One of the challenges in reading the bible is that sometimes it rushes us
through a bunch of teachings in a very short period of time. So we barely have
time to absorb one teaching before we are on to the next one. At first glance,
the passage from Matthew today is almost that style of scattershot teaching.
Jesus talks about greatness, he talks about being called names, he talks about
secrets and revelation, fear, and assurance that we are valued, he talks about acknowledging
or denying him, about bringing a sword, dividing families, and picking up our
crosses and following him. Whew!
But if we really look at his conversation, Jesus seems to have a central
purpose. Essentially what Jesus is doing
is teaching the disciples about the religious conflict they would face in
He doesn’t want them to think that they won’t face persecution, or that
they won’t make enemies, or even that they won’t be killed for their beliefs. That’s
the overall message, it is just the specifics that are all over the place. So
all of those smaller teachings are specifics ways that Jesus encourages us to
stay strong in our faith and to hold onto him even if we face persecution,
discrimination or death threats.
So does that make sense and help bring it all together? Now I admit, you
might not like the message, because in general we don’t like the idea of
suffering for our faith.
But here is the thing, even though it makes sense, there is still one
section of Jesus’ teaching that makes us particularly uncomfortable. Even when
we know he is trying to encourage us to hold onto the faith. It is Jesus’
statement near the end that he has come not bringing peace, but a sword; and
that because of him people’s enemies will be members of their own households. It
is a disturbing and problematic teaching for most of us, who in general believe
that Jesus is pro-family.
What makes it difficult for us is that we forget that the realm of God that
Jesus proclaims is essentially such a radical shift from the norms of his time
that he expects it to cause disruption.
I have been reading a book called The
Power of Parable, and in it John Dominic Crossan explains how paradigm
Do you know what a paradigm is? It is a way of viewing the world that
organizes how we think about things. For example, long ago people thought there
were only four elements in nature: earth, air, water and fire. But then
chemists came along, and they began to understand that there were atoms, and
there were a lot more than four types of atoms. That breakthrough allowed
people to explore chemical reactions, and even create new chemicals that have
changed our world.
Another example was the idea that the sun went around the earth. The idea
that our world was the center of everything. Eventually science realized that
this was wrong, the earth went around the sun. This was a paradigm shift.
But paradigm shifts are tricky because people don’t like to change the way
they think about the world. It doesn’t matter if we are scientists, religious
leaders, or politicians – once we see the world one way, it is very hard to
change our mind. Max Planck, one of the originators of Quantum Physics, said in
his Scientific Autobiography, that “a
new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making
them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new
generation grow up that is familiar with it.”
The same is true with religious paradigm shifts.
What Crossan points out in The Power
of Parable is that none of the conflicts that Jesus mentions in this
passage are conflicts between members of the same generation, in other words,
Jesus expects that the older generation will reject his teaching and it will
take a new generation to accept it.
He understands the pattern of change. Jesus was not going to convince his
opponents, and he knew it. They didn’t like what he had to say, and nothing he
said would change that. Rather he was appealing to the new generation of young
people to accept what he was saying, and he was telling them, that they may
face conflict with their parents and other elders in their community.
Of course, that helps us to understand why Jesus would say this to his
disciples, but what does that say to us though? Certainly there are still
places in the world where the gospel message is so new, that its reception is
very much the same as it was for the disciples. Those who accept Jesus’ message
are making very definite splits with family tradition and are likely to face
conflict with the older members of their families. I am sure that John could
attest to that. And there are a few times when this happens even here in the
United States where a family is so new to the gospel message that a person who
comes to faith faces strong opposition from their family.
But for most of us – who live in a relatively comfortable Christian
culture, where the older and younger generations should both be holding to his
teachings, there should no longer be family conflict, right?
Well, not necessarily. One thing that happens is that over time society
often blinds us to parts of Jesus’ teachings, or we get caught up in the way we
have always done things that we aren’t open to change. But then someone
rediscovers the power of one of Jesus’ teachings and its application for today,
and there is conflict between the generations again.
Let’s look at one example. In late 19th century many Christians
looked around at what was happening with industrialization.
They saw the “economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial
tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions,
poor schools, and the danger of war.”
One pastor, Washington Gladden, began to read Jesus again, and realized that a
lot of what Jesus teaches is not about heaven, but it is about earth, and how
we treat one another. He wrote a book in 1877 in which he said that “Christian
law covers every relation of life,” including the relationship between
employers and their employees. But although what Gladden was pointing out was
true, people didn’t accept it right away. Pastors like Dwight Moody said that
preaching about social issues would distract people from the lifesaving message
of the gospel.
It really took at least a generation for Gladden’s work to be heard. Groups
like the Salvation Army, the YMCA emerged. World missionaries no longer just
preached the word, but brought medical help with them. Christianity regained
its social message. That was a paradigm shift, that challenged the “status quo
Christianity” to re-look at what Jesus stood for and consequently challenged
the whole social structure of our nation and how we reached out to other
nations. You have to believe that this pitted generation again generation as
they talked about what it meant to be Christian. It had to be too easy for
people to say, “these new teachers and preachers are trying to change what
Jesus said, don’t listen to them. Stick with the old, with what we know and
trust.” In fact some of that conflict still exists today as some people think
Christianity shouldn’t talk about social issues.
So I hear Jesus encouraging his followers not to just hold on to the old
religious views and practices simply because they are the old religious views.
He was challenging Jewish belief that had stood for at least 1000 years. He
expected it to cause intergenerational conflict. I suspect he is also reminding
us along the way that there will come new issues, new challenges to faith, and
that we may have to re-evaluate things that we have done for 1000 years.
I do think that Jesus gives us some guidelines in evaluating these changes
Does it acknowledge God? For he tells us that “everyone who acknowledges me
before people, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven. But
everyone who denies me before people, I also will deny before my Father who is
Is it open to evaluation or does it try to claim secret knowledge? Jesus
reminds us, “don’t be afraid of those people because nothing is hidden that
won’t be revealed, and nothing secret that won’t be brought out into the open.
What I say to you in the darkness, tell in the light; and what you hear
whispered, announce from the rooftops.”
Don’t give in to fear-mongering or threats.
Jesus instructs us, “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t
kill the soul. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul
Finally, when we look at the changes in thought and approach, Jesus final
statements in this teaching are: “Those who don’t pick up their crosses and
follow me aren’t worthy of me. Those who find their lives will lose them, and
those who lose their lives because of me will find them.” I think he is telling
us the kingdom of God turns things on their head, and we must look for that
which is truly the world-changing and builds
of the realm of God. True change requires deep risk.
We live in a time where religious practices are quickly shifting, along
with that, many religious beliefs are also being challenged. I believe that
Jesus understood that process of change, and that he would remind us that when
generational ideas clash, families suffer. It isn’t that he hated families, he
just understood the dynamics. He would also remind those of us who are parents,
grandparents and great-grandparents to listen carefully to what the next
generation is saying, it just may be that they have heard Christ more clearly
than we have, and they are calling us into faithfulness in a place where we
have lost track of what is important.
And one last thing, I know that he would also comfort us, although we are
told that we are going to be at odds with even our family,
“Don’t be afraid. Even as every sparrow is known, so are you. Your
thoughts, your worries, your love, your faith. God knows all of these. Yes, you
in all of your completeness are known by God. And you are loved and valued.
Even when everything else is changing, this does not.”