Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 38: 4-10; PS 40: 2-4, 18; HEB 12:1-4; L 12: 49-53
Today's gospel excerpt presents problems for any serious homilist. That's because it introduces us to an apparently violent Jesus. It makes one wonder; why does the Church select such problematic passages for Sunday reading? What's a pastor to make of them?
On the other hand, perhaps it's all providential. That is, today's gospel might unwittingly help us understand that even the best of imperialism's victims (perhaps Jesus himself) are drawn towards reactive, revolutionary, or self-defensive violence. After all, Jesus and his audiences were impoverished victims of Roman plunder. By the standards most Christians today accept, they had the right to defend themselves "by any means necessary."
Here's what I mean. Without apology, today's reading from Luke has the 'Prince of Peace" saying, "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division."
In a parallel passage, Matthew's version is even more direct. He has Jesus saying, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."
Is that provocative enough for you?
What's going on here? What happened to "Turn the other cheek," and "Love your enemy?"
There are two main answers to the question. One is offered by Muslim New Testament scholar, Resa Aslan, the other by Jesus researcher, John Dominic Crossan. Aslan associates the shocking words attributed to Jesus in this morning's gospel directly with Jesus himself. Crossan connects them with the evangelists, Luke and Matthew who evidently found Jesus' nonviolent resistance (loving enemies, turning the other cheek) too difficult to swallow for people living under the jackboot of Roman imperialism.
For his part, Aslan points out that the only God Jesus knew and the sole God he worshipped was the God of Jewish scripture. That God was a "man of war" (Exodus 15:3). He repeatedly commands the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews. He's the "blood-spattered God of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3). He is the God who "shatters the heads of his enemies" and who bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalms 68: 21-23). This is a God every bit as violent as any the Holy Koran has to offer.
For Aslan, Jesus' words about turning the other cheek and loving enemies pertained only to members of the Jewish community. They had nothing to do with the presence of hated foreigners occupying and laying claim to ownership of Israel, which in Jewish eyes belonged only to God. Accordingly, Jesus words about his commitment to "the sword" expressed the hatred he shared with his compatriots for the Roman occupiers.
In other words, when it came to Roman imperialists, Jesus was not a pacifist. He issued no call for nonviolence or nonresistance. Quite the opposite.
John Dominic Crossan disagrees. For him the earliest layers of tradition (even the "Q" source in Matthew and Luke) reveal a champion of non-violent resistance. In fact, the Master's earliest instructions to his disciples tell them to travel freely from town to town. But in doing so, they are to wear no sandals, carry no backpack, and no staff. He instructs: "Take nothing for the journey--no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt" (LK 9:3).
Crossan finds the prohibition against carrying a staff highly significant. The staff, of course, was a walking stick. However, it was also a defensive weapon against wild animals -- and robbers.
So with this proscription Jesus seems to prohibit carrying any weapon -- even a purely defensive one like the staff all travelers used.