It’s never easy to speak about divisive Jesus. Passages like today’s reading aren’t comfortable in today’s world, because if your experience is anything like mine, we oftentimes feel that divisive Jesus is used by the “other side” to justify an unpopular stance on the day’s political or social issues.
We like to use divisiveness as a marker of our own justification.
We may use “shepherd Jesus” when helping a friend in need, but we pull out divisive Jesus when it comes to our politics. Are you being mocked for your views? Ah well, Jesus said that would happen. That must mean you are holding the truth.
However, when we use Jesus to justify our viewpoints rather than looking at how Jesus himself confronts our viewpoints, I think we can get a message that reinforces our own shortcomings rather than truly challenging ourselves on our path toward the kingdom.
What is so divisive about Jesus? Why would he use this language of division and fire in speaking to the crowds at the end of a varied series of sermons and parables?
I didn’t frame this around politics in order to say that Jesus isn’t political. Jesus is very political. Politics killed Jesus. Almost all of his actions were strong statements against the established legal and religious powers. He overturned tables in the temple. He continually escaped the traps of the Pharisees. He worked on the Sabbath. He affirms the inherent value of those oppressed and forgotten by Rome.
But the reason he is divisive isn’t just because he’s taking a stand on salient political issues, it is because he proposes a path of holiness that sidesteps those issues –and that angers the power structures more than anything because it undermines them more effectively than simply proposing an opposing policy.
Jesus is divisive because he always refuses to play the game.
Earlier in this chapter, a man calls out from the crowd asking Jesus to settle a financial dispute about inheritance between him and his brother. Jesus responds by asking the man why he should have any business to judge between them before turning to the people and lecturing them about the dangers of greed and encouraging the people that life is not defined by what you have.
He sidesteps the call to judgement with a deeper answer about human flourishing.
We as humans want Jesus to be the judge. We want someone to give us a clear dichotomy between what is right and what is wrong. We seek judgement because it draws an easy line in the sand; we want the winner and the loser. It would be much easier for us if Jesus could just propose a political platform around which we rally and vote, but Jesus makes it clear that this is not his job.
At every turn, at every legal and rhetorical trap, Jesus reveals an alternative inner path, a way of life that asks us to become more than who we are and to move on a path toward living in God’s kingdom.
So when people look at this passage today and say that Jesus told us to be divisive, that he came to start a fire and to carry a sword –it’s not because Jesus is calling us to be violent, obnoxious people who are proud of our self righteous and seemingly godly stances.
No, Jesus is divisive because he proclaims a way out of the vicious cycle of empire.
The way out is by going in — in deep inside of ourselves. This is why the kingdom is so difficult to access. Like passing through the eye of a needle. You can’t just sign onto a new set of political views with Jesus, you have to do deep, transformational work within yourself. You have to be ready, time and again. You have to be dressed, as Jesus says, staying up late in expectation of the master.
You have to say yes and open yourself to the things of God.
Jesus chides the people for being able to tell the weather, but not being able to recognise the fundamental change of season he is bringing. Jesus isn’t just developing a more progressive political party against Rome, which is what the people want and expect, he is bringing us into a whole new God-season, a new creation.
The temptation for us today is that we interpret divisive, fire-making Jesus simply as the Jesus who justifies our own fiercely held beliefs about our own empire. We convince ourselves that we are defending Jesus and people don’t like us because of our faith, even if our own views of the day have little to do with Jesus’ true call toward kingdom living.
Just because your politics are unpopular doesn’t mean you are taking a stand. Jesus continually reinforces that this type of divisiveness isn’t the point. The fire he is lighting, the divisiveness he is bringing is because God is not the God of human systems.
I like the image that priest and writer Richard Rohr provides for Christians. “ Those who agree to carry and love what God loves — which is both the good and the bad — and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves, these are the followers of Jesus Christ. They are the leaven, the salt, the mustard seed that God uses to transform the world. The cross, then, is a very dramatic image of what it takes to usable for God. It does not mean you are going to heaven and others are not; rather, it means you have entered into heaven much earlier and can see things in a transcendent, whole, and healing way now.”
Importantly, this doesn’t mean we can or should expect popularity along this path. We are not just going along with the flow to make our faith a trendy lifestyle. The humble way of the cross will never be the dominant way of the world. The empire killed Jesus, and today’s reading from Hebrews is filled with the testimonies of those who took a leap of faith, who said yes to God to move their framework of living beyond the world. And as the writer says, they never got their hands on what was promised, but lived in hope of resurrection.
Divisive Jesus for us should be a marker of that hope. A recognition that life won’t be easy, and we won’t be popular as we turn the world right-side-up, but that true kingdom living continually brings us into ourselves in order to draw us out of ourselves. We participate in a redeeming force that yes, may eventually and hopefully will include our politics, but that no matter what is always much, much larger than any human empire.
Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
18 August 2019, Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Readings: Luke 12:49-56, Hebrews 11:29-12:2