Jesus the Divider Part II: Conservative People - Progressive Ideas

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Of all the passages in the Bible that have pushed up against some of my core believes about Jesus, one of the most challenging has been these words from Matthew 10:34-35

34 “Don't think that I've come to bring peace to the earth. I haven't come to bring peace but a sword. 35 I've come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.

As I mentioned in Part I, these words feel less like a "peace-loving-hippie" Jesus, and more like a "sword-bearing-dividing" Jesus.

How can a guy be all about reconciliation and bringing people together, and at the same time declare that he came to turn people against one another?

So in this post, let's place these two verses in its larger context (Matthew 10) and see what is revealed. Beginning with verse 5:

5 Jesus sent these twelve out and commanded them, “Don't go among the Gentiles or into a Samaritan city. 6 Go instead to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.

For those familiar with the story of Jesus, this is the part in Matthew's Gospel where Jesus sent out his disciples to go village to village announcing the Kingdom of Heaven had arrived.

Important to notice is that Jesus told his disciples specifically to go to "the lost sheep of Israel." Not Gentiles, not Samaritans, but only to their fellow Israelites.

Why is that significant?

Because now we can understand who the audience was that the disciples would be interacting with. Meaning that the next 30 verses or so must be read within the context of the disciples engaging with the Jewish people. 

In other words, these were their friends and family members. These were people they did life with and shared the most in common with.

It also meant these were religious people. Which is a distinction that we might make today, ("religious" vs "non-religious") but in their world to be a Jewish person inherently meant that you lived a religiously oriented life.

My point is this: from the perspective of the communities the apostles were being sent to, the ideas of the Rabbi Jesus would have been radical departure from their particular Jewish worldview.

In other words, at the risk of over simplifying, (and at the risk of poor scholarship by being so anachronistic with my terms... thanks for the grace) the disciples were bringing a progressive word to what would have then been considered a conservative people.

I realize that those are loaded terms in todays world. I'm not trying to force our 21st century way of thinking and categorizing our ideas back on to the first century. Rather, I'm hoping to use these two terms in their most basic sense.

"Conservative" attempts to hold on to (conserve) particular ideas, attitudes, and values that have been around for a while.

"Progressive" attempts to pull these more traditional ideas, attitudes, and values forward in to something newer. Something modified. Something critiqued or refined or adapted in some way to the current times.

And in my opinion, the Gospel message was (and is) a "progressive" message.

It was an invitation forward, to pro-gress, in to a whole new way of thinking about the world, thinking about God, and thinking about humanity.

And this "progressive" word--taught by Jesus and spread by the disciples--was aimed at people ("the lost sheep of Israel") who were primarily concerned with the business of "conserving" what they thought was true.

One example of this is to point out that a good Jew in that day would have fundamentally saw the world as being divided up in to who God was for and who God was against. Paramount to the Jewish perspective, in first century Palestine, was the long-held belief that God was for them and against everyone else (pagans, Gentiles, etc). Entire books were written and circulated around this time devoted to reinforcing such a divide (e.g. The Wisdom of Solomon).

It was in to this sort of thinking that the disciples were sent.

In conclusion, the confounding words of Jesus the Divider (which will come later in verses 34-35) are nestled within the context of Jesus sending out his twelve disciples to go from Jewish town to Jewish town.

In the next post I'll look at what their particular mission was, but at least now we know who it was they were sent to.

The recipients of their ministry: conservatively minded religious friends and family. The thrust of their message: to challenge traditionally held views about God, creation, and humanity; to announce and implement a new (read: progressive) way of being in the world.