The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8A)
June 28, 2020
O Almighty God, who hast built thy Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their doctrine, that we may be made an holy temple acceptable unto thee; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
My son was assigned Herman Hesse’s 1922 novella Siddhartha as summer reading and I have been reading along. I have to admit I never read it as a teen or young adult, which is when most folks of the generation coming up ahead of me had done in the 1960s, when it became wildly popular in the counter-cultural movements of that time. Hesse’s own fascination with spirituality, theosophy, Hinduism and Buddhism, and the story’s tale of a seeker on a journey looking for enlightenment appealed to that generation. Hesse was, of course, a life-long Christian, strongly influenced by his German Protestant upbringing and classical education, suffused with a strong touch of both Romanticism and the philosophy of Nietzsche.
Early in the story, when Siddhartha and his friend Govinda meet the Buddha, the latter is so swept away that he makes his profession to follow the holy man. Siddhartha is not, however, moved to make this commitment himself and says to his friend, “Do not forget, Govinda, that you now belong to the Buddha’s holy men. You have renounced home and parents, you have renounced origin and property, you have renounced your own will, you have renounced friendship. This is what the teachings preach....”(1) Hesse, of course, is seeing Buddhism through his own early twentieth-century lens and a white European gaze, and I am not suggesting this is a fair representation of this tradition. What it does represent, however, is a widely held New Age view of spiritualism that we see across contemporary culture.
Nevertheless, as readers of texts that can take on their own life apart from the intentions or perspective of the author,(2) it is also easy to hear in these phrases, when juxtaposed to today’s Gospel, that Jesus demands the same of us. In fact, with or without Hesse’s words and the popular conception that comes with them, it is still easy to fall into thinking in dualistic, absolutist terms when we hear Jesus say things like, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law and; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.” But it is more complicated than that.
Last week, when we heard the passage immediately preceding today’s Gospel, I focussed on the political aspect of the costliness of prophetic speech. I concentrated my attention on Jesus’ assertion, “Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles.” I spoke of how, in the public square, prophets of the Kingdom of God are subject to ridicule and humiliation as tactics to discredit them. The work of the prophet, nevertheless, is to make Jesus’ message, which is neither hidden or esoteric, widely known.(3) As Jesus says, “What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops.” Being a disciple of Jesus is dangerous business out there in the world, but it is the work to which God calls us and he has promised us eternal life, everlasting relationship with him and with our fellow members of the Body of Christ.
In last week’s Gospel, there were also words about the personal cost of prophetic speech and of being a disciple of Jesus. Jesus said, “Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” As I was chanting these words, I took special note because I saw my own son react to that passage with a sly smile.
Today’s Gospel develops this theme and, as I said, it can easily lead us to assume things about being a disciple of Jesus that are simply not true. Jesus says,
Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.
That sounds very clear and very harsh. The inauguration of the Kingdom of God brings eschatological warfare and we must choose between God and our families. A more nuanced reading of the text, however, shows us very quickly that it is not so simple.
Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus states plainly that “blessed are the peacemakers” (5:9) and that we are to “love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us]” (5:44). What Jesus says in today’s Gospel, then, can not be a call for cosmic, spiritual warfare. It must be something else, and from what Jesus has just told us about the conflicts that will arise from the truth about the Kingdom of God being preached to the rulers of the world, it is clear that Jesus is simply making a realistic assessment of the consequences of following Jesus, of taking up the cross.(4)
The work into which Jesus calls us is not risk free. Indeed, it is quite consequential and something that must be carefully considered before embarking upon it. Jesus presses this point with his words about families. Undertaking a life that asserts in unconditional terms the message of Jesus Christ, summed up in Matthew by the Beatitudes and their inversions of societal norms, means that you are likely to come into conflict with those whose self-interest is challenged and threatened. Jesus tells us that those whom the world sees as disposable and unimportant, perhaps those whom the world does not see at all, take their honoured place in the Kingdom of God and are the ones whom we are to imitate. Families are not monolithic and it is possible that someone to whom you are close, your father, brother, or sister, will not understand or agree with your choice to live the reality that, “Blessed are the poor in spirit ..., those who mourn ..., the meek ..., the merciful.”
This is what Jesus means when he says, “He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” To love God is to love our father and mother, our sons and daughters. If we love our families, with true love, the love of God, the love that expresses its self for the sake of the other’s interests and not our own, then we are putting the love of God first. It is not, therefore, some dualistic choice between God and family, or a demand that we must stop loving family in favour of God. Rather Jesus is asking us to place the love of God first, taking up our cross, taking up the hard work of Gospel love. When we do this, our relationships with the world will fall into place.
Jesus puts it this way, “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” Our life, in this cosmology is our whole self, body and soul.(5) If it is oriented towards our own self-interest, we will lose everything. If it is oriented towards God, to the works of love, to the values of the Beatitudes and of the Kingdom of God, and we move in that direction then we will find eternal life. All of this, however, takes place in the here and now. The life and death choice we make is not whether to give up the life of the world, but about how we will live in the world. Will we live to sin? Or will we live to love? As Saint Paul put it, “you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Living in the world, truly living, body and soul, means being the representative into this moment of God in Christ. Jesus says, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me.” The ancient world believed that the representative is like the one who sent him and speaks and acts with that person’s authority. Life in its fulness means taking up our cross, accepting the authority given to us, like the authority given to the disciples, to act in the name of the one who sent us, of God in Christ, in the effecting of love and justice. This is a task that puts us at great risk, but as I said last week, it is a task worth taking on.
Jesus does not automatically demand we give up our relationships, our families and our friends. He does not ask us to give up our lives in the world, as if the things of creation were somehow themselves bad or sinful, meaningless or illusions. What he asks is that we live our lives in the world as if his words mattered, as if his life, death, and resurrection changed everything, which, of course, they have. He asks us to transform our lives in the world, reorient them, shift our priorities to those of the Kingdom of God. He tells us that we need to truly embrace life, the fulness of our being in relationship to God, rather than death.
This is a taller order than giving up family and possessions. That is straight forward, a clear cut choice. Jesus asks us to do something infinitely harder, more subtle. He asks us to trust in placing God first and to change our lives, to convert, to turn with him into new territory, making use of the things of creation, those things that God declared to be very good, and put them into the service of this new order, this inverted order in which the meek are strong. He asks us to make ourselves vulnerable, to risk making enemies of our family and our friends, and then tells us to love our enemies.
It is more Through the Looking Glass, then, than anything else. Jesus asks, based on our relationship with him, based on what he has already done for us, to trust him, to have faith in him that the topsy turvy priorities of the Kingdom of God are the ones to which we are called. In this world, in this life, lived body and soul, we are to make the risky choice to place the command to love at its centre, thereby forging new and stronger bonds with our brothers and sisters in Christ and with the Creation itself.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, 24 June 2020
2. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Aspen, 5-6 (1967), n.p.
3See Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina Series, 1, 1991 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), 150.
4. See Harrington 2007, 150.
5. Harrington 2007, 150, 151.
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume