…interpreting the ‘present time’
August 14, 2022
Scriptures: Isaiah 5:1-7, Luke 12:49-56
In truth, these scriptures are at best difficult, and at worst nearly impossible to fully understand, or at least to become comfortable with. To be sure, they raise some interesting questions. Such as, what is it Jesus and the writer of Isaiah were dealing with in their times, and what were they truly seeking to convey with what seems like ‘doomsday’ proclamations? And, if we can gain some sense of that, how might these discomforting words speak to our day, or to current affairs? And why did Jesus have to double down and raise the bar to include family relationships in his dire predictions? Did he really think he might gain new followers or encourage existing ones with these words that speak of dividing homes and splitting families down the middle? At the end of our reading Jesus scolds his audience for not being able to ‘interpret the present time’. Is it at all possible that we might be guilty of the same offense?
I think most of us have a sense, at least in our own lives, of what is needed in order for us to have hope and a sense of purpose. We have some idea of what ‘stars need to be aligned’ and what needs to ‘be in what order’, for us to look forward to the future with some measure of confidence. I think it’s safe to say that a sense of purpose and the pursuit of peace and harmony, along with the sacredness of family and family relationships are at the top of most everyone’s list when it comes to the things we value as necessary to live with optimism and hope. Even in spite of the current turmoil both in our society and across the world at this particular moment in history, it is this personal space, this place close to heart and home that we feel most comfortable turning to in order to obtain the energy to ‘buck up and carry on’. It is this inner and secure personal place in our lives that we feel we need to be able to rely on as a bedrock place in order to be able to stand against all else. And to hear Jesus seemingly indicate that this is not only not enough, but definitely not something we can call upon even as a last resort is disconcerting to say the least! It makes one wonder, is this passage really a word of hope and promise from what we believe is our loving God?
I think many folks, perhaps even some we know, tend to view ‘life’ as something that is first and foremost a ‘personal and individual thing’. The goal, or perhaps the purpose of life is to be kind, to care for those we love, and to seek to ensure that our own needs and wants are either already present, or at least possible in the near future. And as a result of this inward personal focus, other things going on around us may not get as much in terms of our attention or concern. Situations or needs concerning others who may not be in our immediate circle of relationships may in fact receive very little of our time, energy, or resources.
In addition, given the way American life and governance seems to have been trending over the last decade or so, it is not really all that hard to find parallels between our time and that referred to in the words of the scriptures. The real challenge then, is to find how we might respond to the challenge these words of Jesus pose. The question that comes to me is, is it faithful or not to go on living our lives with no change in how we engage, or don’t engage with all that is currently going on around us?
I think that in fact Jesus was calling for wholesale change in and amongst his followers, change in the very way they lived out their daily live and in how they spent their energy, their time, and their treasure. I think he was saying that until there was division and radical social upheaval and change in the world…until the prevailing social order of his day (and by extension that of ours) is somehow broken down and replaced with a new vision of God’s peace and God’s justice…until that time, true and Godly peace on earth was just not possible.
‘Things have to change’ Jesus seems to be saying. ‘I did not come here just to bless your current understanding, or to physically overthrow the oppressive and unjust Roman order, or whomever it is that you believe is the cause of our present distress, rather, I came to teach you that the true way to holiness, is through change and newness of understanding of all that you see…change that presently may be outside of your understanding or expectations. Change in the way you lift up and cherish one another, change in the way you reach out to and welcome the stranger and care for those in need.’
Jesus was not satisfied with the way the culture and historical trajectory of humanity had evolved up to that point, and seemed pretty far from believing that what was broken could somehow just be ‘patched up’ or ‘repaired’. And in truth, that premise makes a pretty good case for why God chose to dwell amongst us as a human being in the first place. Rather than ‘blessing’ or ‘fixing’ our broken or highly conditional understanding of the call to love one another, I believe Jesus was saying that only by fully replacing our ‘old’ with his ‘new’ would true and lasting salvation of our human family come about.
True social change that is pleasing to God will not come about simply by us learning how to ‘get along with each other better’, but instead requires a willingness to submit to the lordship of the Holy Spirit, to allow for the life, witness, and words of Jesus to become that which governs our life and our decisions. Which begs the question; was Jesus actually trying to tell us that the ‘common culture of understanding’ held by most of those with him that day, and by extension most folks today, may somehow be at odds with the primary message of the gospels? And if so, what does he offer as the solution to bring our understanding and God’s hopes for humanity closer together? Is it possible that this scripture seems so difficult for us because in truth, our times are not all that different from the ones in which Jesus first voiced these thoughts? Have we gone on now for close to two thousand years seeking all on our own to create a society and culture that is good and hopeful, only to find that these words, which when first spoken were not only difficult but revolutionary, are still words that cause us to stumble and protest today? Did humanity miss the point of Jesus’ words not only that day, but have they ever since? And if so, is it possible for us to find a way to better understand them?
Yes I believe it is. But not without facing the same difficult choices and the same call for engagement Jesus was asking for. And that’s because in truth, to some extent we have come to where we are, by increasingly being better at being less loving overall. Let me rephrase that, we have found ways to create and sustain a society and culture that is beneficial to some and unfortunately, not so much to many others. We are part of a culture and way of living that is in fact quite selective in terms of who is ‘loved’, and who is not loved very well at all.
Somewhere and somehow, we need to find the courage to affirm that what Jesus was so critical of regarding the excesses and oppressive nature of the Roman Empire carries over with an almost ‘glove-fit likeness’ onto our own contemporary culture and social behavior. These two ‘empires’, past and present, have much in common. And this particular passage in which Jesus is contrasting the ‘Kingdom of God’ with all the various ‘kingdoms of man’, tells us that we have much to do and far to travel before we are truly following Jesus’ call and urgent command to love every ‘one-another’.
I guess the question really is, what or who it is that is truly ‘lord’ over our life? ‘What’ or ‘who’ do we feel deserves our deepest loyalty and attention? What is it or who is it that we trust the most to keep us safe and ultimately satisfied? Is our Lord Jesus truly our one and only Lord, and do we share our trust, our allegiance, and our devotion with no one else or ‘no-thing’ else? Or do we have a sort of ‘hybrid’ understanding in which faith is supposed to ‘fit into’ or simply ‘be a part of’ our life? Do we trust in God for certain things, like life after death, or comfort in times of sickness or loss, but only trust in our own resources and capabilities when it comes to things we wish for, or certain types or levels of security? Are we truly able to place our whole trust in this God we cannot see? Or do we hold back just a little, just in case God doesn’t actually come through? These are not small questions, but then, this truly isn’t, and wasn’t meant to be an easy scripture!
We will never know the true peace of our Lord as long as we continue to subscribe to and follow after all of the lesser ‘gods’ Jesus was seeking to defeat. And indeed, there are many such forces that still capture and hold our attention…other lesser voices of authority promising security, or abundance, success or status…or perhaps even family health or ‘unity’. Seldom if ever are the goals of these ‘lesser gods’ fully aligned with the purposes of our God. In fact, most often the loudest ‘voices’ in our culture are quite out of step with the pursuit of love, justice, and equality for all.
Jesus came to set fire to the dominant order of his day that still so imprisons humankind in strife and struggle. He came, to once and for all do away with that which truly separates us one from another, and instead to show us the way towards returning to the balance and harmony of the original Creation that God had deemed was ‘indeed very good’. And he calls us to give our lives to this effort by following in his footsteps, by loving without fear or favor, and to love with no strings or conditions attached. For only in this way, in this new day, and in the time of these ‘new wineskins’ will it be possible to establish real justice for all and to usher in that day of true and lasting peace.
Truly Jesus is calling here for radical change in our existing social order and structure. Jesus has called for all of humanity to abandon their selfish ways and to participate in working to bring in a wholly new kingdom of love and human understanding. I believe, in fact I know it is possible, one believer at a time.