There is an ad on TV for a bank called ME. The ad comprises a lot of little yellow circles with the word ME in it bouncing around our screen singing me, me, me! The voice over cements the image by saying we are a bank that understands you. Welcome to the narcissistic 21st century.
Today’s readings are not for the faint hearted nor for those seeking consolation and comfort or for the narcissistic 21st century. All three readings take us deep into the darkness of sacrifice and division, a long way from the blessings we see in such passages as the Sermon on the Mount. If we are reading the scriptures honestly we will note that this is not an isolated case, the Bible is often a disturbing, violent and challenging read, but read it we must.
The reading from Matthew 10 hardly relieves the doom and gloom …:
- Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
- ….whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
- Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth …
- Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…
- … and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
- Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Comfort and safety are the watchwords of our generation. “I am entitled to be comfortable and to feel safe at all times” seems to be the mantra. Governments and political parties try to out do each other with more and more unlikely promises to deliver a world in which all danger and threat is eliminated. Churches and faiths of various sorts promise us wealth and happiness in return for obedience and faith, quick solutions to issues and problems that have taken years to come into being.
Our world is an uncomfortable and dangerous place most of the time and the major division is between those who see and accept this and those who refuse to accept that is so. And it has always been so. Matthews Jesus is railing against those who want to be in control and who want to be able to lord it over others, including God.
Matthews Jesus poses an interesting conundrum –when we allow the need to feel safe and comfortable to rule us we instantaneously divide and separate ourselves from others, God and creation. Jesus is conscious his very incarnation brings about such conflict and sets up the possibility of conflict at all levels of our existence. The intention is, it seems, to unify but the effect is to divide. Why? Because we always choose the prominent place for ourselves in opposition to others. We are unable to see that unity can only come about when we let go of the need to be safe and comfortable; that unity can only come when we let go of the desire to possess Jesus for ourselves. That is idolatry.
We increase security, identify others as the enemy by race or faith, marginalise people because of their ethnicity or history and by their past acts, big or small. We do it on a world scale and we do it with in communities and families. The lie we are told is that by so doing we are unifying our world, nation, community and family by definition of values, world-view, faith and family ties. The result? The world becomes a more divided, less safe and a more uncomfortable place.
Perhaps Jesus is challenging us to understand that if the world is to be safer and more comfortable for all, then we have to let go of our sense of being entitled to our own personal safety at the cost of others value and existence. Jesus knows his message is an uncomfortable one; compassion and mission through sacrifice; the going out into the world to engage with it as it is, not as we believe it should be; the letting go of our own particular prejudices and personal wants in favour of a shared understanding of wholeness and belonging.
Jesus is challenging us to look at a much larger world view than the one we generally focus on. Do not be preoccupied by the trivial – there are much bigger issues to be addressed. Do not live in fear of others but live mindful of the greatest threat within us, those desires and needs which can kill our soul, deaden our compassion and divide us off from the unity of creation. And this is the hardest to do. Jesus is not saying families, peace and unity are not important, they are. But what is more important is the sacrifice required to secure such for all.
God’s kingdom is not personal. Stepping up to the task requires us to take a realistic look at what is important and making decisions that will cost us materially, emotionally and relationally. It will separate us from friends, family and others because the kingdom of God is about inclusion and it will not include those who exclude based on friendships, families, relationships or material greed.
The challenge for us is to let go of the sense of privilege we have as Christians in a first world nation and begin to grapple with the divisions allowing us to enjoy such privileges. Jesus makes it clear to do so will put us out of sync with the dominate culture both within and without the church and place us at risk of danger and threat. But that is the price of discipleship. Is it a price worth paying? Yes if we wish to change from me to us.