Proper 18, Year C

I sprained my wrist (a mild sprain, thankfully) this week and am trying to take a break from the keyboard, but I think this 2003 entry from the BCP lectionary for Proper 18, Year C should be helpful. What I'd add to it is that much of what I said this year about the gospel for Proper 15 applies equally well to this Sunday's gospel. The invitation in this Sunday's gospel is to end old patterns of relationship, thereby becoming free to enter into new patterns of relationship. There's no way of forcing that on someone else, though -- and to those who don't choose to follow Jesus as their sister or brother, spouse, parent, or son or daughter did would experience their abandonment as an act of hate. On the other hand, family members who joined the Jesus movement would find themselves part of a much larger family of sisters and brothers committed to care for one another. Choosing to follow Jesus can involve stark and difficult choices, and with any set of choices that could change the world, following Jesus presents others with choices they may not find welcome.

Philemon 1-21

Luke 14:25-33

"None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions" (Luke 14:33).

Is there anything Jesus could have said which would be harder for us to hear?

Oh yeah:

"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" (Luke 14:26).

Both come from this Sunday's gospel reading, of course.

There is no trick of Greek translation or historical context that will make these sayings anything other than difficult, if not offensive. I can't recommend an angle of preaching or reading that could be summarized as "here's why Jesus/Luke didn't really mean this." Friends don't let friends do this to texts.

Let's take the Greek question head-on, as it's often said in sermons on this passage that the Greek word translated here as "hate" really means something more like "love less." There's no evidence to support this assertion. I suspect that it comes from confusing Luke 14:26 with Matthew 10:37, which says, "whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." But misein, the Greek word translated as "hate" in Luke 14:26, really does mean "hate," as in the opposite of love. Here are some other New Testament passages that use the same word:

  • Matthew 5:43 (in which "hate" is clearly presented as the antithesis of "love" (agape)
  • Luke 21:17 (in which hatred is what persecutors have for those whom they put to death)
  • Hebrews 1:9 (in which it is said of the Son that he "loved righteousness and hated lawlessness")

You get the idea. This is a strong word, and not at all a pretty one -- especially for one's stance toward parents, spouse, children, and siblings. It's an offensive statement that has lost little of its offensive power in its travel from a first-century Mediterranean context to 21st-century America.

And I'm glad it's in the gospel, and in the context in which it appears, because the next sentence is supposed to be offensive too, though it's lost much of its power in our context. In 21st-century America, we see what we think of as a cross mostly as pieces of jewelry, and then as decorations for churches, and then maybe as part of the logo of an organization. It's become in many ways a symbol of respectability and privilege, held up by political candidates to rally the base.

But that's not what the cross represented in the first-century Roman empire. There, the cross was a work of perverse genius -- a cheap and non-labor-intensive way to inflict indescribable pain and shame, while providing a gory public reminder of just what happened to those who undermined the good order of the Empire. It was a reminder of what happened to Christians who encouraged women and men to decide for themselves whom they would call "lord," and then to follow no one else. As I've said in my comment for Proper 15, Year C and the previous entries linked from there, such teaching could and did divide families. It undermined the authority of every man who called himself "father," from the head of the family you grew up in all the way up to Caesar Augustus, who called himself the father of his empire, and his successors.

And it challenges us too. Jesus' words here aren't asking us to feel differently about our family or about the Cross; "hate," like "love," in a first-century context is not about emotions, but about actions. We are being asked to behave toward family in a way that our culture will almost certainly see as hateful. It is still offensive to say that we do not feel any more obligated to blood relatives than we do to others, and I think that's at the core of this week's gospel. We are being asked to abandon, or even despise, the cultural value placed on family, a value that reaches almost to the point of idolatry in many quarters.

But the choice we are faced with is not between swallowing whole "family values" as defined by our culture or rejecting all family members altogether. Jesus' teaching did tear his followers out of the families they grew up in, the families that not only provided for them materially, but gave them their identity in the world and any honor they experienced. But Jesus defined the community of his followers as a different kind of family. He expected them to care for one another materially (hence the emphasis on common rather than private possessions), honor one another in a world that despised them, and to treat one another with all of the intimacy and loyalty one would expect of brother and sister.

One's father and mother, spouse and children, were welcome to join the community, becoming brothers and sisters with all its members -- but the new relationship in Christ was then to be the definitive one. That was particularly challenging for fathers, accustomed to a kind of authority that Jesus taught belonged rightfully only to God.

That's the sort of challenged that Paul poses to Philemon in the epistle for this week too -- to receive Onesimus, who had been his slave, and to relate to him not as Onesimus' master, but as his brother. Doing so would include and go beyond freeing Onesimus from literal slavery. Normally, if Philemon freed Onesimus, Onesimus would still be defined as Philemon's freedman, obligated to him in a lopsided relationship in which Philemon could choose to care for him or ignore his needs. But brothers cannot do that to one another; they are obligated to one another indissolubly, absolutely, and mutually. As brothers, Onesimus and Philemon would be bound eternally in a relationship that freed both: Onesimus from the obligations of being Philemon's slave or freedman, and Philemon from participating in a system that dehumanized masters while oppressing slaves.

That's the Good News in Jesus' very hard words. Follow Jesus, and we are abandoning a lot of what gave us honor, security, and even identity in our culture. In short, we will be abandoning what gave us life. But what kind of life? Follow Jesus, become family with his brothers and sisters, and while we will share in his cross, we will share also in his risen life -- joyful, eternal, loving, and free.

Thanks be to God!

September 7, 2007 in Discipleship, Honor/Shame, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Kinship/Family, Luke, Philemon, Slavery/Freedom, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 21, Year A

Philippians 2:1-13 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 21:28-32 - link to NRSV text

The context of this Sunday's gospel is "the chief priests and the elders of the people" -- leaders in the Temple hierarchy -- questioning Jesus about what gives him authority. In particular, the Temple hierarchy wants to know what gives him the authority to behave as he does, and especially the authority to claim that he is acting in God's name when he's behaving that way.

It's a question that Jesus might have expected, under the circumstances. Matthew 21:23 and following has the exchange we're looking at in this Sunday's gospel as taking place "when he entered the Temple." He hadn't been away from the Temple long, though -- he was there just the day before. It was an eventful day, to say the least -- Jesus entered Jerusalem surrounded by crowds who proclaimed him as king. Matthew next says that Jesus went into the Temple courts, overturned the tables and seats of those who exchanged money (a necessary service, unless you wanted people carrying the emperor's image into the temple on coins, which was clearly inappropriate) and sold doves (again, a service necessary to continuing the Temple's sacrificial system as the priestly writings in scripture command) while quoting from, among other things Jeremiah, who prophesied the destruction of the Temple.

That was what happened on Jesus' last visit to the Temple. So on this his next visit, the question the Temple authorities ask him was a natural one: just who do you think you are? What gives you the right to come barreling in to cause something that looks an awful lot like a civil disturbance -- and at Passovertide, when the Roman authorities are jumpiest as they watch pilgrims streaming into Jerusalem to celebrate God's liberation of Israel from foreign oppressors. By what authority do you prophesy against the very things -- money changers and dove sellers -- that allow poor people to offer sacrifices in the Temple?

Matthew presents Jesus as giving a two-part answer. The first part isn't in our readings for this Sunday. It's where Jesus turns the tables on his questioners by asking them a difficult question: who do you think gave John the Baptizer the authority to do what he did (which, after all, included promising forgiveness of sins to those who were baptized -- in other words, John claimed that his own ministry apart from the Temple could do for people what Temple sacrifices were supposed to do). The chief priests and the elders can't say that John's authority came from God without undermining the Temple system they serve, and they can't say that John's ministry wasn't of God without losing the support of the people, so they shut up.

This Sunday's gospel has Jesus following up that argument with a story. It's a parable of two sons and a father. The father asks the sons to go work in the family vineyard. One says "I won't." Remember, this is a village culture, in which there's not really any such thing as privacy, and the son's mouthing off to his father will shame the father publicly, making him the object of gossip and derision in the village square. The other son says, "I go sir," as a good son should. The surprising thing, though, is that the son who mouths off actually goes to work in the vineyard, while the son who at first seems to be the good and dutiful one turns out to be disobedient, as Jesus' questioners are forced to admit. To say that they were probably not very happy with Jesus at this point would be a major understatement.

Jesus then tells the chief priests and the elders of the people that the prostitutes and tax collectors would enter God's before they would.

At this point I envisage clouds of steam pouring forth from their ears.

It's easy to paint these folks as one-dimensional villains, but I'm somewhat sympathetic to their difficulty receiving what Jesus has to say here -- not least because it's Jesus who's saying it. Jesus has acquired quite a reputation as a troublemaker, and not just because of his behavior over the twenty-four hours previous. He's been known for breaking bread -- accepting food prepared by God-knows-who in a kitchen that looks like God-knows-what, and eating it passed from hands that were God-knows-where just hours before. This is not how a respectable person behaves; just think about what getting caught having dinner with a crowd of prostitutes would do to the nomination of a potential Supreme Court justice and you'll have some idea of how the gossip went about Jesus. And that's not even taking into account that men and women who weren't in the same family did NOT sit at the same table in Jesus' culture, or people would assume that their social intercourse was just one dimension of the various kinds of intercourse they were having.

It would be one thing if Jesus were just saying, "hey, I'm a guy who loves to party -- why don't you leave me alone and go back to your holy huddle?" He's not saying that, though -- he's saying that it was the God of Israel who authorized his behavior. He's saying that the God of Israel behaves this way, and that, folks, is the basis for a charge of blasphemy.

But where does John come into all of this? Why does Jesus bring up John's ministry here? I think it's because of a similarity between their ministries, especially as Matthew portrays them, and why those thought of as most righteous and respectable found it hardest to accept them. John's ministry centered around baptism, traditionally something that Gentiles did to convert to Judaism. John said that God can raise up children of Abraham from stones -- that anyone who's baptized can be a child of Abraham. If you don't currently think of yourself as an heir of Abraham, that will come as good news. If you already thought of yourself as a child of Abraham, you might find yourself looking across that vast crowd gathered from regions all around the Jordan and asking yourself whether it was really all that great to be part of a club that will accept these kinds of people on such easy terms. And furthermore, saying that God will accept as Abraham's heir anyone who will be baptized implies, in the eyes of those who reject John, that generations of faithful obedience to God's commands -- circumcision and sacrifice as well as purity -- don't count for anything.

I know a great many people who have a hard time with that today, whose first questions when we talk about offering any kind of blessing, service, or support are about whether the people to whom they're offered will be deserving. Often, the second set of questions are about what others will think if they see what we're doing. The third set of questions all too often are about whether there's some way we can serve people while still making sure they know how unacceptable they are, and that others know how unacceptable we find them to be.

But like John's invitation to baptism, Jesus' invitation to experience God's forgiveness at table doesn't give anyone the opportunity to separate themselves from others who have RSVP'd with a 'yes.' All have sinned, and all are in exodus from the power of sin to enjoy the freedom to be God's people, one people. That's one of the sticking-points these chief priests and elders have with Jesus. They want God to play by the rules, and they insist that God's prophets must make the distinctions they make. But like John, Jesus thinks that God's freedom includes the freedom to forgive people who are not children by blood of the Covenant, who haven't offered sacrifice, even the poor person's sacrifice of a dove, in the Temple, who haven't done anything to deserve forgiveness. In that truth there's an invitation: to enjoy the freedom that Christ experienced and offers. Yes, God is calling us to give up our judge's seats. Our edicts never saved anyone anyway (nor did they doom anyone either, though we may have told ourselves and others otherwise). Instead, God invites us to enjoy the freedom for which his people were made -- freedom to take all of that energy the world devotes to issuing and trying to enforce edicts that divide us from one another and devote it instead to celebration of the indiscriminate, boundless mercy that gives us life and makes us one family, God's children.

Thanks be to God!

September 22, 2005 in Matthew, Ordinary Time, Parables, Philemon, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Proper 8, Year A (BCP lectionary)

[If you use the Revised Common Lectionary rather than the lectionary from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, or if you'd prefer to concentrate on the last three verses of this Sunday's gospel in the BCP lectionary, please see this article, which is a reflection I wrote for The Witness on the RCL readings for this coming Sunday. If you're using the BCP lectionary, my prior entries on text raising themes of kinship and family may be fruitful ground for reflection also.]

Isaiah 2:10-17
- link to NRSV text
Matthew 10:34-42 - link to NRSV text

The bulk of this Sunday's gospel is hard to hear for us all across what I call the theopolitical spectrum. Those who (like me) emphasize that Jesus' work among us is as reconciler and Jesus consistently condemned violence are disturbed by Jesus' saying "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).

Perhaps even harder for many of us to hear is Jesus' saying that he has come to set parents against children and children against parents. If that makes you feel uncomfortable, you're in good company. The language that passed Jesus' lips about this was almost certainly more like Luke's, which has Jesus saying, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters ... cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). No, there's no trick of Greek vocabulary or ancient Aramaic translation that blunts the meaning of the word "hate" there. It's the same word (misein) used in places like:

  • Matthew 5:43 (in which "hate" is clearly presented as the antithesis of "love" (agape)
  • Luke 21:17 (in which hatred is what persecutors have for those whom they put to death)
  • Hebrews 1:9 (in which it is said of the Son that he "loved righteousness and hated lawlessness")

That's hard to take, and it's most likely that Matthew's community (which in all likelihood used some of the same written sources as were used for the Gospel According to Luke) backpedaled from that "hate" to say instead that it's about loving parents or children more than Jesus.

"Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:37) is still a radical and potentially offensive statement, though. I think about a bio submitted for a lay leadership position in an Episcopal congregation which said something very like "family is, and will be forever, the absolute foundation of my life, the church, and society" (I kept the quote in my files, but am paraphrasing it to protect the person's identity). What does Jesus' claim that he came to set parents against children and children against parents do to that? Those who loudly proclaim a Jesus whose "family values" exalt heterosexual marriage and parenthood above all other relationships and priorities can't be biblical literalists about passages like this Sunday's gospel, so they're often forced to gloss over them (I'd love to hear about any congregation out there not working from a lectionary in which the preacher chooses to take up texts like this!) or resort to interpretive contortions like misused or even invented etymologies to try to dull the force of Jesus' proclamation.

Why is this so hard for us to hear?

Anthropologists use the term 'redemptive media' to refer to the set of things people do in a given culture that allow them to be seen as good, as blessed and worthy of blessing. In the United States during my lifetime, the dominant culture's redemptive media have included graduating from high school and university, owning one's home, and being financially successful (or at least managing wisely the money one has), and (in some circles, and of decreasing importance over time as a redemptive medium in the technical sense) being a member of a religious congregation. But above all of these things as the chief 'redemptive media' in the dominant American culture have been two things: marriage and parenthood.

Think about it this way: there's a fifty-two-year-old politician thinking of a run for the U.S. presidency. He dated in high school and his first two years of university, but once he decided to dedicate his life to public service, he decided that he would have more time and energy to serve the public good without neglecting a family if he were celibate, though as someone who's neither a monk nor a Roman Catholic priest he's under no formal obligation to celibacy. Heck, let's even say for the sake of argument that everyone is satisfied that he's heterosexual. Would his chosen singleness (which St. Paul would commend, though not command) be a political help or liability with American "family values" voters?

I suspect it would prove a serious political liability -- perhaps even more of one if the candidate were a woman. Especially in contrast to another candidate who in his television ads was surrounded by smiling, handsome children and grandchildren (and probably the family Golden Retriever as well), an American man or woman who chooses to remain single and/or childless -- even if it's a choice made to provide more opportunities to serve humankind and leave a better world for other people's children -- would be seen as selfish ("Clearly, this jerk has placed career over family!") or just plain weird, even if it isn't seen as an indication of closeted homosexuality. Even in gay communities, pairing off and raising children boost respectability and a person's perceived level of success. Gay or straight, a church member who's never been partnered is very likely to be met with pity, well-intentioned attempts at matchmaking, and/or reassurances (however unwelcome) that "I'm sure God has someone in mind for you." Marriage (or at least a stable partnership) and parenthood, as our cultural redemptive media, are as American as apple pie -- and we all know that the full phrase ought to be "Mom and apple pie."

So what the heck is Jesus talking about when he says that he's come to set Mom against her daughter, Dad against son, children against their parents?

One side of it is that Jesus is talking about a fact. In a culture that values marriage and family above all else (superficially, in name and cultural iconography -- don't get me started about how hard many of our government's policies make it to get medical care for all of our children, to parent without both parents having to work outside the home, for African American women to form those nuclear families that politicians praise ...), sometimes justice, integrity, and wholeness -- qualities characteristic of Jesus' work among us -- can divide parents from children.

I'm thinking about Zach, a young man of sixteen who lives in Bartlett, Tennesse. Zach loves the Harry Potter movies and The Lord of the Rings and rock bands like Good Charlotte and No Doubt, but he'd usually rather read a book than watch T.V. He has an online journal -- a blog -- that describes a good amount of typical teenage drama in sentences that sometimes run on or lack a few capital letters.

Zach hasn't posted anything new to his blog in nearly a month, though. He's been sent away to a place where he's searched bodily every day, he isn't allowed to have keys to his house or a phone to call a friend, or even a photograph or memento to remind him that he has friends with whom he can hang out or play video games, friends who care about him. He was sent against his will to a place where even Bach and Beethoven are banned as secular music and a possible influence to sin.

Zach was sent there by his parents when he finally worked up the nerve to tell them that he's gay. His parents found this place -- a place run by a group called "Love In Action" -- where they hoped that Zach would, with their treatment, become heterosexual. They told Zach that they were sending him there. Zach ran away, but when he came back to try to reconcile with his parents, they did send him there, very much against his will. There are some who might say that Zach or his "disordered" orientation is to blame, and that the repressive and potentially abusive treatment he gets from "Love In Action" is simply the last and best hope to "cure" him of a disease, to which I'd say that this certainly isn't the first time a superficial scientific sheen has been applied to call God's children claiming their full humanity a disease and their personal integrity a disorder. In 1851, Dr. Samuel Cartwright, who was widely viewed as an expert on health care for Black people, "discovered" the supposed diseases of  "dropetomania" (literally, "flee-from-home-mania") and (here's a mouthful!) "Dysaethesia Aethiopica" (a disease with symptoms of sullenness and refusal to obey orders) Dr. Cartwright claimed that these supposed diseases to which Black people were uniquely vulnerable were best treated by whipping as soon as possible when symptoms showed, and since these diseases were "the natural offspring of Negro liberty," slavery itself was the best hope to tide the epidemic. [If you're interested in hearing more about this, please see the footnote at the end of this post.]

I imagine that Dr. Cartwright thought of himself all the more as a good Christian for his work. It would be perfectly in keeping with a theological disorder that has long plagued this country and others -- namely, a tendency to project onto God whatever our culture's redemptive media are. In 1851, a "good" slave was an obedient slave. And in Zach's family, a "good" son is a heterosexual son.

And so Jesus comes -- to heal, and to love, and however long it takes to grow, to nurture the peace that comes with the fruit of the Spirit -- but also, in some cases, to separate a son from his father. I don't know Zach or his parents personally, but just from reading Zach's blog, I wonder whether the best thing I can pray for Zach is that he'll find a way to break away from his parents while staying safe. Zach needs to be among people who, though they're not related to him by blood, will receive him as a beloved brother, a child of God whose every capacity for self-giving and life-affirming love is a gift from God.

And my hope -- my vision, as someone who believes with all her heart that the God of Israel, the God who became Incarnate in Jesus, is present and active and powerful to heal and redeem -- is that the story wouldn't end there, but that Zach could, with the support of his new sisters and brothers and an unshakable sense of just how much God loves him, find the strength and the courage to forgive his parents, and that they would be moved to reconcile with him, receiving him as an adult with his own integrity, not  only son, but a beloved brother in Christ.

That's the Good News in this hard word of Jesus about the gospel inspiring sons and daughters breaking from their parents. It's that there is no brokenness, nothing so disordered as to be completely beyond the reach of God's power to redeem. That truth gave St. Paul the boldness in his letter to Philemon the slave-owner to insist that Philemon not only free his slave Onesimus -- a slave for whom Dr. Cartwright would have prescribed whipping -- but receive him joyfully as a brother in Christ, a child of God, his equal with God-given rights and a God-breathed vocation.

The day of our redemption is near.

The haughtiness of people shall be humbled,
   and the pride of everyone shall be brought low;
   and the LORD alone will be exalted on that day.

-- Isaiah 2:11

When God alone is Lord, no other person, no cultural imperative, no unjust law, no earthly power can claim that title or keep us from our identity in Christ. Our freedom in Christ divides us from all that would oppress us and restores us to one another as members of one Body of Christ, called to ministry and maturity in Christ, co-heirs with the one who sets us free.

Thanks be to God!


If I can indulge in a lengthy footnote, turning difference coupled with a refusal to accept the "less than" status accorded to one by one's culture has a long history in American medicine. In 1851, slaves who repeatedly tried to flee to freedom were diagnosed with "drapetomania"  -- literally, "flight-from-home-mania" -- a disorder "discovered" by Dr. Samuel Cartwright, who was seen as an expert in the medical care of Black people. Dr. Cartwright taught that "drapetomania" -- that is, wanting freedom -- was  "a disease of the mind as in any other species of alienation, and much more curable, as a general rule," if "treatments" of whipping were applied at the first signs of this supposed disease. Dr. Cartwright also prescribed whipping as the cure for "Dysaethesia Aethiopica." In Cartwright's words, this "disease peculiar to Negroes" was characterized by "hebetude of the mind and obtuse sensibility of the body" -- in other words, by sullenness and resistance to obeying one's master. Dr. Cartwright chided abolitionist colleagues for noticing "the symptoms, but not the disease from which they spring," this disease being "the natural offspring of Negro liberty," making slavery -- with whipping, of course -- the only humane solution to this supposed epidemic. (Props to Elizabeth Kaeton for bringing this to my attention; you can read about it here, among other places.)

Our country also has a history of forced sterilization and/or imprisonment in extremely oppressive and unhealthy mental "hospitals" to cure perceived social ills via eugenics, with American scientists sparking the German eugenics movement that justified the Holocaust -- a subject with which Dr. Karen Keely first acquainted me.

June 23, 2005 in Healing, Isaiah, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Justice, Kinship/Family, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Philemon, Reconciliation, Redemption, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Proper 18, Year C

Philemon 1-20 - link to NRSV text
Luke 14:25-33 - link to NRSV text

"None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions" (Luke 14:33).

Is there anything Jesus could have said which would be harder for us to hear?

Oh yeah:

"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" (Luke 14:26).

Both come from this Sunday's gospel reading, of course.

There is no trick of Greek translation or historical context that will make these sayings anything other than difficult, if not offensive. I can't recommend an angle of preaching or reading that could be summarized as "here's why Jesus/Luke didn't really mean this." Friends don't let friends do this to texts.

Let's take the Greek question head-on, as it's often said in sermons on this passage that the Greek word translated here as "hate" really means something more like "love less." There's no evidence to support this assertion. I suspect that it comes from confusing Luke 14:26 with Matthew 10:37, which says, "whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." But misein, the Greek word translated as "hate" in Luke 14:26, really does mean "hate," as in the opposite of love. Here are some other New Testament passages that use the same word:

  • Matthew 5:43 (in which "hate" is clearly presented as the antithesis of "love" (agape)
  • Luke 21:17 (in which hatred is what persecutors have for those whom they put to death)
  • Hebrews 1:9 (in which it is said of the Son that he "loved righteousness and hated lawlessness")

You get the idea. This is a strong word, and not at all a pretty one -- especially for one's stance toward parents, spouse, children, and siblings. It's an offensive statement that has lost little of its offensive power in its travel from a first-century Mediterranean context to 21st-century America.

And I'm glad it's in the gospel, and in the context in which it appears, because the next sentence is supposed to be offensive too, though it's lost much of its power in our context. In 21st-century America, we see what we think of as a cross mostly as pieces of jewelry, and then as decorations for churches, and then maybe as part of the logo of an organization. It's become in many ways a symbol of respectability and privilege, held up by political candidates to rally the base.

But that's not what the cross represented in the first-century Roman empire. There, the cross was a work of perverse genius -- a cheap and non-labor-intensive way to inflict indescribable pain and shame, while providing a gory public reminder of just what happened to those who undermined the good order of the Empire. It was a reminder of what happened to Christians who encouraged women and men to decide for themselves whom they would call "lord," and then to follow no one else. As I've said in my comment for Proper 15, Year C and the previous entries linked from there, such teaching could and did divide families. It undermined the authority of every man who called himself "father," from the head of the family you grew up in all the way up to Caesar Augustus, who called himself the father of his empire, and his successors.

And it challenges us too. Jesus' words here aren't asking us to feel differently about our family or about the Cross; "hate," like "love," in a first-century context is not about emotions, but about actions. We are being asked to behave toward family in a way that our culture will almost certainly see as hateful. It is still offensive to say that we do not feel any more obligated to blood relatives than we do to others, and I think that's at the core of this week's gospel. We are being asked to abandon, or even despise, the cultural value placed on family, a value that reaches almost to the point of idolatry in many quarters.

But the choice we are faced with is not between swallowing whole "family values" as defined by our culture or rejecting all family members altogether. Jesus' teaching did tear his followers out of the families they grew up in, the families that not only provided for them materially, but gave them their identity in the world and any honor they experienced. But Jesus defined the community of his followers as a different kind of family. He expected them to care for one another materially (hence the emphasis on common rather than private possessions), honor one another in a world that despised them, and to treat one another with all of the intimacy and loyalty one would expect of brother and sister.

One's father and mother, spouse and children, were welcome to join the community, becoming brothers and sisters with all its members -- but the new relationship in Christ was then to be the definitive one. That was particularly challenging for fathers, accustomed to a kind of authority that Jesus taught belonged rightfully only to God.

That's the sort of challenged that Paul poses to Philemon in the epistle for this week too -- to receive Onesimus, who had been his slave, and to relate to him not as Onesimus' master, but as his brother. Doing so would include and go beyond freeing Onesimus from literal slavery. Normally, if Philemon freed Onesimus, Onesimus would still be defined as Philemon's freedman, obligated to him in a lopsided relationship in which Philemon could choose to care for him or ignore his needs. But brothers cannot do that to one another; they are obligated to one another indissolubly, absolutely, and mutually. As brothers, Onesimus and Philemon would be bound eternally in a relationship that freed both: Onesimus from the obligations of being Philemon's slave or freedman, and Philemon from participating in a system that dehumanized masters while oppressing slaves.

That's the Good News in Jesus' very hard words. Follow Jesus, and we are abandoning a lot of what gave us honor, security, and even identity in our culture. In short, we will be abandoning what gave us life. But what kind of life? Follow Jesus, become family with his brothers and sisters, and while we will share in his cross, we will share also in his risen life -- joyful, eternal, loving, and free.

Thanks be to God!

August 30, 2004 in Jesus' Hard Sayings, Kinship/Family, Luke, Ordinary Time, Philemon, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)