In Luke 7:18-35 John the Baptist’s followers have been watching Jesus and bringing word back to John about all the things that Jesus is doing. There may even have been some rivalry between the two groups. John sends a couple disciples to check out what Jesus is up to. John wants to know if Jesus is the messiah or if they should they wait for another.
They find Jesus continuing to do exactly what he has been doing. Jesus is curing people of diseases, plagues, evil spirits and giving sight to the blind. The lame are walking, lepers are being cleansed, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news. Jesus sends this message back to John.
John’s messengers go back and Jesus continues to preach to the crowd. It seems that Jesus is preaching to a group of people who were followers of John. Perhaps they have become disenchanted with something John said or did. Perhaps Jesus has more pizzazz. Perhaps Jesus is spending more time in the communities and less in the wilderness. This is a group who have been to the wilderness with John and are now following Jesus around. And Jesus asks them why they even bothered to go to the wilderness with John. What were they expecting to find out there? Jesus asks if they went to see a reed shaken by the wind. This might be a reference to wild sugar cane. It would grow 4-5 feet tall and during the day when it got really hot the tops of the canes would droop to the ground. It was apparently very pretty but not really the focus of a trip into the wilderness. Perhaps they went to see someone in fine clothing and living in luxury. Why would you go to the wilderness to see that? You would be looking in the wrong place.
Jesus is asking, “If you didn’t go to look at the wild sugar cane and you didn’t go to look at the wealthy people in their finery, why did you go? What was in the wilderness for you? Maybe you went to see a prophet—a prophet like John who is sending out the message that the messiah is coming.” Jesus has a crowd of people who have heard John’s message. They have even, like Jesus, been baptized by John. The crowd is made up of an assortment of people—including tax collectors who were perceived as corrupt. This crowd of people was looking for the kingdom of God. Looking for what was to come. They had gone to the wilderness looking for the kingdom of God and hoping to find it in John and in baptism. They were seeking something—something better than what they had. They were looking for hope that their oppression would end.
The Pharisees were trying to maintain their purity and obedience to God’s law. They saw the John and Jesus movements as barriers or threats to the Jewish people’s ability to keep God’s law. Jesus was crossing too many barriers and breaking too many of laws they felt were necessary to be faithful. They were looking for new life in the laws.
At the core of Jesus’ message is a sense that the important thing is not the law but to bring good news to the poor. You might remember from several posts ago, that the poor refers—not just to the economically disadvantaged—but to anyone who is socially marginalized. And that is exactly what Jesus was doing. He was touching people who lived with illnesses. He was touching dead bodies and raising them to life. He was healing on the sabbath. All these things make him unclean and impure in the eyes of the Pharisees. For the Pharisees, it was more important to keep the law.
Jesus goes on to speak about the Pharisees as those who refused to participate in God’s kingdom. He describes them as children who haven’t learned how to behave appropriately. They haven’t learned that when there is music you should dance. At a sad time, like a funeral, you should cry. Because they haven’t learned how to behave appropriately, they have missed the opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom. Yet children know instinctively that when there is music you should move and dance. Children pick up on the emotions around them and know when others are sad or upset. The Pharisees should instinctively know how to participate in God’s kingdom and yet they choose not to.
How many opportunities do we miss to participate in God’s kingdom? I have been reflecting lately on my own reaction to conflict. It is sometimes easier to walk away and remain silent rather than risk creating a scene or getting into an argument with someone. I find myself responding to difficult situations in this way. We learn ways of dealing with conflict in our homes as children. Sometimes, families have good and healthy ways of dealing with conflict. Sometimes conflict is surrounded by silence. Sometimes it is surrounded by violence.
One of the ways I deal with conflict is by remaining silent. By doing so, I miss the opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom. We sometimes think—and are taught to think—that God wants us all to get along and so we cannot disagree openly. Jesus engaged directly in conflict. By not engaging in conflict, I sometimes let injustice or inappropriate behavior go unchallenged. In doing so, I maintain the status quo and miss an opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom. Instinctively I know how to participate in God’s kingdom but at times choose not to.
Jesus wasn’t afraid to engage conflict. He wasn’t afraid to disagree openly as a way of helping people to understand God’s kingdom. Jesus wasn’t afraid of challenging people who thought differently from himself. He always grounded the conversation in his understanding of God and God’s kingdom. He didn’t just tell someone they were wrong. He brought the conversation back to what God’s kingdom would look like. He brought the conversation back to the teachings of the prophets. This seems like a good model for engaging conversation with people who have fundamentally different world views. As people of faith, we need to learn how to speak about our values in a way that reflects our faith and expresses our understanding of who God is and how the world is meant to be.
The crowd Jesus is speaking to had gone looking for God’s kingdom. Some had gone looking for it in the wilderness. Some had gone looking for it in following the law exactly. God’s kingdom is not in either of those places. God’s kingdom is found as we challenge injustice and seek to welcome the stranger and those on the margins. Many of us know this instinctively but are hesitant to risk being hurt.
I sometimes find it difficult to engage in what could be a conflict but as I see what’s happening in the world, I am reminded again God’s kingdom is not found in wealth and power. God’s kingdom is not found in dividing people but in drawing us together. God’s kingdom is not found in destroying life but in creating hope.