"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)
It is interesting how we humans so easily put people we adore on a pedestal. We see them as so good, so kind, so perfect, that it becomes hard for us to see any room to grow, no room to gain new insights, no room to progress in the way of peace. When we do this, though, we in truth rob them of their humanity. We take their humanness from them. We make a caricature of them – the perfect man or woman, one who can do no wrong or say something that indicated room for growth.
This is especially true when it comes to religious figures. We declare people saints. Superhuman. We forget to see persons, persons full of complexity with a mix of emotions throughout time. We forget they are more like us than not. In their life they too progressed and matured and got better.
This applies even to Jesus. Like God pictured in the Old Testament, Jesus was influenced by the context and the people around him. He could gain new insight, ponder things, and even change his mind.
I think this is one way to make sense of Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:34 when he says, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” Jesus says these words at the very beginning of his ministry. Just a few verse early, in Matthew 10, vs. 1 and 2, Jesus is choosing his 12 disciples. Jesus is just finding his way.
By the time, Matthew 26 comes around, 3 and a half years later, something has changed in Jesus. The same man who said I have come bringing a sword in Matthew 10, now says in Matthew 26:52, “put the sword away. He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.”
He says this to his closest disciple Peter after he drew his sword and struck the ear of a soldier. Somewhere along the road, between Matthew 10 and Matthew 26, Jesus chose the path of unequivocal nonviolence and put away even talk of weapons or violence.
This recalls Dr. King. Early in his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956, he had guards with guns standing watch in front of his house. But just a few years later after he committed to the path of nonviolence as taught by Gandhi, he had his guards put their guns away.
Jesus seemingly changing his mind also recalls the famous Noah and the Ark story. God went from globally wiping out a world of sinners to promising never to take such drastic and destructive measures again, implying that he regretted such actions.
So there is hope for all of us. It is never too late to gain new insights, ponder things, and experience a change of heart. It is never too late for us to grow into the path of peace.
There’s another way to look at Matthew 10:34 that also can teach us.
When Jesus says I’ve come not to bring peace, Jesus is talking about a specific kind of peace. The kind of peace Jesus says he’s not about, the peace that Jesus says he has not come to bring, is a shallow peace. The peace Jesus could do without was a peace that is simply an absence of conflict.
There are, however, some wrongs in life that make conflict unavoidable. There are some wrongs we must confront, wielding the sword of love. Only by confronting these wrongs can true peace ever be realized in a deep way.
And Jesus is referring to such a wrong in Matthew 10. It is a systemic wrong. The wrong of social inequality and rigid hierarchy where the respected and powerful are way up high secure and comfortable and everyone is well below them unprotected and struggling. A peace built on this, where the powerful maintain a fake peace through fear and intimidation and by pulling the strings of power, this is not the kind of peace Jesus is about or has come to offer. Jesus wants a peace based in justice, equality, and fairness. Jesus called for an egalitarian peace –based in equality – not one based in power. The peace Jesus wants is one built on a social equilibrium where the poor and the weak are lifted up and the rich and the powerful are brought to a more even plain. An unjust peace is no peace at all for Jesus.
But we can also apply Jesus avoidance of quick and easy peace to inner peace. Inner peace – we all want it. It is certainly something we should strive for. However, what if getting at true peace means first confronting some things in our life? What if getting to inner peace requires doing inner battle with our anger, our sadness, our prejudices, our attachments, our hatreds? What if inner peace involves taking the sword of love and felling all the obstacles holding us back?
Yes, sometimes we need to be gentle on ourselves. Sometimes we need to forgive ourselves and look past certain things in ourselves. Sometimes we need to focus on the kingdom of God within us. But not at the expense of staying stuck or ignoring reality. Confronting negative habits, a paralyzing past, destructive tendencies, our social wrongs we are unconsciously part of -- sometimes this is a necessary step to finding real and lasting inner peace. Sometimes internal struggle is part of the process to realizing internal peace.
That is what I think Jesus is trying to say to us by his still very provocative and Jesus counter-intuitive statement. Without the strenuous internal work, peace is an illusion and not worthy of being brought.
For I have come to turn
'a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." - (Matthew 10:35-38)
Jesus’ take on the family in Matthew 10 seems from an initial reading as rather harsh, doesn’t it? Remember hearing a lot about family values in our politics? Interestingly, you don’t hear as much about it anymore. I wonder why?But Jesus seems to be dismissing family values. In fact, he seems to be condemning family values. He seems out to destroy families. In the least, he seems out to divide families. What is this about?
Well, let’s look a little deeper at what Jesus is really criticizing. It’s something he criticizes a lot in the gospels.
Do you all know what a pyramid scheme is? Basically, it is an illegal but common business scheme where there is one guy at the top who is in control and wealthy. This guy gets people to sell something of his and he takes a big portion of the money they sell. More levels of people selling things follow with the money flowing up through all those above and a lot into the big guy at the tops pocket. It is sort of trickle-down economics in reverse. Most of the money made at the bottom levels through the sale of a product, that money trickles back up, filling the coffers of those above.
This kind of pyramid scheme, but on a society scale, is everywhere in Jesus’ time.
The result is rigid, institutionalized hierarchy. This hierarchy that society’s pyramid scheme has built, it means a huge divide between those at the top and those below. The Big Man is at the top, there is a clear line between the top and the levels below. And whatever power, wealth or betterment there is to be had, a big portion goes to the top.
This structure applies even to the family in Ancient Palestine. In fact, it starts in the family of Jesus’ time. The father ruled the roost. It was a heavily patriarchal society. The father was the king in the family. The mother was well below, followed just a little bit in the order of things by the oldest son. Younger sons follow, then the oldest sister, then younger sisters. At the very bottom are daughter-in-laws, beginning with the one who marries the oldest son and lives with the immediate family.
And Jesus does not like this set-up one bit! He deplores it, in fact. This is the style of family Jesus is referring to in Matthew 10. It was basically a family pyramid scheme. He hated all pyramid schemes even though they defined how things were in his society. He hated this set-up so much that he wanted to topple it, turn things on their head, upend the pyramid. And he calls on his disciples to join him in toppling, in this upending.
Jesus talks over and over again about a new paradigm. One to replace the pyramid schemes everywhere. The new paradigm of the Kingdom of God.
This new paradigm begins with God as Father not above us but with us.
The Father God Jesus shows us is unlike the fathers defined by his culture. In fact, the Father God Jesus shows us is countercultural. This Father God possessed motherly qualities. This Father God, according to Jesus, was as feminine as he was masculine by his culture’s standards. This was revolutionary to those listening to Jesus. It is no wonder the religious authorities were shocked and offended. The way Jesus referred to God as Father and as a father that was so motherly, it was a shock to the religious system.
What’s more, this God comes down to the lowest levels of society and lifts-up the lowest, the least, and last. This God comes down to earth to topple and crush the pyramids everywhere. Crush the pyramids into a road leading to the Kingdom of God, a kingdom marked by equality among all, by justice for all and compassion toward all.
This toppling Jesus calls for must happen from top to bottom. This toppling means the traditional family system is upended. The traditional family system, based on rigid hierarchy and a pyramid scheme like approach, Jesus has come to turn this kind of family on its head.
The aim of this upending is that love itself becomes the center of the home. The aim is family life built on the equilibrium and equalizer of Love. In this new paradigm, Father-Mother comes down to the children’s level and collaborates to create a new way. Children are no longer obliged to adorn the patriarch with honor and respect but instead look to the reality of a loving relationship with their parents for meaning and purpose, and out of relationship honor and respect naturally comes. Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law join hands and throw the letter of the law away for the spirit of Love.
Jesus envisions a beloved community, beginning with a new way of doing family and moving outward, a beloved community where all meet at the center of Love, where God equalizes and evens out all disparities and divisions, where authority is shared and collaboration is a way of life, even between parent and children.
I close with maybe the most difficult verses of Matthew 10, vs. 37-38, where Jesus says if you love your parents or your children more than me, you are not worthy of me.
Jesus as Bodhisattva
There is the centuries-old legend that between the age of 12 and 30, Jesus traveled to India and learned about Buddhism. These lost years were spent studying and practicing the Buddhist dharma. Jesus internalized the dharma on the basis of his own cultural-religious background. He returned to Palestine and taught a kind of Buddhist-Judaism.
There is no historical evidence for this. Yet there are groups of Indians and Tibetans who hold to it. That the story continues to be sincerely believed around the world itself says a lot. Many of us would like to believe it! And it is an interesting idea to consider.
One thing is for sure, what Christ taught was often very buddhistic. Jesus’ teaching, whether knowingly or not, tapped into buddhistic notions such as Jesus’ teachings on righteous self-emptying; righteous effort amid suffering; the exaltation of the poor and the vulnerable; and the focus on the imminence of truth and the practice of compassion. Marcus Borg’s wonderful book, Jesus and Buddha: Parallel Sayings, gives scriptural examples of the interconnections between the two religious founder’s teaching. He presents some profound and undeniable affinities between the 2,500 old Buddha and the 2,000 old Christ.
More than just his teaching, which is highly underestimated and overlooked in especially conservative Christian circles, Jesus’ life exemplifies the practice of compassion. Righteous speech, actions, livelihood, and effort, the Eightfold Path’s “compassion practices,” are all embodied in Jesus’ life.
Jesus, According to Buddhists
The Dalai Lama in his book The Good Heart calls Jesus a bodhisattva. Thich Nhat Hanh states Jesus is part of his spiritual ancestry and that Jesus and Buddha are brothers. Buddhadasa points to Jesus as an enlightened teacher whose Sermon on the Mount is enough to enlighten if comprehended deeply. Masao Abe points to Jesus as the exemplar of dynamic Shunyata. So Jesus has some Buddhist “street-cred,” at least to some of the most important Buddhist teachers to the West.
The Dalai Lama’s description of Jesus as a Bodhisattva is especially powerful and significant. It should be noted, many other Buddhists see Jesus as a Bodhisattva. The reason this is so is that the Bodhisattva concept contains notions of sacrifice for the salvation of others and even stories of rising up from the realm of death. A Bodhisattva is one who is essentially equal in nature to a Buddha, but considers Nirvana as something not to be grasped onto, especially when others suffer. She, the Bodhisattva, hears the cries of the world and sees the suffering and cannot turn away. So she lets go of Nirvana to re-enter the world in order to bring others with her to the Light of Nirvana. The parallels to Jesus are unmistakable.
Comparing Jesus as Bodhisattva to a more modern version of a historical bodhisattva, might be helpful.
Bodhisattva Against the Machine
Professor of Religion Diana Pasulka tells a remarkable story involving a class she regularly teaches titled “Buddhism in Popular Culture.” Following a lecture in this class, she encountered a student who revealed a tattoo of Thich Quang Duc, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who in 1963 famously immolated himself as a protest against the state of things in Vietnam and was famously photographed engulfed in flames. The student got his inspiration for the tattoo from a well-known CD cover. The band Rage Against the Machine used the provocative image for their eponymous 1992 record. Knowing the student was a self-proclaimed Christian, Pasulka was surprised by the tattoo. She asked the student “how he came to have the monk on his back, where did he learn of the story?” Pasulka gives his interesting reply and her own internal response:
He didn’t know who the monk was, just that he had seen him on the cover of the Rage Against the Machine CD, thought it was an image that cohered with the meaning of the crucified Christ, which was the other visible image on his arm. I was too surprised to ask if the student thought that Thich Quang Duc was resurrected in the same manner as Christ. . . In time, I have come to believe that this is precisely what motivated the student to tattoo the monk’s image in the first place. He must understand Thich Quang Duc as virtually resurrected due to his violent death for a noble cause, and most important, through his ongoing incarnations in culture. Although the student never stated this directly, his actions, especially his correlation of the monk with the image of the resurrected Jesus, suggests it.
As for his own culture’s view of him, Thich Quang Duc is considered and revered by Vietnamese Buddhists as a Bodhisattva. You see images of him at temples throughout Vietnam. Offerings are given to him regularly.
With Thich Quang Duc’s veneration as a bodhisattva in mind, the paralleling of Jesus and Quang Duc is even more telling. Jesus had similar political motivations when he willingly asserted himself in a way he knew would get him killed. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he did so for the distinct purpose of cleansing his society of greed and the power-lust behind it. He knew this would cause a stir.
His provocative act led to his Crucifixion which he did not resist. Nor did he call for his many followers to resist. In fact, his death on the cross was an act of civil disobedience to point to the injustice and collective harm of Roman occupation and religious appeasement. Tibetan monk in China who have similarly self-immolated themselves in protest are another, more recent parallel to Jesus in Ancient Palestine. Definitely, bodhisattvic actions.
The most popular example of a Bodhisattva is Kuan-Yin. In China, Taiwan, and in some parts of Japan and South Korea, devotion to Kuan-yin is unparalleled. Stories of Kuan-yin abound. The most prominent of these stories in China and Taiwan involve the legend of Miao-shan who is believed to be a historic figure but whose tales are “based on a true story.” Included in the tales of Miao-shan’s life are narratives of how she, though perfectly blameless and virtuous, is wrongly killed and how in death she takes on the karmic guilt of others. She even goes into the hell realm to bring beings back to earth and then into heaven upon her resurrection. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
There is profound resonance experienced in stories of such selfless sacrifice. We feel a real sense of humanity, humility, and compassion when we hear of someone selflessly giving themselves up to protect another. Holidays throughout the world, such as our Memorial Day, honor veterans who have fallen. On days like 9/11, we remember firefighters and first responders who gave their all, including their lives, in the work of protecting other. These memorials are extra poignant and powerful because we feel such selflessness deep in our bones. We feel it to such an extent that gratitude naturally exudes from us.
That the Christian story has divine selflessness as its central theme explains why Christianity continues to grow in the world. Jesus, God in the flesh, lays down his self and his life for friends and forgives enemies in the process – this offers universal relevance and allure.
There is even more to the story. We see in Jesus’ sacrifice and in the world’s response to it even deeper significance. For we can see Jesus’ sacrifice as embodying all examples of compassion throughout time. We look at this next.
The Universal Cross?
As someone who holds to the doctrine of universal restoration, I believe deep in my heart that all in the end God, who is love personified, will reconcile and restore all of creation back to God’s self. Salvation will be universal, applying to all.
Christians holding to universalist restoration believe Christ is absolutely pivotal. Christ is actually the pivot that makes the end of hell a future reality.
However, a central question arises. Even if I am a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist in this life, in the end is it Christ and Christ alone I must go through to get to the “no more suffering” of heaven? Is Christ the only sufficient mediator and bridge to God? Traditional Universalists say, yes, Christ is the only means to the restoration of all of Creation.
Still, in a pluralistic and diverse society, what do we do with the significant example of exclusivism that says only Christ reconciles, Christian and non-Christian alike? How do I on one hand say “only Christ” yet on the other hand completely affirm non-Christians and their faith tradition?
I actually ask myself this question a lot. As a pluralistic Christ-follower, I indeed want to honor my non-Christian brothers and sisters. Is it possible to be a pluralist yet still see Christ as pivotal? Being a pluralist and seeing Christ as pivotal seems mutually exclusive. I believe they are not. But how?
In the Beginning, Love...
I begin with the beginning. In the beginning, Love was. God as Love is defined by two overarching realities: a universe-wide humility and a universe-wide compassion. These two realities are united in a creative reality many people, myself included, call God.
God as love unfolded in a flourish of creativity, and the universe expanded and evolved into what it is now. And the universe continues to expand and evolve.
For you trinitarians out there, in the creative beginning, the self-enclosed yet infinite love of the Trinity – an infinite love undergirding the primordial family of Father God, Mother Spirit, and Offspring Logos – flowed over and was cast in the long arc of time.
The Turn at Compassion
At the pinnacle, the peak, the climax of that arc was an ultimate act of compassion, the event of Christ on the cross.
On the cross, Jesus, the man of constant sorrow, gives away self, sparing his disciples deemed friends the same fate, sparing their blood shed with his own blood shed. A nonviolent Jesus accepts and endures a violent death alone as a criminal to save lives, namely his friends and followers. In the process, he forgives. In Christ on the cross, we see the ultimate exemplification of divine self-emptying compassion.
Through this particular event – the event of the cross where Jesus saves his disciples from death and forgives his enemies of their injustice – comes a universal application and reach.
The particular event of the cross led to the Resurrection’s victory over grief and the Pentecost’s birth of the church. The particular event of the cross eventually led to the nonviolent overthrow of the Roman Empire some 300 years later. In turn, time was divided into a before and after.
Time becomes measured by BC, Before Christ” and AD, “anno domini” (which we might translate as the victory of compassion). Time itself is split and eventually this split in time is applied universally, worldwide. While Common Era (CE) and Before Common Era (BCE) have replaced AD and BC, the figure of Jesus still represents the dividing line.
For me, it is Christ’s act on the cross that matters most. His act, his selfless and compassionate act born out of love for his disciples and a commitment to nonviolence, reveals and represents perfect compassion. It is this compassion that measures, that is the benchmark of time.
The Pivot of the Cross
That benchmark of Christ serves also as a pivot. Compassion, as perfected on the cross, is the pivot point where Creation moves back to its center, to God. That pivot point is what God’s unfolding of creation led to and it is what pivots Creation in its folding back to God, in Creation’s return and restoration to God.
We can use the renowned, universal parable of the prodigal son to help us understand this idea. In the story, there is a loving father which represents God. And there is the son, the prodigal son, who takes his father’s gifts and runs away and wastes those gifts. The prodigal pictures for us here the world as a whole. The world took its many gifts and left its divinity, its connection to God.
But there was a pivot-point in time, a pivot-point where humanity, moved by complete humility and compassion, realized the error of “his” ways. The prodigal world turned back toward God and began the return to God.
That pivot, that turning point, is Christ on the cross, the moment when complete selflessness and compassion is perfectly pictured and made real.
Christ as Universal Compassion
A key question is can we separate the compassion embodied on the cross from Christ? In one sense, the answer is no, we cannot separate compassion from its embodiment. Without embodiment, compassion is meaningless. Embodiment of compassion is necessary for compassion to be experienced all ways around, from the receiver of compassion to the giver of compassion.
The seminal question then remains. Does Christ alone embody compassion?
Certainly, there are many if not countless examples of selflessness and compassion lived-out. There are examples in our various religions – from the Buddha’s graciously and selflessly teaching mercy and compassion to examples of saints sacrificing themselves for the benefit of others.
There are examples in everyday life too. Neighbors showing humility and kindness toward their neighbors. Parents embodying godly love by selflessly loving and caring for their children and others’ children.
A modern example of embodied selflessness and compassion especially resonates. The firefighter on September 11, 2001 climbed up staircase after staircase, scaling the Twin Towers. They had no idea what was going on. They surely must have sensed the danger and risk. But they kept ascending anyway.
These many examples of embodied self-emptying compassion, before and after Christ, all tap into and participate in that same perfect love that Christ embodied on the cross. In fact, I believe all examples of selflessness and compassion before and after Christ are themselves pictured in, included in, participating in, and enfolded into that pivotal event of Christ on the cross.
Christ on the cross is a microcosm of all instances of self-emptying compassion in time.
Forward and Backward Looking Faith
When I was a boy growing up in church, a big question I had was what about those who lived before Jesus who were not mentioned in the Old Testament. How were they saved when Christ on the cross hadn’t happened yet? The answer I got was that those before Jesus faithfully looked ahead to the day Jesus would come; those after Jesus faithfully looked (and look) back.
Applying this intriguing idea, before Christ, examples of self-emptying compassion throughout the world faithfully looked ahead to the compassion of Christ on the cross. After Christ, examples of self-emptying compassion throughout the world faithfully look back to the compassion of Christ on the cross. We might use the image of a mirror. Examples of self-emptying compassion before Christ and after Christ faithfully mirror Christ’s self-emptying compassion. How could they not? Self-emptying compassion are innate to and in Christ. Examples of self-emptying compassion tap into what is innate in Christ.
I go one step further. Examples of self-emptying compassion across time are embedded in the compassion of Christ on the cross. Again, the cross is a microcosm of all real examples of self-emptying compassion throughout time.
He Became Compassion
In church as a kid I learned that the sins of humankind were placed on Christ’s shoulders on the cross as he paid the penalty of sin. The idea is that Jesus became sin for us. I don’t think gets at the full magnitude of the cross. With Jesus as all sin, we don’t get the complete picture nor the true power of Christ’s compassion.
I believe all acts of sincere self-emptying compassion throughout time were embodied in Christ’s self-emptying compassion on the cross. In Christ’s heart we have the heart of humility and compassion, the same heart that moved the countless examples of love in history. In Christ on the cross, we have represented all examples of altruistic love throughout time and space. Christ on the cross relinquishes sin with compassion.
There is an archetype in literature and film known as the Everyman. The Everyman represents the ordinary man or woman confronting an extraordinary situation that he wants but cannot avoid. We have a lot of examples of this. Gary Cooper in the film High Noon is a perfect example. Cooper is the sheriff, volunteered for the job by some of the town’s citizens. He accepts it thinking it’s such a peaceful town and a quiet time. When crime and criminals come to the town one day, everything changed. He is forced to face it all alone, despite his fear and vulnerability and lack of experience with things like outlaws. He rises to the occasion as an Everyman.
Jesus on the cross is a real, live Everyman. And in Jesus on the cross, we purely see, in a tragic and magnified way, every act of self-emptying compassion.
On the cross, the sin of fallen humanity was conquered by the compassion of God’s image in humanity. Sin died on the cross with “It is finished.” Compassion lived-on.
And the good news is that this self-emptying compassion seen in the microcosm of Christ on the cross, this self-emptying compassion saves us. Christ’s compassion on the cross, and the compassion reflected and refracted in the countless of examples of love and compassion all around us and in time, saves us. Self-emptying compassion – Love – saves us! And in the end Love will save us all.
 Diana Pasulka, "Virtual Religion: Popular Culture and the Digital World,” 329
Exodus 19:2-8 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
2 They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. 3 Then Moses went up to God; the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”
7 So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. 8 The people all answered as one: “Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD.
There a sign that I guess some people have purchased and placed in their home. It is a humorous sign, I suppose. Its at least cute to me. The limerick quality is endearing. The sign reads, “out of all the fish in the sea, I chose you and you chose me.”
I mention the sign because it points to a more significant truth that our scripture reading from the Hebrew scripture gets at. Being uniquely chosen and feeling uniquely chosen is a profound thing. Having the wife I do, someone who is so compassionate to the core of her being, someone who is a light to so many she knows, someone who has touched so many lives without her even knowing, knowing she chose me indeed lifts my spirits and moves me to be better.
As for the Israelites, this feeling of chosenness despite the circumstance of feeling the world has rejected you en masse, this feeling of being special in God’s eyes though maligned by the world, it is extraordinarily profound and resonant. Here are the Israelite people, perennially beleaguered, beaten-down, bullied-on, the Charlie Brown among nations, and God chooses them?
To more clearly see this grace-filled relationship with God and Israel, let’s review the story. God chooses to build a nation through barren and childless vagabonds, Abraham and Sarah. This unthinkable possibility indeed happens. And Israel grows. But that nation full of early promise eventually find themselves in bondage. God still chooses them, a nation of enslaved people. And chooses to liberate them. God calls on a foreign-raised fugitive who killed a man in a crime of passion and fled. That man, Moses, is working as a shepherd and accepts the call to free his people in bondage in Egypt.
Once freed, and on their way to the Promised Land, this chosen people continually grumble, gripe, and grow apart from the One that chose them. They continually break their promises to the One who freed them, the One who is forever faithful to them, the One who is forever choosing them.
Eventually, the Israelite nation makes it to the Promised Land, the temple in Jerusalem is finished, and the nation develops only to be repeatedly overcome, overthrown, occupied, and oppressed by more powerful nations and empires. Still, God remains with them, sending messengers to tell them what they need to do to realize their promise. And God in turn promises a messiah to come and return the nation to its former faithful and flourishing ways.
The story of Israel is the story of God choosing, again and again, an oppressed people and fueling them with promise and hope and faithful presence. God sides with the enslaved and frees them. God sides with the unfaithful and remains faithful. God sides with the poor and hungry and provides them with manna from heaven. God sides with the oppressed and lifts them up.
Out of all the fish in the sea, God chooses the Charlie Brown among the nations, and in so doing, helps them to see their promise, their dignity, and their gift to the world.
Romans 5:1-8 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
5 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
While we were still weak, at the right time, Christ comes to us, to be present with us, to lift us up.
This brings to mind the old Charles Atlas ads. I’m dating myself here, I know. But remember those ads. A skinny, weakling type is at the beach. He is there minding his own business when a big, brawny bully comes along and kicks sand in his face. Being skinny and weak, he can’t do anything about it.
That’s where Charles Atlas comes in with hope and with strength training.
Who does Christ choose in this story? It is obvious, isn’t.
Christ like Charles Atlas or like Miyagi in Karate Kid comes to those down and out, weak and alone, befriends us, and lifts us up to be what Christ wants us to be.
Yes, God chooses the weak and gives the weak new life full of godly courage and resilience.
It seems to me, there is a central paradigm the Bible gives us, both in the Hebrew scripture and the Christian New Testament. It is the central paradigm, a paradigm we see again and again. Here is that biblical paradigm:
God, first and foremost, sees the most vulnerable, comes to them, transforms their hearts, individually and collectively, and changes the trajectory of their lives.
Let me say that again, the central story of the Bible is this: God, first and foremost, sees the most vulnerable, comes to them, is present with them, transforms their hearts, and changes the trajectory of their lives.
Do you see this too? If you don’t, I pray you at least ponder it for a bit.
Here’s another example of what I see as the central paradigm, it is found in our gospel reading.
Matthew 9:35-10:8 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
10 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
Let me highlight verse 36 in our gospel reading:
"When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."
The Christian tradition makes a remarkable claim – this man named Jesus embodies everything God is. If you want to know who God is, how God is, why God is, where God is, look at Jesus.
God sees us vulnerable people in need of wholeness
God has compassion for us, for our weakness and our needs.
God understands we’ve been condemned, cast-aside and kept down.
God knows that we all need shephardly guidance in our despair.
God is that good shepherd waiting to guide us.
Finally, the biblical paradigm God choosing the least among us is evident in Jesus’ choosing of his disciples. Talk about a ragtag band of brothers. One scholar deemed them a ragtag band of misfits. And that is exactly the way the Bible portrays them. In Peter alone we see this. He’s not a scholar, not a teacher, not a merchant even, but a mere fisherman, we see an example of the biblical paradigm. Peter is all human, blundering, bumbling, bloviating, blustery, a deeply imperfect man. At the climax of the gospel story, what does Peter do? He denies his own teacher to save his hide. Still, God chooses Poor Peter to be the One to be the Rock upon which the church is built. Extraordinary!
And God chooses, comes to, rests with, lifts up the most vulnerable today. He calls us to do the same. It is the paradigm we’re called to follow. Let us follow.
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