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Sometimes hope isn’t all that comforting. Believe it or not, Jesus, in his pronouncement of division and fire, is offering hope.
When we get to this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been in Jerusalem for quite a while. Although the city was subsumed in the enormity of the Roman Empire, Jerusalem was the seat of power among the Jews. It had been for centuries – since King Solomon took the Ark of the Covenant and entombed it in the first Temple. But several centuries later, when Jesus was living, what remained was a Jewish hierarchy who was kowtowing to the Roman oppressors to maintain their own power while the Jewish people remained subjugated. It was an unjust system.
And Jesus went to Jerusalem, knowing that to bring his teaching in the midst of the hierarchy, would be confronting systemic power. All the Gospel writers talk about his trip to Jerusalem in one way or another, recognizing it as a politically subversive act.
His teachings came out of the Hebrew Scriptures – writings filled with the prophecies of Jeremiah and Hosea and Amos and, like today’s, Isaiah. And these prophets had been constant critics of the powers that be – reminding the Israelite leadership of their responsibility for the weak and the oppressed and how disappointed God was because they failed to live out God’s covenant, becoming too invested in maintaining the system of power at the expense of those it subjugated.
Centuries later, Jesus saw the same thing happening in his time – the Jewish leadership and Roman overlords, who were responsible for looking after the good of the people, were more interested in maintaining power than in caring for the whole. So he went to challenge the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, which he knew would also upset the Roman governor. And he also knew he was taking his life in his hands in doing so.
While he was there, he taught and gathered crowds, creating disorder and agitation and he broke Jewish laws, flouting the Jewish authority. Jesus and his disciples were, to put it bluntly, rabble rousers. And he was executed for it.
So when we have Jesus in today’s Gospel, talking about division and fire, it’s important to understand the context. He was talking about exposing and tearing apart the existing human system because it had become oppressive. It had become sinful.
For those who were invested in the system, this didn’t sound like hope. It sounded like division and so he named it as such. Human systems are a natural part of our functioning because we are inherently social creatures. Clubs, social groups, networks, teams, workgroups, communities. Remember the 80’s television show Cheers, about a place where “everybody knows your name.”
We feel supported by these communities and circles of friends. We feel cared for and invited and we have a sense of group identity. It’s human nature to form tribes, to form cohesive groups where we can feel safe, feel seen, feel as though we belong. And these tribes develop rules of behavior, whether they are written or unwritten, patterns that order the society of the group that help us to know how to act.
More often than not, however, this desire for systemic community can develop into a tribalism, a need to protect and defend the tribe from influence that seems foreign or that seems to threaten the status quo in some way.
Inevitably, the system starts to function at the expense of others – people are stifled or left out, seen as expendable in some way, even treated with disdain, oppressed or killed.
Even still, the rules of the tribe become an entrenched pattern that is unquestioned – the air in which we breathe. We just accept the rules of institutions and the laws of governments and the cultural expectations of society and they become so much a part of the way things are that, over time, we are unable to see that there is anything but this way of being.
But those with the privilege of belonging usually aren’t going to risk upsetting the tribal rules that order the community even if they were able to see what it does to others. Because the way things are is just the way things are.
There’s a movie called Babe. One of my very favorite movies. It’s about life on a small sheep farm. The creatures on this farm have all learned the deal – they know their purpose and have ordered life accordingly.
- Only dogs and cats are allowed in the house.
- The dogs think the sheep are stupid and the sheep think the dogs are bullies.
- Farmer Hogget and his wife are the bosses of the whole thing.
- And, of course, some animals are meant to be eaten.
And then a young pig named Babe comes along. The mama dog named Fly takes Babe under her care and Babe begins to learn what it’s like to be a sheepdog, which is unusual because pigs don’t hang out with sheepdogs and they certainly aren’t supposed sleep in the barn or go in the house. And Babe comes to find a place in the life of the farm, despite the system that says pigs are meant to be eaten.
But the wheels begin to come off the wagon when Farmer Hogget starts to see Babe acting like, well, like a sheep pig. Babe begins to look after the sheep like a sheepdog would and, with a little coaching from Fly, learns how to help Farmer Hogget with his sheep.
Babe is no longer Christmas dinner. Babe is a sheep pig.
Well, the idea of a sheep pig sends the farm into chaos – the cat gets jealous and whispers words of fear, the older dog gets angry because he’s lost his place as the boss’s trusted sidekick and he starts to attack, the sheep get a little confused but are ultimately happier because Babe doesn’t bully them the way the dogs do, and Mrs. Hogget starts to think her husband is deeply disturbed and becomes embarrassed among her friends.
This story, this parable, if you will, is a much gentler version of our readings today. Because it’s about how when we unveil an unjust system for what it is, it can feel as though the wheels are falling off the wagon. Even though it’s hopeful, it can feel like division.
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
Isaiah is saying God will remove favor and let Israel destroy itself because Israel offered bloodshed instead of justice and suffering instead of righteousness.
The prophets believed that the ancient Israelites had incurred God’s wrath because they had failed God by failing the covenant they made with God to care for the whole of God’s people. Power was used to maintain the system of privilege in Israelite society instead of honoring the God of life by caring for the alien and the neighbor, which is explicitly called for in Jewish law.
In his book called Reality, Grief, and Hope, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says:
“The prophets expose the ideology-enthralled regime of Jerusalem as failing in covenantal, neighborly practice… [this involves] both an indictment and a sentence. It will not surprise that the indictment basically concerns two matters, the abuse of neighbors, especially vulnerable neighbors, and the dishonoring of God.”
His point is, that in Israel’s understanding of itself as God’s chosen people, it has created a human system in which “the dominant culture [had], in its chosenness, failed to love neighbor and so has failed to regard the weak, poor, and vulnerable as legitimate members of the community.” (pgs 19-20)
And when this is pointed out… when the system is exposed for its tribalism, its sin, its failure to uphold the covenant, the wheels fall off the wagon. Just like they did on Farmer Hogget’s farm.
People get jealous and whisper words of fear.
People get angry and attack the perceived problematic element.
People get confused and unsure how to handle the shifts and changes, even if they benefit from them.
And people become embarrassed to be associated with the person who is willing to take the risk.
It feels like division… like:
Father against son and son against father
Mother against daughter and daughter against mother…
But really… it’s a form of unveiling. And, ultimately, it’s hope.
The veil is being pulled back as problems with the system are revealed. And this is what Jesus had come to Jerusalem to expose.
He’s shining the light of Christ on the shadow of the system.
He’s telling us that the Gospel, the Good News, is that the Christ light that shines through the darkness of the world, the darkness generated by the very systems we created and in our blindness and, sometimes, willful ignorance, perpetuate to ensure our own power, our own status quo remains intact.
This is a hard, hard thing to understand and tolerate and even harder to appreciate and welcome. Because for the people of privilege, for the people who have never had to tolerate oppression or marginalization by the power structures, it feels like loss. It feels like all the values we’ve ever held dear are now being dishonored. And we feel dishonored and threatened.
And even for the people of no privilege, it feels confusing and risky… almost like “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” And we know we’ll be blamed for the resulting chaos on Hogget’s Farm.
But the Gospel is very clear that Jesus came to liberate, to expose and overturn unjust systems.
- From Mother Mary’s announcement of her pregnancy in Luke’s Gospel in which she understands her role as the lowly servant who has been asked to bear such a honor, saying “[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts and… brought down the powerful from their thrones.” (Luke 1:46-55)
- To the Beatitudes in which Jesus claims the weak, the poor, the oppressed… are blessed along with those who seek peace and offer mercy. (Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-26)
- To Jesus’ insistence on flouting the Jewish rules against eating with the outcasts and consorting with lepers. (Luke 5: 27-32; 7:36-50; 14: 12-14; 17:11-19; 19:7-10)
- All the way to his death, a highly political death in which the powers that be were attempting to keep the rabble rousers in their place by executing the one who risked his life because he exposed the sin of the system. (Luke Chapter 23)
Jesus, our savior and messiah, taught us that the light Christ shines in the world, shines so that we might see the dark shadows of our own systems… and see through our own jealousy and anger and confusion and embarrassment. Christ’s light shines so that we can bring our fears into the light and see a new way – a way we might reform the system or, even, let the system die.
And, as disquieting as it is, Jesus is reminding us of our own hypocrisy, noting our preference to remain comfortable rather than interpret what’s happening as a call to our own transformation.
A few weeks ago, I reminded you all that we are the hope – the Body of Christ who so earnestly seeks to find the image of God in one another. Hope lies in our hands and feet and hearts and minds.
What is being unveiled right now? What are the signs we’re being called to interpret? Where is Christ’s light shining on the shadows of our unjust human systems?
Because Jesus reminds us today that hope isn’t about our own comfort, our individual desires and the things we want out of life.
Hope is about God’s Reign of justice and love.