So the shock take-home of today’s lessons might be that the Gospel is not always about being right.
James and John, two of Jesus’ inner circle of inner circles, right at Jesus’ side all the way to Jerusalem – they could not be more in the right. The Samaritan village which turned them away could not be more wrong. For one thing, it was full of Samaritans. We hear the name now and think of the parable of the Good Samaritan – but there was a reason that story was surprising enough for Jesus’ listeners to remember it verbatim. Samaritans were not friends of the Jewish people. They were foreign, and their religion was twisted, and they were just plain wrong. And then they had the audacity to turn Jesus away?
James and John could not be more in the right. Pumped up with righteous indignation, they asked Jesus if they should call down fire to consume the village, but Jesus rebuked them. He rebuked them, even though the Samaritans were clearly on the wrong side of history, even though they disrespected Jesus. Still, the answer was not to consume them with fire.
It’s not always about being right.
We have seen all too graphically how the conviction of rightness can call down fire to consume not only our enemies but all manner of innocent lives, collateral damage. From the horrors of war and the ultimate disasters of the atom bomb and drive-by drones, to the all-too personal murder of a politician, even the mowing down of party-goers. Last night in Texas, a family argument called down fire on two sisters and then their mother, who had shot them to death. Was the cost of being right ever higher? Calling down fire to consume our enemies is a poor way to promote the common good, let alone the gospel.
It’s not just about calling down fire from heaven. Paul uses the same word – consume – to describe how we bite and tear at one another in everyday arguments and microaggressions, little slights and dents in one another’s humanity that eat away at us, consume us.
I deleted a comment on social media this week that suggested that the way to pass gun safety legislation – the things that the Senate filibustered for and those Representatives sat in for – that the hope for such legislation lay in a few well-placed political funerals. It is a common enough way for speaking, these days; but such speech and attitudes consume our love for one another and spit it out, chewed up and slimed up and unrecognizable as anything related to the Gospel. I might add that after the murder of Jo Cox, the Member of Parliament murdered in Britain in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, it is hardly a thing to be heard lightly.
Beware, says Paul. If we allow our love for one another to be eaten away by our differences, eroding the image of God within us, we will find ourselves consumed.
Consumed by anger, passion, self-righteousness, envy; never have I heard anyone describe being consumed by gentleness, or self-control, peace or patience, those things on Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit.
But if the Gospel is not always about being right, that doesn’t mean that we are off the hook for doing right, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we are to give up standing up for what is right.
We have heard time and again the wisdom that all that is needed for evil to flourish is for good men and women to do nothing. We dare not blink at evil, nor turn a blind eye to hatred. We cannot stay silent when our brothers and sisters are abused for their race, or their religion, or for their tendency to love.
But not because we are so right, but for the sake of the Gospel, that God loves each one made in the image of God.
Even the Psalmist knew that silence in the face of the provocation of ill deeds would be heard as complicity. In Psalm 50 God is speaking:
“When you see a thief, you make him your friend, and you cast in your lot with adulterers.
You have loosed your lips for evil, and harnessed your tongue to a lie.
You are always speaking evil of your brother, and slandering your own mother’s son.
These things you have done, and I kept silent, and you thought that I am like you.”
In the silence of God’s speech, we have written our own lines for God, assuming that holiness will condemn whatever we condemn, and approve whatever we approve, and collude in our calling down fire from heaven to consume our enemies.
But then Jesus rebukes us.
Our righteousness, such as it is, does not depend on our being right. We can be right till the cows come home, and unless we are loving it will do us no good.
We can be right, but it is not our place to have the final word: that will always belong to God, just as the first word belonged to the one who called words into being.
We can be right; but if we define the one who is wrong as anything less than the image of God, then we may as well be stuck in a Samaritan village with our eyes closed the Christhood of Jesus and our ears stopped up to the Gospel.
Doing right, which Jesus defined as loving God with everything that we have and loving our neighbours as ourselves; that kind of doing right is much harder work than being right. It requires our constant attention, through prayer and practice, listening for Jesus in the silence, rather than assuming that he is like us, because we have walked with him a while.
So James and John got it wrong, this time. It happened. It happens to us; and Jesus rebuked them, and Jesus rebukes us, but the thing about Jesus is, even though he is right, he does not feel the need to call down fire from heaven to consume us.
Instead he continues to walk with James and John, even with Judas, towards Jerusalem. He takes on all that can be called down, he allows himself to be consumed by our self-righteous anger and envy and passion; with gentleness, peace, and self-control he takes it with him to the grave.
And even then, he is not consumed, but he devours death, spits it out, unrecognizable. For the way of the Gospel is not fire from heaven, but the quiet touch of the morning, speaking our names in love.
Featured image: Lightning. Public domain, via wikicommons