A few years age Reza Aslan, who was publicly known to be a prominent voice on Islam wrote a book about Jesus titled, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” The fact that he was known as a popular cultural voice on Islam helped the book sell. Also, in the aftermath of its publication he had a rather nasty but entertaining interview about the book on Fox, which helped it climb up several best sellers lists. Now, there is certainly nothing wrong at all with a Muslim or any non-Christian writing a good book about Jesus. The problem, however, is that this was not a good book. Most of the reviewers noted that Aslan was a good story-teller and writer, but not a very good historian and scholar. Some suggested he was much better at fiction than at history. His basic thesis was that Jesus was a failed revolutionary who was willing to use violence to overthrow the political and religious order to bring in God’s kingdom. He rejected outright, without any evidence to back his claim, that the many teachings by Jesus in the Gospels about nonviolence, peace-making, and love of enemies were not actual teachings of Jesus at all, but teachings placed on his lips by his followers. That argument has no proof, of course, and it’s hard to imagine any follower of Jesus, knowing what we know about followers of Jesus, coming up with the teaching on loving one’s enemies. At any rate, in his book Aslan focuses on a few texts like this one today. Matthew’s version is even a bit stronger than Luke’s. In Matthew Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.”
On the surface this may seem like a real contradiction with the other teachings and actions of Jesus where Jesus instructs us to love and pray for our enemies and where he says, “Blessed are the peace-makers.” And then there is the procession he leads into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week which is basically a peace march. A peace march, if not in protest, at least in contrast to the imperial procession of Roman soldiers led by Pilate to secure the Roman fortress outside the city in preparation for the festivities of Passover. So what is Jesus saying in the text today? To read this as if it was Jesus’ intent to divide, to set folks against one another, is to misread this text. Jesus has not given up on peacemaking. Jesus is not calling for force or violence. What he is saying, in his commonly shocking and hyperbolic way, is that the way of love, which he calls his followers to pursue, can be divisive. As long as there are unloving, ungracious, unwelcoming, sexist and racist people, then the love of Christ will create divisions. And those divisions will even cut across family lines.
The Gospel of Luke gives us the best example of this. In Luke 4 Jesus enters the synagogue in his home town and he reads from Isaiah 61. He defines his own work by the agenda of God’s servant in Isa. 61 as bringing good news to the poor, bringing release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming God’s grace. The people in his hometown are happy to hear this. Luke says in 4:22, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Some might wonder why Jesus didn’t just end it right there. That’s what most Baptist preachers would do. Nothing quite like a standing ovation. But Jesus knew what was in their hearts and he knew that they were thinking only of their own kind. Jesus knew that their love and loyalty was limited to their own group, their own people. They thought Jesus’ was speaking about his mission to Israel exclusively. They reasoned just the way many Christians today reason. They thought God was the God of Jews only, just the way so many Christians today think God is the God of Christians only. Jesus wanted to transform people, not please. Jesus couldn’t let it rest. Jesus could confirm their false view of God.
So, Jesus draws from the sacred scriptures they hold in common to challenge their exclusiveness and exceptionalism. He makes reference to two stories. He first calls attention to the story in 1 Kings 17. A famine had overtaken the land. There were many widows in Israel who were in need, no doubt, desperate need, but God sent Elijah, not to a Hebrew widow, but, of all things, to a Gentile widow and her son, who had no food. Elijah provides them with food enough to survive and he heals her son. And in telling this story, Jesus stresses the point that this was a Gentile. He says, “There were many widows in Israel,” in great need, but Elijah “was sent to none of them.” Jesus follows that story with another story found in 2 Kings 5, where Naaman, a Gentile ruler, is healed of his leprosy by Elisha the prophet. Again, in making his point Jesus emphasizes that there were many Jewish lepers who were not healed. Elisha was not sent to any of them. Rather, he was sent to a Gentile. After he told these two stories, drawn from their own scriptures, the scriptures all Jews held in common, Luke says, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” He went from being revered as a prophet of high honor to being hated as a messenger of the evil one speaking heresies. Luke says they drove him out of town, and wanted to hurl him over the cliff.
You see, as long as Jesus focused on the poor, the blind, the captive, and the oppressed in Israel, among their own people, they praised the words he spoke. But when Jesus made it clear that God’s love and grace was not limited to their kind of people, that God’s love is inclusive of all people, and not exclusive to them, they were infuriated.
It should be conceded that it is understandable why Jesus’ hometown crowd would be upset with him. They had good reason to dislike Gentiles. Their country had a long history of being overrun by Gentile powers. And at this very point in history, they were basically enslaved to Rome. They were given some measure of freedom, but the Romans could do to them whatever they wanted and at times did. Rome taxed them heavily and confiscated their land. This is why Jewish tax collectors who collaborated and colluded with Rome were so despised by their countrymen. They were deemed traitors. They had good reason not to like Gentiles.
But Jesus couldn’t let them go on thinking they were God’s favorites and everyone else was going to hell. Jesus was a truth-teller and he had to tell them the truth about God’s inclusive love, and it just about got him killed before he even got started in the work God called him to do.
My job would be easy if I didn’t have to tell you the truth about God’s inclusive love. You would all just love me. Everyone would want to come and worship together. Of course, I know whenever I speak I am speaking my truth – it is truth as I understand it. I could be wrong, and I am sure I am wrong about many things. But all I can do is tell you the truth as I see it. So I have to preach about God’s inclusive love. If I can’t tell you what I truly believe, then I should quit and go sell insurance. There was a time I thought seriously about that – not necessarily selling insurance, but quitting. And if I had any other marketable skill at the time I may have. I struggled with it.
I remember reading that passage in John 6 where Jesus delivered a discourse, and even before he finished his sermon, most of his congregation had left for good. John says that when many of Jesus’ disciples heard his teaching they said, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?” but he didn’t stop. He kept going. And a little bit later John says, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Then after most of his disciples left, Jesus turned to the little group who had been with him from the beginning, and he said to them, “What about you? Do you want to leave too?” I remember reading that at the time and thinking to myself, “Yes, Lord, I want to leave. Why don’t you show me the door?” Then, I read a little further where the disciples respond, “Lord, to whom are we going to go? Where are we going to go? You have the words of life. We are convinced that you speak words of truth. We can’t leave.” I decided I couldn’t leave either. I would just have to tell the truth as I understand it. I would just have to speak the words that I am convinced bring life. So, in the end, I decided that I would just be honest about my spiritual and faith journey and speak what I know in my heart, and let the chips fall where they may. That’s what I did and that’s where we are.
Sometimes what we think is peace is not peace at all. Or what we think is unity, is not true unity, not the kind of peace and unity that honors all of God’s children and recognizes the worth and value of all God’s daughters and sons. I have shared several times the story that Fred Craddock tells about going home to west Tennessee to visit, where an old high school friend named Buck owned a restaurant. Fred went in there for some pie and coffee and Buck said, “Do you see the curtain?” This was in the day of segregation. Buck told Fred, “The curtain has to come down.” Fred said, “Good, take it down.” But then Buck confessed the struggle he was having. He said to Fred, “If I take the curtain down, I lose a lot of customers, maybe even my business.” But then he said, “If I leave that curtain up, I lose my soul.” God’s inclusive love divides people and even divides our own souls, that is, until we decide to love. Once we decide that we are going to own and claim and live God’s inclusive then the division in our own souls is resolved. And even in the midst of outer division and external chaos, the peace of God fills our hearts. No one today who spews hate and fear and tells God’s children fleeing poverty and crime and drugs to go back where they came from has God’s peace. They may think they do, but they don’t. They may have the world’s peace, but they don’t have God’s peace.
Listen to how a young woman describes her experience of moving to a new community and finding a new church home. She says: “Everybody was super-accomodating, bending over backward to lend a hand. They were the most welcoming, organized bunch of people I have ever met. They started helping us unload the trailer and the truck, they had everything inside and unpacked in less that two hours. They had already stocked the refrigerator and the pantry with all kinds of dry goods and supplies . . . The sense of community was really impressive. When someone needed something, everybody was always there at a minutes notice.” Guess what church she is talking about? She is describing Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. The church that says horrible things about our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. She is talking about the church we have come to know as the church that is filled with hate. Is that God’s peace and love? Even the members at Westboro Baptist Church love their own.
In our world today God’s inclusive love divides as much as it unifies. There is much irony in that isn’t there? It exposes spiritual disease as much as it heals and restores. Jesus knew that the truth of God’s inclusive love would cut deep, exposing prejudices, and judging all claims to be God’s chosen over others. Jesus knew that it would even divide families. But that didn’t stop Jesus. He knew God’s will for the world. He knew what God wanted to do. He knew the kind of peace and unity God wanted to bring about – the kind that treated all people as God’s chosen people. And if we have a mind centered on God and a heart in tune with God and a will to obey God, then we would see just what Jesus sees and we would trust the inclusive love of God that Jesus embodied and taught us about. Jesus is our living example of the inclusive love of God. We are called to love inclusively like Jesus. Now, if that is too difficult. If it is too hard to accept. If we are too loyal to our political party or ideology or our particular social or religious group, or too bound to family prejudices to love inclusively, then so be it. Maybe we should consider Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Do you want to quit too?” He asked.
In the text Jesus says, “You hypocrites.” Now, I really question whether Jesus went around calling people hypocrites. My guess is that Jesus’ followers added that to the tradition that was passed on to them. But then again, maybe he did. He points out that we know how to discern the signs in other areas of our lives, like the weather. Their society was an agricultural society. Their very lives depended on their ability to understand the signs of the weather and how it impacted them.
We read all sorts of signs very well. We know how to fix up our houses when they show signs of deterioration. We know how to get help for our bodies when we show signs of sickness. We know how to build bigger barns and store all the stuff we accumulate when we have more than we need. But unfortunately, not as many of us know how to be rich toward God and give ourselves to the unfailing treasures of compassion and grace. Unfortunately, we are not very good at reading the signs of love that is limited and exclusive and centered on our own – our own religion or group. The question for us today is this: Are we willing to love inclusively the way God loves inclusively, even when it brings division?
God, help us to love others the way you love others. If we love others the way you love others, that means loving all people. That may mean loving people that some of our friends and family don’t love at all. Loving them may create division in the groups and families we are part of. It would be easy not to love the way you love. But you have called us to be like Jesus. You have called us to reflect and mirror your image. You have called us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Help us to be faithful to embody and practice your inclusive love. Because if our family and friends don’t see it in us, where will they see it. Amen.