A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 12:49-56 for Proper 15C
I remember, years ago, seeing a bumper sticker that read, “I’ve made up my mind. Don’t confuse me with the facts!” This statement is funny because it exposes a common response of human beings to anything we would prefer to ignore or deny. No matter what issue we may be dealing with, you don’t have to look far to find people who will quote the Bible, or find a scientist, to support a view that we can, or need to, do nothing. This dynamic has played out in everything from the economic crisis to climate change. While it may provide some immediate comfort, it keeps us from facing the tough realities and seeking solutions. Our denial always makes this worse.
The words of Jesus in this week’s reading reveal that denial is not a new problem. The world in which Jesus preached was in crisis. A fragile stability had been achieved in Israel, but, for those who were willing to recognise the signs, it was not going to last long. There was growing discontent over Rome’s oppressive rulership of the Holy Land, and revolution was in the air. As John’s Gospel shows, one of the primary reasons that the religious leaders decided to have Jesus executed was because it was better to kill one revolutionary than plunge the entire nation into a war which would certainly bring Rome’s violent and cruel retribution (John 11:49). For the average person in the crowd, though, it was easier to ignore the tensions, deny the talk of revolution, and just believe that, somehow, God would make everything better. This is why Jesus confronts his listeners with two difficult, but unavoidable, truths.
The first – although it appears second in the Gospel narrative – was that the coming revolution, with its consequences, was closer and more certain than the people were willing to admit. The people, who were good at predicting the weather from the signs of the natural world around them, were very bad – deliberately so – at predicting the social and political climate of their world. That’s why Jesus called them hypocrites – literally “play-actors”. It’s not that they could not see what was going on, It’s that they refused to acknowledge the truth because it would require more from them than they were willing to give.
This remains true of us today. We would rather deny the impact of our careless use of the planet’s resources, than admit to climate change, because it would require changes we are unwilling to make. We would rather deny the indictment that the economic crisis has leveled at our our financial systems, than do the tough work of creating more sustainable and equitable economies. We would rather deny the destructive impact of our consumerism on people in poorer countries who provide cheap and enslaved labour than learn to live more simply.
Even in our homes and families, we would rather deny the slow fragmentation of our relationships than have the tough conversations that could heal them. We would rather deny our escalating debt than do the work of controlling our spending and lowering our lifestyle expectations. And the list goes on.
But, this brings us to the second truth – although the first in the Gospel’s order – of Jesus’ truths. When some people choose to opt out of the denial game and begin to work toward the necessary changes in our world, conflict inevitably arises between deniers and non-deniers. Those who refuse to acknowledge their part in the problems, and who insist on living in the delusion that everything is fine just as it is, will always react with venom to those who insist in holding the facts before them and calling for change.
The Gospel is a divisive message, not because it teaches violence, division or religious conflict. On the contrary, the Gospel is divisive because ti threatens those who are invested in the status quo, and it liberates and uplifts those on whose enslavement the system depends. But, even this element of the Gospel can be denied, and so we easily seek to hide behind catch words like “relevance” and “attractiveness”, and the command to avoid “being a stumbling block” to others.
Yet, if we are to embrace the justice-seeking, peace-loving, all-inclusive, liberating and healing Gospel we will need to become comfortable with acknowledging that, as Brian McLaren’s book title put it, “Everything Must Change”, and we will have to learn to navigate the inevitable conflicts that will result. And, beneath it all, we will have to embrace the challenge to face the truth for the sake of love, and to navigate conflicts while retaining love for our opponents.
May God give us the discernment, the courage and the love to answer this call.