Preached at St. Thomas à Becket on August 18, 2019. Year C, Proper 15, Track 1. Gospel Lectionary passage Luke 12:49-56.
Now, I know I’m new to this gig, and I admit my seminary education only covered so much. But I can’t help thinking that a deliberate tactic of causing division amongst generations is not in the textbook for Church Building 101. Here in our Gospel passage today Jesus has some harsh words for his audience, words that are hard to reconcile with our image of love, peace, and harmony with which he is often associated with in our minds. And while Luke’s phrasing could leave some room for doubt where Jesus stands on this—whether simply observing something which seemed be happening, or even which side he’s on—Matthew’s version of this same saying is clearer: “For I have come to set a child against their parent.”
Let that sit for a minute while we make a brief digression to discuss one of the methods Jesus is using in his work, which adds more support to this picture.
We Christians have many answers to the question “Who was Jesus?” But before we get into theological territory, it’s useful to reflect on what he did more than his identity with God. Yes, he taught, he healed, cast out demons, fed people, led a group of followers, and more. But there’s one feature we often forget.
I was reading a paper on Luke by religious scholar Dr. Matthew Rindge this week, and he begins by laying out his answer for who Jesus was before all else: he was a storyteller. Rindge writes, “...in the beginning were the stories. Before all the titles attributed to Jesus and before the stories about him were the stories he told.“ He goes on to describe how one-third of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel of Luke are stories, with more stories told than any other Gospel. And what kind of stories does Jesus tell? Well, parables of course. But what are parables, really?
One of the most authoritative scholars on the parables is John Dominic Crossan, who breaks up storytelling into five genres: myth, fable, action, satire, parable. This is how Crossan describes the function of each of the story types in his genre-defining book The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story:
“Story establishes world in myth,
defends such established world in fable,
discusses and describes world in action,
attacks world in satire,
and subverts world in parable.”
As another scholar says in agreement, “The threat of the parable is that it subverts the myths that sustain our world” (Bernard Brandon Scott).
Ok. So Jesus’ primary teaching takes the form of stories, which are deliberately crafted to subvert or deconstruct the world his listeners have inherited, and he then comes out here and tells us the resulting division between the younger and older generation is exactly his intent in proclaiming his good news. And we teach this guy to our kids!
What does it mean that good news is often only found on the far side of loss? On the individual level, this reminds me of a story I heard around the dinner table Friday night.
Apparently, there was a local professor a number of years ago who was adamantly against women preaching. His wife seemed to be timid soul who often accompanied him on his motorcycle rides. One day they took a crash, and he died while she ended up in the hospital for a while. But after leaving the medical facility, she went off to seminary and flourished as a Lutheran pastor! That structure which seemed so secure and life-giving, rooted in tradition, to her husband, was actually masking oppression—for better or worse, her emancipation came through physical loss rather than facing the family split which would have been the result of standing up for her call while he was alive.
This narrative of conflict between traditional values and disruptive yet freeing movements has played out extensively in the last decade, from LGBT rights to women and racial minorities, with much inter-family division and social upheaval accompanying the movement toward freedom, justice, and equality. And it’s that societal upheaval that I think Jesus’ words are more clearly targeting, as he continues with some weather forecasting:
And he also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising over the west, you immediately say a storm is coming, and so it happens, and when a south wind blows, you say it will be hot, and so it happens. Charlatans, you know how to discern the face of earth and sky, but how do you not discern this season?”
If we knew our Hebrew prophets as well as this crowd, we too might immediately understand what is going on—Jesus did not come up with this family division language on his own, but is recasting it from the prophet Micah at the conclusion of his book (Micah 7:6). Micah was first to prophesy the fall of Jerusalem, which happened later in his career. He saw this inevitability happening because “its beautification was financed by dishonest business practices, which impoverished the city’s citizens.”
Jesus evidently expected his audience to associate him with the mission of the prophets who called the powerful and wealthy to task for their mistreatment of the poor, and clearly his condemnation of Jerusalem comes into play in much the same way. Just as Micah observed, Jesus knows: his mission is to enter into an already disintegrating oppressive society and set out to push it to fully collapse.
I was reading more about this topic, and found a term which sums this up: “Social disruption is a term used in sociology to describe the alteration, dysfunction or breakdown of social life, often in a community setting. Social disruption implies a radical transformation, in which the old certainties of modern society are falling away and something quite new is emerging.”
How many of us can relate to this quote from the eminent sociologist Ulrich Beck in his posthumous book The Metamorphosis of the World:
“We are wandering aimlessly and dispassionately, arguing for and against, but the one statement on which we are, beyond all differences and over many continents, to be able to agree on, is: ‘I can no longer understand the world’.”
A few months back, my own father expressed concerns with some thoughts I had expressed publicly. He wrote in an email, referring in general to what I have been saying for a while: “There was a lot of quite radical social re-engineering of american society presented...I do agree there are things to improve/change but.......” and here he trailed off.
My response was to say that “Our society is already ‘socially engineered’—it’s not as if we’re living in a pure state of nature.” I went on to mention the roots of our country’s vast GDP in 400 years of chattel slavery and Jim Crow, colonist conquest of the indigenous, profit-focused education and healthcare, permanent war, gigantic monopolies, the very existence of billionaires in an impoverished world, private charity as the only way to help, mass-shootings, and even more could be mentioned. None of this is an accident—our economy and society has been intentionally cultivated to benefit a few at the expense of the many.
If you’re curious, my email was sent in March and I haven’t heard a reply.
For another example I recently read about: our entire car-centric society—and all of the social structure of isolation and separation that comes with it—was deliberately built on the destruction of the mass-transit that had been serving us well to line the pockets of the automobile makers, oil magnates, and associated industries. Now, it’s true that we’re all so invested in this system that directly disrupting it will lead to social disruption, right? At the same time, the status quo is hardly sustainable either.
My final example is the most troubling, and the most urgent. Climate change is our largest challenge today, and sometimes I think the deniers are more honest than the activists: yes, it will take massive shifts and sacrifices from all of us, it will require a restructuring of civilization on a vast scale. But that honesty must be matched with what the alternative is—knowing as we do that the changes are fueled by the rich and already impacting the poor the most but that it will come to us all in the end—and then we must deliberately set about disrupting our world if we are going to have one left afterward at all. We’re going to have to change our eating habits, our manufacturing, travel, housing, power generation, and ultimately—Dr. Beck says—even the concept of the nation-state that seems so inevitable today yet which is incapable of meeting our needs today.
And that, I believe, is what Jesus was saying for his own time as he faced the power of Empire and its subsidiaries, supported by religious tradition and unwillingness to question its legitimacy and inevitability. To be proclaiming the incoming Kingdom is to embrace the disruptive yet generative power of change, to boldly proclaim the cost love demands, and to move forward into that necessary work no matter what division is caused, no matter how strong the forces of tradition and status quo attempt to hold us back.
And we must be honest, as Jesus was: it is often (although not always) the older generation which resists change. Maybe it’s just more ingrained, maybe change is harder, maybe for some the status quo is actually personally beneficial, and the changes already being experienced by the younger generations—like life-long college debt, lack of decent jobs, no hope of retirement—are incomprehensible.
Yes, the end goal is of the Kingdom is true equality and justice, and a better world for all, but getting there has always been a tumultuous process that has very real cost to our accustomed way of life. Jesus is calling those who will not count that cost, who will follow knowing how much they will lose. For two thousand years now, the question has remained: will we answer that call?
Dr. Rinde’s paper: “Luke’s Artistic Parables: Narratives of Subversion, Imagination, and Transformation” by Matthew S. Rindge, Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington. Published in Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, 2014, Vol. 68(4) 403–415.
John Dominic Crossan: The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story
Micah: "Micah, Book of", The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Volume 4. Bantan Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1992. p. 807–810 via Wikipedia
Social Disruption: Description from Wikipedia, accessed on Aug 14, 2019.
Dr. Ulrich Beck: The Metamorphosis of the World: How Climate Change is Transforming Our Concept of the World (2017)