Jesus brings a sword to our precious institutions
As many of us return to the Thanksgiving table this week – thank God for the scientists and doctors who developed the vaccine to make such a thing safe – I want to consider family, specifically the nuclear family, and how it orders us. Imagining the forces that order us is important for Christians who profess Jesus as Lord, because in our profession of faith, we submit to his ordering. Whiteness orders us, patriarchy orders us, the market orders us, violence orders us, but the concept of our family also orders us.
Jesus is interested in reordering us so that we might follow in his order. And in his society, the family largely ordered it. And so Jesus was interested in disrupting our family systems. I am a familiar with what it is like to live in a society that is ordered by family — and I am familiar with how difficult it is to disrupt that order. He radically chooses to be ordered by God instead of his family. Here’s Jesus explicitly reordering how he imagines his Father and his family.
“While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’
He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”—Matthew 12:46-50
Jesus identifies his true family as his disciples, the ones who do will of the Father are his siblings and his parents. That radical re-ordering is necessary for the journey of the Cross because it asks of us so much. It costs so much. And it should. Jesus asks his disciples for a complete sacrifice in following him, dropping everything to follow him, and he also includes allegiances to family. Here he is again:
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”—Mark 10:23-31
Jesus offers these words to his disciples after his infamous interaction with the rich young ruler, who leaves Jesus discouraged that he cannot enter the Kingdom of God, or even follow Jesus, without selling his stuff and redistributing his wealth. Faced with a need of such a dramatic sacrifice, Jesus tells his disciples that it will be challenging for those who have a lot of wealth to enter, because they have so much to lose, and so much to give up. In this dilemma, Jesus reassures his disciples that what is impossible with mortals can be possible with God. So faced with great wealth, Jesus can help us sacrifice impossible things for the sake of the Gospel.
Our Lord goes on to tell us that it isn’t just wealth that we will need to let go, but households, family members, and land, for the sake of Jesus and for the Gospel. And we’ll be blessed with even more when we do that. But, to be sure, those blessings also come with a multiplication of persecution, as Mark’s audience of persecuted Roman Christians is well aware of, especially with Nero as emperor and Titus’ fall of Jerusalem about to occur.
Fidelity to Jesus disrupts us; fidelity to the world brings Jesus’ judgment
Jesus suggests that fidelity to him will cause conflict in our families. Jesus reorders the family into a family of God, a body of Christ, into our church. Our connection to fellow believers, those that do the will of the father, will be greater than our connection to even our blood relatives!
Jesus doesn’t bring the sort of passive unity that Christian churches are often fond of, but through his discipleship, actually creates enmity between his enemies. His call for enemy love is even more radical because the Way of Jesus is one that creates conflict, enemies, and division. Christians who try to avoid conflict or create a false unity actually do a disservice to the Way of Jesus by allowing it to function in our political economy, instead of appropriately disrupting it.
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”—Matthew 10:34-39
Jesus clearly tells us he isn’t bring peace to earth, but rather a sword. This isn’t a call to arms, but rather a demonstration of how disruptive, to all of our orders, Jesus will be. Jesus quotes Micah, who is predicting the fall of Jerusalem, in the passage above. The Way of Jesus will bring about his followers suffering and persecution. Jesus’ arrival, his Advent if you will, is one that disrupts our order. Jesus identifies with the suffering of Micah and the judgment of God on Judah, as Babylon threatens to overtake it. In Micah, Jesus identifies with these lines, saying he is the one, the watchman, the sentinel, the one who reckons:
“The day of their sentinels, of their punishment, has come;
now their confusion is at hand.”—Micah 7:4 (NRSV)
“The day of their watchmen, of their punishment, has come;
Now their confusion is at hand.”—Micah 7:4 (The Prophets by Abraham Joshua Heschel)
“The Day of those who look for You, of Your reckoning, has come;
Now shall their confounding take place.”—Micah 7:4 (Robert Alter)
Jesus is exacting punishment on the idolatry of Israel to orders others than his own in his arrival to the earth and in his ministry, like God did to Judah because of their idolatry to Babylon. Jesus is concerned with our fidelity to him, and when our family systems disrupt that fidelity, when we are more loyal to them, Jesus disrupts them.
If Jesus is Lord, he is Lord above our families
Families order us and organize our fidelity. They ask for loyalty to them and compete with Jesus for it. Christians too often assume the nuclear family is a part of the Christian order, and what follows is a rigid family structure, one that creates homophobic churches and patriarchal marriages. Family, then, is a part of, in fact, the orders of capitalism, whiteness, and patriarchy. It maintains those and if we are loyal to family above God, we will be complicit also in maintaining those. The nuclear family in the United States seems to fit very well into our political economy, and we incentivize marriage and having a family, as a result. It hardly disrupts the order, like Jesus will, and so I want to be cautious about celebrating it as a holy aspect of our lives.
Jesus clearly intends to disrupt the family system – which maintains the current order of things – and replace it with a new one. So, as we try to have peaceable meals this week with family, Christians might keep this in mind, that the false peace of the nuclear family should be disrupted by our fidelity to God. I don’t think we should elect to pick fights with our family as a result of Jesus’ disruption to our orders, but understand that disruption to how things are is a normal part of following Jesus.
If we are doing everything to follow Jesus to make our churches and our world antiracist, and antioppression, in general, I think we should anticipate disruption. Disruption that occurs as a result of this work should be expected, as opposed to use as an indictment of it. In fact, if there is no disruption, we can probably assume we aren’t making any real change. Following Jesus should be uncomfortable, at least, if not even painful. The way of Jesus is hard, but those who enter in to it will find a calm in the storm, hope beyond despair, and peace that surpasses understanding. Disrupting the violent ways of the world will feel tumultuous, but the hope that we have is for a better world that follows. Let’s engage in that work now, ready for the disruption to our families, to our ways, to our orders it creates, and even welcoming them.