JAC Online

On Conflict
by Cadet Claire O'Brien-Hawk

The perception of a divide between Jesus and the Pharisees and Sadducees (hereafter referred to as ‘Rulers’) is an accurate perception, but one which is vulnerable to superficial and finally, harmful, analysis. Some have characterized the relationship between Jesus and the Rulers as one in which Jesus essentially systemically despises any who go by the title ‘Pharisee’ or ‘Sadducee’, but such an analysis is shallow; it weakens Jesus’ judgment in Matthew and constrains attempts to understand and enact faithful discipleship. Jesus does not hate the office of the Rulers but rather the embodiment of the office by his contemporaries.

Two common threads can be detected in the conflicts between Jesus (and his people) and the Rulers. First, those opposed to Jesus desperately clutch at resources/power, whereas Jesus and his people submit to and depend on God’s providential care. This is first seen in Jesus’ birth. Terrified that the baby Jesus would unseat him from his throne of power, Herod engaged in a campaign of terror, massacring all the male toddlers in the region, determined to find and finish Jesus. Later, as Jesus prepares his ministry with 40 days in the desert, Satan tempts him toward self-sufficiency and displays of power.  Jesus responds to him with a quote from his ancestors’ time in the desert, acknowledging man’s total dependence on God and God’s total worthiness of man’s confidence. Jesus sets the example for how the faithful are to engage power: not claiming and using it for their own security or benefit, but trusting God to secure and profit them in his own time and way.

Second, those opposed to Jesus ignore or exploit the neediness of others, whereas Jesus and his people tend to it. Early in the Gospel, John the Baptizer denounces the Pharisees and Sadducees based on their lack of actions in keeping with repentant and contrite hearts. Righteousness that does not reach into the physical realm is not righteousness enough. Throughout the rest of the Gospel, Jesus heals paralytics, interacts with sinners, eats at the wrong time and in the wrong way, and drives out demons. In each of these moments, Pharisees and Sadducees confront Jesus, willing to sacrifice the physical and spiritual well-being of the people for the sake of observing other forms of ‘righteousness’. They have lost sight of shepherding, blinded by a consuming preoccupation with self. Though there is nothing inherently and necessarily offensive about Pharisees and Sadducees, these particular Rulers engage in the exact type of tight-fisted, panicky, defensive, self-preserving behavior that cripples justice. This behavior can only ever exist apart from trust in God’s ability and willingness to provide; they are mutually exclusive. Each of the conflicts one might derive from the text (gender, race, socioeconomic status) can be traced back to these fundamental patterns: selfishness out of a sense of scarcity verses generosity out of confidence in God’s abundance and provision.

In the world today one might observe conflict between cultures, nations, genders, socioeconomic status, religious sects, and political positions. The characters and details in the dramas may have changed from Jesus’ time but the basic stories are the same. As in Jesus’ time, most of the divisions and hostility in current society can be traced back to fear. This is evidenced in the ferocity and violence with which people defend their positions. In the same way that Pharisees and Sadducees were quick to put down any sentiment or behavior that threatened their tightly controlled lives, people now try to repress any ‘other’ that endangers their world.

This biting and tearing down behavior is the exact opposite of faithful kingdom living as described in Matthew. If righteousness and faith are demonstrated in the physical care of neighbor for neighbor, then the infighting that is rampant in the world today is not an appropriate defense of the right and true; it is not even a merely neutral option. It is sinful and to be judged by the Messiah. While it is tempting to believe that defending a belief or cause to extreme measures shows admirable loyalty to the object of the allegiance, this is not the way of Jesus’ kingdom. Even violence done for the ‘right’ is wrong.

It should be noted that Jesus is not exactly conflict-free in Matthew. He himself states that he has come to bring conflict and division. However, to imagine that Jesus is pursuing mere sectarianism is completely wrong. As stated previously, Jesus is not against Pharisees and Sadducees because they are Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus does not pick demographic favorites. He does not prefer men to women or rich to poor. Jesus is enraged at the Pharisees and Sadducees because they are rejecting Jesus’ kingdom where resources are shared and where everyone is fed. Those who ought to be shepherding the community into health and wellness are burdening the people instead. Jesus’ division is a line between those who choose to continue to live in violence, oppression, and shortage, and those who choose to enter into peace, justice, and abundance.

There are three passages in particular that seem to allow for a reading that perpetuates unholy conflict today. In Matthew 10, Jesus speaks of bringing not peace, but a sword. He then states that he has come to turn family members against each other and demands that the love of his followers for him be above their love to their own family. This is a passage that could easily engender a lack of charity toward ‘others’. If disciples are not even allowed loyal attachment to their family, what kind of commitment can be expected of them toward strangers? This extreme devotion to Jesus has been used as justification for all kind of violent activity against those who do not agree with Christianity. Certainly, Jesus’ claim to bring a sword is suggestive of an acceptance, and maybe promotion, of crusader-like mission.

Perhaps a better reading can be supported by context clues. In the preceding verses, Jesus has been telling his disciples that they are open to the same abuses Jesus himself suffered, that they will receive no portion different from their Master’s. He has warned that they will be hated and persecuted. This does not suggest encouragement for initiating a violent campaign, but rather warning that they will receive a violent campaign from others. Further back Jesus commanded the disciples to preach and to heal, to give as freely as they have received, to enter towns as poor men, without provisions. This is a far cry from entering towns as conquerors. Jesus then talks about bearing personal crosses, and losing lives in the attempt to live as Jesus lived. This is not a passage justifying violent practices for the sake of the kingdom. Rather, it is a passage that warns of the way people will come to hate and punish those who follow Jesus and live as he lived.

The passage of the Canaanite Woman, in Matthew 15 and the derisive way in which she is spoken to have provided ample support for those who wish to justify hostility between genders and nations. Because the narrative shows Jesus as dismissing this woman’s nation, referring to them as ‘dogs’, and ignoring the woman’s pleas for help, it is easy to believe that Jesus himself took offense at such demographic categories. If one looks closer, however, they will find that the story of the Canaanite woman is one in which Jesus refuses to treat an outsider as a nothing-person. He engages her person and her need when his disciples would have him pay her off. Neither her status as a Gentile nor her status as a woman were enough to allow Jesus to finally reject her. Rather, he draws her in, creating tension, and drawing her to the only point through which she can enter his healing. The only demographic warring in this passage is that which is healed and redeemed in Israel’s God.

Finally, in Matthew 21, Jesus states that the kingdom will be taken from ‘you’ and given to a people who will produce its fruits. This has often been enthusiastically accepted as an indication that the good, fruit-producing Christians are to replace the wicked, didn’t-recognize-Jesus Jews as God’s special possession. Christian sense of superiority over Jews is extensive throughout the world due to passages like this. A closer look at ‘kingdom’ may afford clarity. If we take this word to mean ‘living in the benefits that derive from doing things God’s way’, then yes, certainly, those whose behavior produces good fruits will eat and gain nourishment of that fruit. Those who work to diffuse conflict and promote peace in their community are likely to live in a community where there is peace: they have made it so! There is nothing to suggest that there is a demographic line drawn here. No race or gender is more likely to have success. As with Jesus’ sentiment toward the Pharisees and the Sadducees, it is not the physical and superficial attributes of a person that Jesus is interested in, it is their heart and whether they produce fruit in keeping with the kingdom. Any person, whether Jew, Christian, black, white, child, or adult, has as much potential as any other for receiving the kingdom: they must simply work toward its institution in their society by the way they live.

The Gospel of Matthew has great news for the divisions of the present age: Jesus is not about them! Not only does Jesus not support these divisions, he himself fought and died to dismantle them and sends his followers out on a mission to do the same. Jesus would not even have his followers push the truth onto the world. His way is not even merely “live and let live”; it is a way of living in community in which everyone, regardless of their makeup, has enough to eat and is able to live well. He is a Messiah who is not satisfied for people to continue in their oppression. He does not have people fight for their own deliverance but he fights for them, bearing the scars of this fight for justice in his own body and taking on their position as one despised and rejected. When Christians today witness hostility and division, they are to follow Christ’s example, not allowing these boundaries to limit their care for people in need. Disciples of every generation will see the Powerful hoarding more and more resources, clutching desperately to the illusion that if they store up enough goods, they will be secure. Disciples of Christ must judge this behavior, behavior that robs the weak of their daily provisions. At all times, disciples should proclaim a God of abundant resources, a God who is willing to provide manna for his people, each day in its turn.










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