Just in case you’re counting, it’s about 32 weeks since December 25. And it’s about 19 weeks until this Christmas, when we will again sing about the coming of the Prince of Peace, and wish our friends and neighbours Peace on Earth.
Right now, though, we are in the long stretch of Ordinary Time; that period between major Christian preparations and festivals, a time when we are not distracted by the drama and aspirations of Lent, Easter, Advent and Christmas. And today’s readings are a far cry from peaceful.
I think many of us have had trouble with the verse in today’s Gospel reading: "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?" Jesus asks. "No, I tell you, but rather division!" In the Gospel of Matthew, it is put even more baldly: "I come not to bring peace, but a sword."
Our disquiet increases when we read on. "From now on," Jesus says, "five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in law."
Perhaps you have already lived in a household like that. Perhaps you live in one right now. If so, you know the pain that causes. If you are fortunate enough to have a harmonious home, why would Jesus want to stir the pot? But sure enough, later in Luke, Jesus says "‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple."
One of the values of Judaism rooted in the Talmud is shalom bayit - roughly translated as peace in the home. It is the tradition by which couple prioritize domestic harmony to provide a warm, loving home for themselves and their children, a home that supports and nurtures each member of the household. That seems an entirely worthy goal. So why do these troubling biblical texts pop up?
A clue can be gleaned from Jesus’s own childhood. You’ll remember the story of his extended clan travelling to the temple at Jerusalem for a religious festival, and then Mary and Joseph becoming frantic with worry three days later when they couldn’t find him on the road going home. They dashed back to the city only to find Jesus sitting and learning amongst the temple elders.
When Mary asked Jesus why he had put them through the wringer like that, he didn’t even say sorry. “Why were you searching for me?” he asked, according to Luke. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” My mom’s reaction to this story was always unequivocal. "Well, I would have put him over my knee!" I heard her say on a number of occasions.
This is the only story we have from Jesus’s growing-up years. But it tells us a lot about the man he would become. Time and time again, the adult Jesus counsels people to leave the familiar and turn away from family ties. Despite the translations we are given, he doesn’t demand people "hate" their family; but we are not, however, meant to give them very first priority.
In the third chapter of Mark, when Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are waiting outside to see him, he waves a hand dismissively and says “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." In reading the chapter, we don’t get the impression that he leapt up from teaching the disciples to run out and welcome his relatives.
In short, I imagine that Jesus’s family often thought he was a pain in the neck.
His attitude was all the more remarkable considering the culture he grew up in; one defined by genealogies, tribes, and kinship. We only have to look at the list of the "begats" in the Bible, tracing bloodlines over the course of generation, to know that biological belonging dictated a great deal about one’s status, one’s identity, and the role one was expected to play in society. Loyalty to one’s kin was expected; that way lay survival and growth.
But as Jesus’ ministry developed, as he had encounters like the one with the Samaritan woman at the well, he pushed back harder and harder against society’s default sense of tribalism. You can’t have insiders without creating outsiders. And it was the plight of the outsiders that Jesus was passionate about.
We are still, to a great extent, a tribal people. It is natural to seek a sense of belonging, and we know the importance of fostering a healthy sense of identity, whether that is as a daughter, son, Christian, Jew, Canadian, engineer, father or other role. But there can, of course, be a dark side to a "my country, right or wrong" or "family first" mentality.
It is, of course, important to support and nourish one’s own family. But at what point do our needs turn into wants; at what point does feathering our nest turn into hoarding our resources? There are parents who turn themselves inside out to purchase the best for their children, or to be present at every concert and every sports practice. What might it look like if they instead showed up at only half those events, only bought half those items, and use the freed-up money and time to advocate or volunteer on behalf of others in the community? How might that benefit their children, as well as others?
Or perhaps we put family first by spending a whole lot of our social time with them - as someone who went to Camp Artaban last week with 22 other family members, I know how fun that can be, and important for maintaining and growing good relations. But where might family bonding turn into family bonds, luring us into a life so comfortable and complacent that we rarely invite others into our circle? Or push ourselves to cross other thresholds, where we might learn different perspectives or realities?
"Family first" is a double-edged sword. It can be a path of blessing, or of exclusion. It is phrase sometimes used by people to justify attitudes or positions that elevate their own family at the expense of others’. "Charity begins at home" is another such saying; in the wrong hands, it rationalizes prioritizing individual desire over common good.
Today’s scriptures remind us that we are sometimes called to stand up to our country or our kin if we are to stand by the gospel values. In the first lesson, God’s chosen people, the Israelites, are compared to a vineyard that has become tangled with wild grapes. Ties of kinship or claims to faith, the prophet tells us, bring us little preferment or reward when justice is absent.
And in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, we hear about Rahab, considered a biblical heroine for disobeying her own Canaanite authorities to protect the Israelite spies sent by Joshua. As it happens, Rehab and her family were rewarded for their protection of the other; there are, however, no guarantees for the rest of us. Our efforts to do what is right might bring us alienation or even bloodshed. We may never get our reward on earth, says Paul, but if we run our race with perseverance amongst the cloud of witnesses, we know we are entrusting the wellbeing of our very soul to God in Christ Jesus.
Now, unlike Rahab we will probably not be called on to hide spies on our roof and lower them out through the window. But how might Jesus’s words about division in households call us to think about our relationship with God, with family, with the needs of the world outside our door? Are there times we have opted for domestic harmony at all cost, and failed to make a stand for what is right? Are we being peaceful, or passive? Have we let remarks go unchallenged when we should have offered another perspective more in line with biblical injunctions to protect the most vulnerable among us? Do we risk an argument about how to vote, or spend our money, or share our home, when by not doing so we continue a life of unchallenged privilege or unconscious self-focus? These questions can apply to our home life, our life together as a church family, relations at our workplace, or our civic choices in the community.
There are not many of us who love uncomfortable conversations or all-out conflict. And the last thing we want to do is add to today’s politically toxic and divisive rhetoric that is getting us nowhere fast. But if God’s kingdom on earth is to be brought to any form of fruition, it will only be through challenging policies or practices where the status quo unjustly serves some at the expense of others. Skills for holding such discussions and debates with compassion, integrity, respect and effectiveness are the subject of books, articles and workshops. They are tools we should all try to learn if we want to increase our positive impact as Christians.
In a world marred by war and violence, it is understandable to long for the Prince of Peace; the baby in the manger and the hope of goodwill among all. But we know that in the absence of justice, there will be no lasting peace; let us strive then, to bring justice to our communities and pray that ultimately peace will reign for all.
So in closing let us offer an excerpt from a prayer taken from the Project Ploughshares website:
When fear of the power and opinions of others
tempts us to not to speak up for the least among us,
help us to remember that you dared to turn over the tables of money changers…,
and give us the courage to risk following you without counting the cost.
When we feel ourselves fill with anger at those who are violent and oppressive,
help us remember that you prayed for those who killed you…,
and give us compassion for our enemies, too.
When we tell ourselves that we have given all we can to bring peace to this world,
help us to remember your sacrifice… ,
and give us the miracle of losing a little more of ourselves
in serving you and our neighbours.
Walk with us, Lord, as we answer your call to be peacemakers.
Increase our compassion, our generosity and our hospitality for the least of your children.
Give us the courage, the patience, the serenity, the self-honesty
and the gentleness of spirit that are needed in a world filled with turmoil and terror. Amen.