Madman, Menace, or Messiah?
by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston
‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’
C.S. Lewis once famously observed, “Either [Jesus] was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” Few passages of Scripture prove the truth of Lewis’s claim more thoroughly than the one we find today.
Read again those words from Chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel. These could’ve fallen from the mouth of a megalomaniac. Those phrases might properly fit a warped ego vast as heaven and earth. Any ordinary human being who talks as Jesus talks—“whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”—would be as dangerous as he would be distasteful. In politics, he would be a fascist dictator. In economics, he would be a mad monopolist. In religion, he would be a cult leader. Spoken by a mere man or woman, Jesus’ words in todays readings are words of terror; words of madness; words of evil.
That’s why I’m so glad we’ve read them today. We need to sit awhile with these sayings of Jesus, and let them purge away any delusions we might have about him. We need to let passages like this sink deep down into all the happy idols we have made: soft, silly figurines of the gentle teacher, the wise sage, the kind prophet, the welcoming friend. Jesus may have been all those things. But he was never only those things. The images and icons we cherish can never express the fullness of who Jesus was and is. All of our jolly Jesus-dolls crumble under the weight of today’s Scripture passage. And when our illusions have passed away, we find ourselves face-to-face with the incarnate Son of God. From a merely human mouth, today’s words are poison. But from the mouth of Jesus—the One who is fully human and fully divine—these words are precious medicine.
Today, the Source of Light and Life greets us with the hard message that he refuses to sanctify without interruption all of our interactions and connections. Love is not love, when it is not wrought and written by the Author of Love. So Christ announces that any relationship (no matter how intimate) that is not grounded and founded in him cannot endure.
Today, the Fount of Justice and Peace declares that he will not bring easy peace to a world racked and ruined by injustice and sin. Peace is not peace, when it does not flow from the peace which passeth all understanding. So Jesus brandishes a sword to wield as a surgeon wields his scalpel: excising, amputating, cutting away what is warped and rotten and wicked—killing, that he might raise to new life.
May the strange, stirring words of today’s passage remind us of the true identity of the One whose way we walk this Lent. May we flee any attempt—either in our own minds or in the world around us—to reduce him to a guru, a madman, a zealot, or a myth. No teacher ever spoke as he did. No leader ever led as he does. No Lord ever ruled as he will. No God ever died like him.
“Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”