friends who have family members in Law Enforcement know that every shift could be the one they fear, the one where everything turns violent, the one you don’t come home from, but even this unimaginable experience does not compare with the experience of my friends who have this same worry every time their son walks to the store or drives to work or jaywalks.

The work of the messiah requires listening, and then working until real change is made. The work of messiah requires being vigilant so that this difficult will not simply be undone once the spotlight is no longer on the problem.

The work of the messiah requires learning, over and over, that this is why the messiah Christians follow could only do that work by being raised from death after being lynched by the forces of power and privilege, the forces that know that what they can’t wait out they have to stamp out. The only answer to such power and privilege comes with the stubbornness of the resurrection.

The work of the messiah requires the resurrection.

One thought on “A Provocation: Third Sunday after Pentecost: June 21, 2020: Matthew 10:24-39

  1. [The easiest thing is to choose sides and go to war. And the second easiest thing is to scold for choosing sides.

    [The work of the messiah is harder than either of those options. The work of the messiah honors the complexity of the problems we face, and refuses to let that complexity be the pretext for, once again, doing nothing while pretending to make valiant efforts.]

    [The work of messiah requires being vigilant so that this difficult (work) will not simply be undone once the spotlight is no longer on the problem.]

    May we/I be sufficiently provoked/changed to work!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s