Family division. Sadly, it doesn’t take much these days to procure a pointed argument between those with whom we are supposed to be the closest. We know the usual suspects that will secure a disagreement — religion and politics. But, then there are those things closer to home — like parenting, a major life transition, a death. Those moments that conjure up old scripts for which we thought we had successfully rewritten our character. Those events that expose differences that, if we are honest, have always been there. Those occurrences that reveal the simmering tension just under the surface.
If we think that religion and politics are rather recent issues that cause conflict among family and friends, we need only read the Gospel lesson for this Sunday. Religion and politics have always been an impetus for debate. This is just one example of why the Bible continues to be relevant — how its stories give witness to the many truths of the human condition.
But with Jesus, things were maybe a little different. To believe in Jesus as the Messiah, to follow him, meant for many to leave behind family and friends — literally; family and friends who thought you were either crazy or criminal. Crazy to give up security and safety for an itinerant life. Crazy to abandon belonging and community for an existence with strangers. Criminal to follow a so-called Messiah. Criminal to believe that there was another God.
Or maybe, with Jesus, things were actually no different at all. This is the nature of our brokenness, our sin. We are innately suspicious of those who follow their heart. We question those who are secure in their beliefs. We challenge those who are willing to take risks. We belittle those who choose to live and vote by different values. And why? Not just because their opinion is different from ours. But because it causes us to question our own commitments. To wonder about our own beliefs. To doubt our own truth.
Religion and politics have become battlefields and I rather dislike the metaphor, especially the phrase “pick your battles.” Dear Working Preachers, you have had to fight many, I know. But here’s the thing. Our metaphors shape how we live. How we describe our ministry does not simply define our call but how we then choose to embody or incarnate our ministry.
Life is not a competition, faith is not contest, and I don’t think our people need anything else by which to be reminded of their so-called inadequacies. Rather, life is about being faithful to your truth and then committing yourself to learn the truth of the other. Faith is knowing what matters to you when it comes to God and being willing to hear what matters to the other. Were life, religion, politics, etc., to be less about who wins and more about what matters and why it matters — to ourselves, to others — I suspect things might be different.
A text like this calls out our propensity toward victory — and at what result? At what cost? Why is winning the end all of success?
Good grief, I fall into this trap all the time. I want my classes to be the best evaluated. I want my sermons and presentations at events to be the best ever. Like, really? My presentation at the Festival of Homiletics was not as highly rated as the one by Anna Carter Florence? I am then worthless. I want my kids to be chosen for the top roles, positions, etc. Where are you hell-bent on winning, and why? This is what the world says: because winning is worthiness. Victory is vindication. Second place is, well, second place. Just look at the silver medalists.
This is at the heart of division. Division, at its center, calls out our need for superiority. Our desire for one-upmanship. Our determination that being on top is, in the end, is what justifies our value. We are a culture of winners and losers — case in point, the Olympics, presidential elections — and there is nothing in between. That leaves a lot of us out there with nothing — somewhere in the middle, knowing we matter, we make a difference, but not in the ways noticed by the world because we have chosen a different metaphor by which to live our lives.
Jesus’ words name the truth of our human truth: our leanings toward suspicion and discord, toward calling every person’s value into question, toward doubt and distrust of even those to whom we thought we were close. We assume apprehension when there could be alignment. We anticipate wariness when there could be agreement. We accept skepticism when there could be loyalty. Times of division demand that we reevaluate our assumptions, our anticipations, and accepted loyalties, so as to enter into an interrogation of our own unnamed allegiances.
Jesus’ message this week is not fuel for discord but asks us to enter into the roots of discord itself and call it out for what it is. Jesus’ naming of our human tendency toward disagreement is not to suggest that we identify it as a value of Christian interaction and discourse, but to remind us that the creating of the community of Christ relies on our commitment to listening. Jesus’ naming of our instinct toward self-preservation over mutuality and reciprocity is not to shame us but to call us toward a different vision of what the world can be — a world that is truly committed to bringing about the Kingdom of God here and now.
“Let the prophet who has a dream to dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully” (Jeremiah 23:28).