The work of Easter is begun
Week of Sunday June 22 -Pentecost 2
Gospel: Matthew 10:24-39
‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
26 ‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32 ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35 For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
The gospel reading for his week is poignantly timed. In the first week after Pentecost and Trinity Sunday we are pointed to another consequence of being possessed by the Spirit: persecution. Persecution so bad that Jesus says "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Matt 10:34) Matthew's people lived in terrible times.
We know that this statement has been true. People still die for their faith. I often wonder what the lack of persecution in my life says about how little I have actually taken up my cross. (10:38) And each time I wonder about this, I am fearful.
Despite our claims to being a peaceful and civilised country, we have built our society upon violence and still maintain it in this way; witness the way we dehumanise refugees to maintain our own social cohesion. Or how, still, we are taking aboriginal children from their families. "The wilful ignorance in Australia about its first people has now become the kind of intolerance that gets to the point where you can smash an entire group of humanity and there is no fuss." (Josie Cranshaw Ibid) What am I not doing that I sit here in such comfort?
At the least, even if we do little else, we should be living life on the margins. Stoffregen quotes Matthew and the Margins (Carter) this week.
... crucifixion was not used on Roman citizens, but "for sociopolitical marginals such as 'rebellious' foreigners" (p. 243). Thus, "The cross was a means of dividing citizen from non-citizen, the socially acceptable from the rejected" (p 243).
...Jesus' words are a call to choose a way of life of marginalization, to identify with the nobodies like slaves, and with those some understood to be cursed by God. It is to identify with those who resist the empire's control, who contest its version of reality, and who are vulnerable to its reprisals. It is to identify with a sign of the empire's violent and humiliating attempt to dispose of those who threatened or challenged its interests. To so identify is not to endorse the symbol but to reframe its violence. As the end of the gospel indicates, it is to identify with a sign that ironically indicates the empire's limits. The empire will do its worst in crucifying Jesus. But God raises Jesus from death, thwarting the empire's efforts. And Jesus will return to establish God's empire over all including Rome (24:27-31). To not respond positively to such a call is to not be a disciple (not worthy of me; see 10:37). [p. 244]
In all of this, when you are handed over— like Jesus— he says, "do not worry,"
... for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (10:19-20)
We are in the time of Pentecost.
Then, in our reading for this week, three times, we are told not to be afraid, (26, 28, 31) because
nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered
those who kill the body cannot kill the soul and
you are of more value than many sparrows.
It seems cold comfort! People were being killed. We all know that sparrows do fall. And the worst will often come from those closest to us... "one's foes will be the members of one's household." (10:36)
Jim Strathdee adapted some words of Howard Thurman like this:
I am the Light of the World
You people come and follow me.
If you follow and love, You'll learn the mystery
Of what you were meant to do and be.
When the song of the angels is stilled.
When the star in the sky is gone.
When the kings and the shepherds have found their way home.
The work of Christmas is begun!
Should I instead sing this?
When the crowds at the cross have gone home
When the stone is rolled from the tomb
When the Lord has come among you and you have seen his wounds
The work of Easter is begun.
For it is in the work of Easter that I have truly learned the mystery of who I am and what I am meant to do. As little cross as I have carried, I have found life. I've lost the life of material success which is the Australian Dream but found something much richer.
Jesus calls us to follow him to the margins of society. We could take the lesson of Micah 7, which he loosely quotes as he speaks about the hostility of family. Micah was describing Israel as a nation with those words!
2The faithful have disappeared from the land,
and there is no one left who is upright;
they all lie in wait for blood,
and they hunt each other with nets....
6for the son treats the father with contempt,
the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
your enemies are members of your own household.
7 But as for me, I will look to the Lord,
I will wait for the God of my salvation;
my God will hear me.
It is really a description of human society. It is not Israel long ago. It is us! The onus is always on us to show why scripture does not apply to us.
We say family is the basis of society. The wisdom of the Tanakh, which we so foolishly call the Old Testament, tells us that family is where violence and blame begin; where, you could say, it has its genesis. Adam blames Eve. Cain kills Abel. And Lamech takes the violence further.... If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold. (Genesis 4:19-24) The violence escalates.
Sometimes I wonder at the Girardian emphasis on scapegoating and violence, and then I remember the families I know...
"It's all your fault," is screamed at a child at a young age. And with someone to blame, the perpetrator is able to persevere in an impossible situation with a veneer of piety. But as that child grows and rejects the role of family scapegoat, so does the sullen passive aggressive insistence that they conform. When the perpetrator is challenged the reply is instant violent rage. And when the child finally definitively refuses to fit the mould, a child from the next generation is chosen to be the one who is difficult and always at fault, and their sibling is chosen as the new favourite. The cycle of violence continues....
This is not an unusual story, but a variation on a tune.
Jesus' refusal to reply to our violence with violence, but replying with forgiveness, is the decisive breaking of such cycles. It is the work of Easter. Look again at the work in that song.
To find the lost and lonely one,
To heal that broken soul with love,
To feed the hungry children with warmth and good food,
To feel the earth below the sky above!
To free the prisoner from all chains,
To make the powerful care,
To rebuild the nations with strength and goodwill,
To see God's children everywhere.
This is no mere goodwill and compassion. It is felt by the world as judgement! For that is what it is! Jesus' judged our violence as unworthy, ungodly, and dehumanising by his refusal to take part in it. And when we refuse to take part in the violence of the world we do the same. All that is covered is uncovered and all that is secret becomes known. (Matt 10:26) As John says
9And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
Schwager (Must There Be Scapegoats?) says Jesus'
... coming uncovers the deep-seated tensions already present and thus provokes open enmities. He seems like a sword and a troublemaker because he unmasks as delusionary the familiar forms of human harmony. Even the most natural and intimate interpersonal relations cannot stand in his presence. He unveils secret discords. His appearance brings judgment, and he sets before all humans the truth that the prophet Micah had proclaimed over Israel..... Since Jesus as the unique peacemaker also unmasks the most hidden violence, instant reconciliation is not the immediate consequence of his coming. On the contrary, murderous violence becomes even more evident.... .
My wife and I were first alerted to this by Herb Golberg's book The New Male-Female Relationship. We found a constant struggle against the expectation of family and culture into which we, of course, had been thoroughly indoctrinated. The harder we tried to relate differently as a couple from the old models of male supremacy, the harder it became. In the short view it looks far easier to acquiesce and adopt the faux harmony of that essentially violent relationship that has one person calling the shots, instead of developing a real reconciling relationship. This is hard work.
It took me a long time to appreciate just how much of our struggle to faith-fully model a different relationship for our children was a struggle to break the cycle of violence in our personal histories. (My wife is not so slow as me. And for the blokes... well it's easier staying the same as a male.)
My sister said in her eulogy for our father that, "we had a blessedly sane and secure upbringing." I have not ceased to marvel at how significantly he had broken with the cycles of violence that were around him to provide us with that.
These tensions are why the honeymoon always ends in parish ministry. Even if the minister is the most compassionate of people, utterly forgiving, wise to all the blunders of newcomers, and seems magically able to recognise all our sensitivities, anger and disillusionment with her or him is inevitable. And the better the preacher they are, and the better they witness to living like Jesus, the sooner the honeymoon is over and the marriage begins.... because the Gospel exposes us.
Michael Hardin says
Our congregations are, if they live anywhere other than a cave without cable, aware that the world around them is slowly but surely dissolving. Civility (the temporary victory of prohibition in culture) is vanishing, if not gone altogether... This dissolution might, at first glance, appear to be the mark of the failure of all that we stand for as Christians. If we can see only an immediate view of things, this will surely seem to be true. But viewed from the viewpoint of mimetic theory, this is an unavoidable stage in the manifestation of the victory of the Gospel. ... The violence we see around us may be frightening, but it is also a sign that the Gospel is doing its work in culture, slowly but surely eroding the false peace built on the sacrifice of the innocent. We will never be able to go back again. Only movement forward to positive mimesis, to Jesus' rejection of violence, can bring peace now. The ground is being prepared for the seeds of peace. We have only to sow them.
This is worth unpacking because it takes us from an understanding of the judgement of our society (which is a negative understanding) to a positive understanding of what the Gospel is actually doing for our society. Even... how successful it has been!
The thing about scapegoating is that it depends on its invisibility. We can't live with ourselves when we know what we are doing. We are deeply convicted that to punish the innocent is a grave sin against God and humanity. Girard says
Because of Jewish and Christian influence scapegoat phenomena no longer occur in our time except in a shameful, furtive, and clandestine manner. We haven't given up having scapegoats, but our belief in them is 90 percent spoiled. The phenomenon appears so morally base to us, so reprehensible, that when we catch ourselves "letting off steam" against someone innocent, we are ashamed of ourselves.
This influence is actually hugely destabilising! It leaves us in a vacuum, in a sense. How can I live with myself when I see the violence that I am? It is why calling someone racist is such an insult in Australia. We have learned something to which we were once blind, and now we are ashamed. And so now we say, "I am not racist, but...." We live in denial.
And how can I still get my own way, and keep safe and secure if I don't fight for it? Everything about us is designed to put us first, to enable our biological survival. We have evolved this way, and that original competition to simply physically survive has morphed into the violence which comes from our conviction that we must imitate others, have what they have, and do it and have it better.
We keep seeking ways to re-establish our blindness— a wilful blindness; that is, we keep seeking to return to the familiar comfort and safety of a scapegoat stabilised world — as long as we are not the scapegoat! — rather than face the emptiness and loss of life (in the Matthew 10 sense) that comes if we abandon it.
As John says, we inherently "love... darkness rather than light." It takes a mighty conversion to trust God enough to come to the Light and live like Jesus. Instead, We know what is going on with scapegoating, violence, and vengeance, but although
[i]t is easier than in the past to observe collective transferences upon a scapegoat because they are no longer sanctioned and concealed by religion. ... it is still difficult because the individuals addicted to them [ie, us] do everything they can to conceal their scapegoating from themselves, and as a general rule they succeed. Today as in the past, to have a scapegoat is to believe one doesn't have any. The phenomenon in question doesn't usually lead any longer to acts of physical violence, but it does lead to a "psychological" violence that is easy to camouflage. Those who are accused of participating in hostile transference never fail to protest their good faith, in all sincerity....
When we suspect people around us of giving in to the temptation of scapegoating, we denounce them indignantly. We ferociously denounce the scapegoating of which our neighbors are guilty, but we are unable to do without our own substitute victims. We all try to tell ourselves that we have only legitimate grudges and justified hatreds, but our feeling of innocence is more fragile than our ancestors'. (Girard)
And those legitimate grudges and justified hatreds are the seed of violence. They are the basis upon which we no longer feel ashamed to say, "Me first!" and excuse ourselves even when our insistence results in great suffering for others.
The only real alternative to the scapegoat, violence based world is to trust Jesus' call to the radical non violent, non vengeful life which is called compassion and forgiveness which he shows us in his life, death, and resurrection. And that of course is an invitation to the margins, because it says I am willing suffer the loss of family, home, job, even life... rather than cease to be non violent, non vengeful and forgiving.
Even in the tiny bit I have managed this I have known the loss of one life and the profound gaining of another in that phenomenon I call the lavish and unwarranted return on small crumbs of faith. The "Do not fear because...." that is the threefold assurance of Matthew 10 begins to feel a little less like cold comfort. The Spirit leaks into the vacuum left by the judgement of my life. I begin to be filled
Which life will we choose? Are we worthy to be called disciples? Do we want life from losing life or do we want the keeping our lives and losing our souls?
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!