Guest Preacher Rev. Arthur S. Brown
Regarding this morning’s scripture reading, let’s focus our attention on Matthew 10:34, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword”. Many of us may have a difficult time with what Jesus said here which seems to suggest that his purpose for coming to earth was to support conditions which bring about war and conflict and not support conditions which bring about the peace, as it was prophesied by Isaiah in chapter nine verses six and seven: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called wonderful, counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace. Of the increase of his government and peace, there shall be to no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgement and with justice, from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the lord of hosts will permit this.”
We believe these Isaiah verses refer to Jesus who will bring about a society whose governance will be that of peace and justice. This being ordained by God and what I believe being put into place by Jesus with the use of the sword, the sword that was mentioned in our scripture, Matthew 10:34. The sword is an offensive weapon and I submit to you that Jesus used it, in the form of his gospel ministries, to dismantle the existing oppressive, abusive and exploitive form of governance imposed on the Palestine peasant population by the roman empire and the temple priestly elite and replaced it with a form of governance know to us as the kingdom of God, where peace, justice and equity are foundational supports.
This morning I want us to consider a non-traditional view of Jesus. The acceptable and prominent perception of his earthly ministry is to have humankind confess its wrong doings, or sins, change or transform its behavior, in order to be prepared to enter heaven, God’s above kingdom, when death happens. My sermon’s purpose is not to dispute this but, to offer another view of Jesus’ ministry, one as authentic as the traditional view and that view is, Jesus as a revolutionary, a liberator if you will. Theologian Dr. Obey M. Hendricks writes: to say that Jesus was a political revolutionary is to say that the message he proclaimed not only called for change in individual hearts but also demanded sweeping and comprehensive change in political, social and economic structures in his setting in life: colonized Israel. It means that if Jesus had his way, the Roman Empire and the ruling elites among his own people either would no longer would have held their positions of power, or if they did, would have had to conduct themselves very, very differently. It means that an important goal of his ministry was to radically change the distribution of authority, power, goods and resources so all people-particularly the little people, or “the least of these” as Jesus called them-might have lives free of political repression, enforced hunger and poverty, and undue insecurity. It means that Jesus sought not only to heal people’s pain but also to inspire and empower people to remove the unjust social and political structures that too often were the cause of their pain. It means that Jesus had a clear and unambiguous vision of the healthy world that God intended and that he addressed any issue-social, economic, or political-that violated that vision.
A revolutionary can be defined as one who advocates for or takes part in an abrupt and permanent change from oppressive and abusive practices; the removal and dismantling of such practices to be replaced with equitable practices and structures. I submit to you that a mission of Jesus, as a revolutionary, was to establish a ministry to do just that. Let us take a look at those structural environs of Palestine, where Jesus lived, to see if there was cause and need for Jesus, the revolutionary.
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the temple, the expositor of God’s will for Palestine and the political, economical and social center of that nation, was corrupt and in spiritual decline and decay. As a remedy for this dreadful situation, the people sought the presence of the urgently awaited messiah whose advent had been prophesied for centuries. This prophesy predicted that Israel would be reinstated to its ancient position of leader of all nations of the world and that this messiah would rule on David’s throne; that Israel would once again prosper as it did during David’s and Solomon’s reigns.
Israel had been chaffing and suffering under Rome’s military occupation and brutal rule since 65 b.c. Through the use of repressive, exploitive and harsh measures, Rome controlled the environs of the Israel society. Indiscriminant rape of the women, forced labor of the men, the imposition of unbearable and weighty taxes and influence in temple functions (Rome would often determine who would sit in the office of high priest), these were regular occurrences that described Rome’s oppressive relationship over the Israel society. The impact of this oppression showed in the presence of severe emotional deterioration and dysfunction of Israel’s national psychology (see Franz fanon’s the wretched of the earth for a description of the effects of colonial occupation on the psychological makeup of an occupied peasant population). But, a more insidious infection was eating away at Israel’s lifeline, that being the temple environs.
The temple priests purported to be the interpreter of God’s will to the people and keeper of his sacred house while making intercessions to God on the behalf of a sinful population. They were to provide guidance to an unholy and fallen race; to journey along with them; to bring them out of the darkness of their daily lives into a life of prosperous light. But, the priests’ relationship to the people, particularly to the peasant citizenry, was other than this. They were avaricious, predatory, greedy and extravagant. Their unholy behavior defiled the temple. For example, on top of the regular temple tax, 12 different tithes and offerings were imposed, the majority of which they stole for themselves. They mislead the people to believe themselves to be unworthy of God’s blessings and favor for not being able to purchase an animal or bird for the atonement offering (for without the shedding of blood there could be no forgiveness of sin). Therefore, the peasantry would be in a constant state of fear and anxiety; believing it was living daily outside the will of God. In addition to these impediments to the wholesome existence God had promised, was the presence of a more severe one associated with the general population itself. That being, apostasy against God’s government.
Since the death of Joshua, the nation of Israel had many, many times rejected the sovereignty of God, choosing to worship idols as Gods, and to live outside the confines of the sovereignty of God’s laws. God had selected Israel to be the example to other nations to worship a living God and to demonstrate the benefits that would accrue being obedient to God as sovereign. But, Israel chose to be disobedient. This apostasy is what Jesus saw when he assessed the spiritual wellbeing of Israel. He said “o Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets and stonest them which are sent unto thee. How often would I have gathered thy children together? Even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings and ye would not’ (Matt. 23:37). Israel was debased, diseased, and degraded.
So, this brief assessment of the structural environment and the wellbeing of Israel/Palestine when Jesus’ was living there, reveals the oppressive occupation of the roman empire, the corruption and spiritual bankruptcy of the elite temple priests and the disobedience and apostasy practiced by the general population. In God’s mind this whole social system needed to be done away with and its people transformed. I believe this could be accomplished only by revolutionary means by a revolutionary or a liberator and that being Jesus.
Dr. Obery M. Hendricks Jr., professor of biblical interpretation at the New York theological seminary and past president of Payne theological seminary, wrote a book titled the politics of Jesus: rediscovering the true revolutionary nature of Jesus’ teachings and how they have been corrupted. In his book, Dr. Hendricks introduces seven strategies employed by Jesus to start a movement to liberate the Israel population, particularly the peasant populous, from the oppressive occupation of Rome and the harsh, insensitive, abusive economic and social measures imposed by the temple priests. These strategies are: 1). Treat the people needs as holy (Matt. 6:9-13), 2). Give voice to the voiceless (Mk. 11:15-19, 3). Expose the workings of oppression (Matt. 20:1-16), 4). Call the demon by name (mk. 5:1-10), 5). Take blows without returning them (Matt. 5:28-41), 6). Save your anger for the mistreatment of others (Mk. 1:40-45) and 7), don’t just explain the alternative, show it (Jn. 6:1-15)
Because of time constraints, we will only have time to briefly look at three of these strategies, give voice to the voiceless, don’t just explain the alternative, show it and treat the people and their needs as holy. Give voice to the voiceless, Mk 11:15-19, Jesus disrupts and condemns the corrupt temple operations. By closing down the entire temple’s participation in economic violence, Jesus demonstrated how a poor peasant (remember Jesus was a poor peasant) could stand against a corrupt institution and speak out against it. Jesus’ actions were intended to empower the peasant population by demystifying the professed sacred hold the priests held over them and to lay bare the priests oppressive and abusive temple practices. Quoting from Dr. Hendricks’ book: “giving voice to the voiceless is a powerful strategy for political change. But Jesus’ action in the temple also demonstrates an important principle: that speaking truth to power and demystifying the might of those cloaked in the mystique of invulnerability is more than strategic. It is our sacred duty.”
The second strategy is don’t just explain the alternative, show it, Jn. 6:1-15. This is Jesus performing the miracle of feeding the 5000 with 2 fishes and 5 loaves of bread. Traditionally this action of feeding so many folks with this very small amount of food is viewed as a miracle; a demonstration of the omnipotence of Jesus. But it is more than that. Let’s look at it from a political context.
Earlier in the sermon, when we looked at the temple environs, we saw the priests exploiting the Palestinian population with weighty taxes, and an overbearing abusive debt system, while fostering a belief system that brought about guilt among the peasant population; a belief system that favored God’s displeasure and punishment and not his forgiveness, compassion and his generosity. The feeding miracle shows Jesus modeling God’s giving and generosity set against the temple priests’ stealing and hoarding. Jesus demonstrated a different way that man could relate to man. A relationship based on giving and not debt, of sharing and not hoarding, of having all participate in meeting each other’s needs and not taking. By performing the feeding miracle, Jesus was empowering the populace to view the existing roman authoritative control dynamic in a new way, as a new egalitarian sharing dynamic with God in control and not the temple priests. Jesus demonstrated or showed the alternative, he didn’t just explain it.
The final strategy is treat the people and their needs as holy. This is an assessment of what we know as the Lord’s Prayer, which is found in two of the four gospels, Matt. 6:9-13 and Lk. 11:2-4. This prayer lays out God’s core principles in the establishment of justice relationships among the Palestine inhabitants and between them and God. There are three core principles mentioned: 1). There is only one father, who is communal, egalitarian and compassionate. It is not the roman governor, not the Caesar who calls himself father and not the rigid biological father who is the despot head of the Jewish household, 2). Thy kingdom come is the authorization of the presence of God’s government on earth, that of justice, equity, compassion and love and 3). Debt forgiveness, God’s plan to eliminate poverty: no one shall be in need, debts shall be remitted, or cancelled every 7th year; in the 50th year, the year of jubilee, workers are released from debts owed, they are free to return to their own homes and lands from which they were taken and their possessions must be returned to them; all claims made against them shall be forgiven.
Richard Stearns past CEO of World Vision wrote in his book the hole in our gospel, “the kingdom of which Christ spoke was one in which the poor, the sick, the grieving, cripples, slaves, women, children widows, orphans, lepers and aliens, “the least of the these” (Matthew25:40), were to be lifted up and embraced by God. It was a world order in which justice was to become a reality, first in the hearts and minds of Jesus’ followers, and then to the wider society through their influence. Jesus’ disciples were to be “salt” and “light” to the world (Matthew 5:13-14). They were to be the “yeast” that leavens the whole loaf of bread (Matthew 13:33). His was not a far-off and distant kingdom to be experienced only in the afterlife; no, Christ’s proclamation of the “kingdom of heaven” was a call for a redeemed world order populated by redeemed people, now. In other words, the perfect kingdom of God that I just described was to begin on earth. That was the vision first proclaimed by Jesus, and it was good news for our world.” In what is recognized as his first sermon Lk 4:18-19 Jesus seems to confirm these words written by Richard Starns as he reveals his mission and purpose: “the spirit of the lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, he hath sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and to set at liberty them that are bruised, to peach the acceptable year of the lord.”
“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword”. This sword that Jesus used was the implementation of his gospel message in the form of the seven liberating strategies presented in Dr. Hendricks’ book; three were addressed in this morning’s sermon. Jesus a revolutionary, a liberator if you will, used revolutionary means to address all oppressive and repressive practices imposed on the Palestine population of his day. Let us, in our moment on this planet, follow his example and take up our sword and go on the offensive against oppressive and repressive practices of our day. Let us pray.