I don’t know about the rest of you, but this week’s Gospel makes me really uncomfortable. This is not the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of the old hymn. This is not what we think of when we think of the Prince of Peace. All this talk of swords and family division and being denied before his father in heaven…who let THAT Jesus in?
It is very tempting to try to soothe our discomfort, to come up with ways of saying that Jesus doesn’t really mean this the way it sounds. But I’m not sure we can do that and remain honest to the text. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable. It’s supposed to unsettle us a little. Jesus didn’t come to make the status quo bearable. He came to bring us new life, a new way of being the people of God.
Jesus was speaking to people whose entire social identity was dependent upon their family. Your value was determined by who you were related to. I most often speak about this in terms of the lives of women in that time. Women were defined (and protected) by their relationship to the men they were related to: first their fathers, then their husbands, and finally their sons. To be a woman without a male relation to provide identity and protection was to be in a very precarious situation indeed.
The lectionary pairs this difficult passage from Matthew with the painful and ugly story of Hagar’s expulsion from Abraham’s household. It reads like a soap opera, especially if you take the whole story into account. For those of you needing a little memory jog: Hagar was the slave of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Sarah couldn’t bear Abraham children, she was barren, so she took matters into her own hands and insisted that Abraham have a child with this slave girl, Hagar, on her behalf. (Hagar really had no say in the matter.) Everyone was satisfied, for a while…then came the visit from the three angelic strangers who made the absurd declaration that Sarah would bear Abraham a child from her own womb. Never mind that she was well past child-bearing age and had proved barren all these years. She does, indeed, become miraculously pregnant and bears Abraham a son whom they name Isaac, which means laughter.
But you know who wasn’t laughing? Hagar. Her son is no longer a blessing but a liability. Now that Sarah has her own son she has no need for Hagar’s child, and soon finds him an annoyance, a reminder of a situation she’d much rather forget. So she convinces Abraham to cast her out. And Abraham, simply to keep the peace, does so. He pushes a slave woman and a child of his own out of camp, because it’s easier than dealing with household discord.
It’s an ugly, ugly story. It does not show Abraham in a good light at all. So much for biblical family values, huh?
But what happens? God hears her cry (well, her son’s cry—but that’s a can of worms I’m not ready to open today), God responds to her and makes a place for her. God doesn’t let her be sacrificed on the altar of family harmony. Did you notice that neither Abraham or Sarah would even call her by name? She meant nothing to them.
But to God, she has a name, and she has value. God reaches out to her in her distress, asks, “What troubles you, Hagar?” And although we don’t hear this part of the story in today’s selection, it was also God who gave her son a name, Ishmael, meaning “God hears.” God hears her distress, and does something about it.
Or as Jesus might have put it, she matters more than two sparrows.
When Jesus says he has not come to bring peace but a sword, he is not advocating violence. That may be what they were expecting him to do. The people listening to him were waiting for someone to help them cast off Roman rule, so to say he was bringing a sword would reel them in. But then he goes in a different direction. It’s not just Roman society he is there to overthrow. He is there to disrupt all those systems that keep us from living in full relationship with God. He is there to completely reshape society. There will be room for everyone—not just women, but EVERYONE, in God’s family. God’s society will be one of radical justice and equality. But that is not going to come easily or peacefully. The Gospel of Matthew was targeted at people who had already “converted” (although that’s probably not the most accurate word); it was targeted at people who had made the decision to enter into the community that followed Jesus. So the Gospel of Matthew includes hard sayings and difficult passages because it is trying to help them deal with the fallout of this decision. No one says it’s going to be easy to be a disciple.
Earlier I referred to that image of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. As I typed it, I didn’t hit the “n” key hard enough, so what appeared on the page was “the Price of Peace.” It strikes me that there is some truth to that image, as well. In this passage, Jesus is talking about the price of the peace he is bringing into the world. The kind of peace that Jesus is bringing, what Paul will later refer to as the “peace that passes all understanding,” is not easy. It is not always comfortable. Sometimes it will require sacrifice, it will require taking up the cross, that instrument of torture and execution. Not just accepting it when it is forced on you, but actually taking it up. It will mean letting go of the things you hold most dear in order to become the person and people that God envisions us being.
We are living through the death of “Christendom”—the end of a time when we can assume that our identity as Christians provides us with certain privileges, a certain status. We are living in a time when to self-identify as Christian is more likely to bring scorn and ridicule than respect and deference. To which I say, Thank God. Thank God we are letting go of all those trappings and systems that have been holding us back, keeping us from living more fully in the kingdom. Thank God we have to learn our story so that we can tell it to people who haven’t heard it. Thank God we have to remind ourselves daily that there is a different kind of value in carrying the name of Christ. Being cast out of the comfort of safety can be freeing. As long as Hagar remained in Abraham’s household, she remained a slave. By casting her out, they granted her freedom. She no longer belonged to them. In the desert, she was claimed by God. Sometimes you don’t know how much you are really worth until all the old values system casts you out. That’s when you find out that you are of more value than many sparrows; God holds you so dear that even the hairs on your head are numbered. And God is offering something new and life-giving, if we will just open our eyes to see it.