Texts: Genesis 21: 8-21 and Matthew 10: 34-39
If you were asked to name some sayings of Jesus on the topic of peace, you’d probably quote phrases like “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5: 9), “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39), and “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). Or you might recall the story of Jesus reprimanding the disciple who drew his sword to defend Jesus at Gethsemane. What you are likely not to remember is that Jesus also said this: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Matthew’s Jesus goes on to reveal a specific plan: to pit family members against one another.
I can tell you, none of this is material for a feel-good sermon. I mean, if Jesus does pick up the sword, what will be next? S. betting on dog fights? R. opposing marriage equality? T. posting anti-immigrant jokes on Facebook? D. begging our county commissioners to display at Government Plaza the words “in God we trust” and tacking on John 3:16 for a Christian flourish? If Jesus picks up the sword, there’s no telling who else will betray their previously professed commitments.
You must be wondering, “What happened to the Jesus who spoke the beatitudes earlier in this same Gospel? He was such a NICE Jewish boy."
Or you might pose this astute question: “Are these authentic words from Jesus?” After all, no one followed him around with a tape recorder, and each Gospel writer portrays Jesus somewhat differently for a different theological aims, so no one can know for certain how close any of the Gospel portraits is to the historic Jesus of Nazareth. Maybe this passage misrepresents Jesus.
Yeh, let’s go with that. Jesus never really said, “I have come to set a man against his father.” Except that most scholars think the least flattering and most inflammatory passages about Jesus are likely the most authentic. Because the tradition preserving his life and teachings tended to polish off the rough edges to make him more palatable over the years. Bible scholars believe Jesus did say something very like, “I have come to set a man against his father.”
And it’s the undermining of the father’s role in particular that makes these statements so subversive—especially in a highly patriarchal culture.
Before we go further, let me thank the lectionary gods for not scheduling today’s scripture a week earlier--on Father’s Day. Even though efforts to empower women, expand images for God, and critique abuses of power should not threaten men, Father’s Day might not have been the ideal day to read Jesus’ prediction that “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” You certainly won’t find that verse on a Hallmark card.
Let’s investigate today’s Gospel reading in two ways. If we 1) attend to overall patterns in Matthew’s gospel and 2) recall its historical context—we’ll better understand why Matthew’s Jesus seems hell-bent on destroying the traditional family.
Once you start looking, you’ll see Matthew’s Gospel is peppered with countercultural attitudes toward fathers. For instance, a disciple asked if he could bury his father, as tradition required, before following Jesus, and Jesus retorted: “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt. 8:22). Taken as an isolated verse, Jesus sounds heartless. Taken in the context of an oppressively patriarchal culture and as symbolic language used throughout Matthew, Jesus might sound liberating.
In Matthew, there are only two earthly fathers identified as fathers. The disciples James and John are named as sons of Zebedee, for whom they work as fishermen in the family business. When Jesus called them to follow him, Matthew says they immediately left their boats and left their father, perhaps leaving Zebedee unable to make a living. Disciples may have to leave their fathers—or what fathers represent—to follow Jesus.
The other father Matthew identifies as a father is Herod—who slaughtered the innocent children in the attempt to kill the child he feared would unseat him. And indeed it is this larger system of patriarchy that Jesus is working against. Matthew’s Jesus, whose theme is the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Herod, is reconstituting the family—from a patriarchy ruled by the father—to a new kind of family ruled by God in a new kind of Kingdom/kindom ruled by God.
Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother (Matt. 12:50). He does NOT include father in that list. Because no one will be Jesus’s father but God. Because God’s ways must hold sway. Because God is father to ALL, which means all are equally children of God. Hierarchy ends in this new family.
The writers of Matthew and probably Jesus himself were using verbal shock and awe to expose oppression and domination. Such rhetorical extremism was needed to expose the problems in a patriarchal system so pervasive no one really knew of any other way to construct a cohesive society. Patriarchy so pervaded his culture—in every institution from the family on up to the highest levels of religious and political leadership—that it must have seemed the only way human society could function. From the Roman Emperor on down to the family unit where the father was, in his own home, the local ruler, Jesus lived in a male-dominated culture and in a pecking order that made some men lords over others. But Jesus chose to align himself with the outcast, the neglected, the powerless. Jesus lifted up the lowly.
Jesus was not against fathers. He was against a pervasive injustice that fathers participated in and fatherly privilege symbolized. He was against a system that gave power to the “patriarch” while ignoring the plight of women and slaves and children and the poor. Jesus’s decision to “focus on the family” was a subversive tactic. In a sense, the current Focus on the Family regime operates on the same assumption Jesus made: that as the family goes, so goes society and all the larger systems of power.
In Matthew’s Gospel, God is called Father far more than in any other Gospel. Matthew’s Jesus is saying the only real father is God. The ultimate authority is God. Matthew’s Jesus calls God “father” not to elevate that father image, not to deify the masculine, but rather to supplant the earthly father and create an allegiance to a higher authority. Unfortunately, the Church over the centuries has gotten that backwards and has used Father God language to give males special status. We, too, get trapped in patriarchy and need to be shocked from our complacency about exclusive language, sexist attitudes, violence against women, inequities in the work place, and rigid gender roles.
However, today’s shocking Gospel reading should not come as a surprise if we’ve been paying attention to Matthew’s Jesus all along.
And we shouldn’t be surprised by the sword-wielding Jesus if we’ve paid attention to the community for which Matthew’s Gospel was written. Matthew’s first readers were experiencing schisms in their families and in their house churches as Jesus followers gradually became a distinct group of Jews and eventually a distinct religion. The sword Jesus figuratively wielded was slicing families and synagogues in two. The Matthean community needed reassurance that divisions within families might be the consequence of following Jesus faithfully, might be a sign of that faithfulness.
Some of us deeply understand the distinction between family of choice versus family of birth. Reread today’s Gospel pericope from the perspective a young adult who has just told his family he’s gay, has been rejected by that family, been told God hates him, but knows somehow that there’s a God above their god who loves this young man as his ultimate Father and Mother. And maybe if this young man is lucky, he finds a church that can be family by choice. Does that passage still sound scary to you?
Or what if you are a woman who grew up in a Southern culture that taught you the cardinal virtues for YOU, not for men, were niceness, sweetness, politeness, deference, acquiescence? But you knew you had a brain in your head and you figured out you had a voice, too, and you saw that wrongs don’t get righted by being sweet and silent. And though it pained you to say things that deeply troubled your parents and others, you did, eventually. If you’re that woman, does Jesus’s call to love him and his ways more than parents and their ways still sound scary to you?
Jesus envisions a time when the now-powerless will be lifted up, when fathers and father-like authorities will be stripped of their authority, when old understandings of family will be undone. He’s not asking us to castrate fathers. But Jesus uses a phallic sword image to unman the male-vaunting system. I’m pushing the violent imagery here because Jesus did. I think we are supposed to feel uncomfortable with today’s Gospel reading—and the story of poor Hagar and child, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Jesus’s consistent personal ethic of peace and selflessness and compassion give him credibility to make some shocking statements that ARE frightening and threatening to those abusing power.
And they are not without cost to those without power. In the final two verses of today’s lection, Jesus tells the Southern girl and the gay guy that they must take up their crosses to follow him. We give up the old life to find the new life and that has its cost. Following Jesus requires tremendous risk and loss and scandal. Jesus uses his scary voice to prepare us for the cost of followship. And unfortunately, it’s usually the last and the least who show the way.
If Jesus’s concern is for the last and the least, I wonder how he’d have interpreted the story of Hagar and Ishmael. How might he have provided a Jewish midrash on that quintessential story of patriarchy from his own religious tradition. Abraham is THE patriarch, the archetypal patriarch. If we could interview Jesus today, I wonder if he’d begin, as he often did, “You have heard it said . . . that the boy must be lifted up, but I say, let us lift up his mother also. You have heard it said that masters control the lives of slaves, but I say let us free Hagar. You have heard it said that women have value only when they are mothers, but I say, let us love Sarah for who she is. You have heard it said that children can be discarded, but I say they are dear to me. You have heard it said that there must be a pecking order within the family and the human family, but I say let both Sara and Hagar, let both Isaac and Ishmael be cared for. The system you inherited is not the system that does justice and loves mercy and helps you follow humbly in the ways of God. There is another way. Follow me.”
Maybe that’s what Jesus, provocative preacher, outsider’s choice, would say.
God of Abraham and of Hagar, there are economic systems we take as givens. There are political systems we can’t think outside of. There are family dynamics we get stuck in. There are religious institutions that limit our aspirations and longings. May we be able to carry the ignoble cross and claim our full nobility as your very children. Amen