“Don’t forget to give the dog her pill.”
That’s all my wife Joy had said. Her tone was perfectly pleasant. She didn’t make a federal case out of it. But my blood started a low simmer that, over the next half hour, rose to a silent but steady boil.
When my feelings are hurt, I don’t usually go on the attack. I shut down. When all is well with my soul I start conversations and crack jokes. Once my emotional clouds roll in, my responses are clipped and my tone goes flat.
Now you would probably think that I could simply say, “That hurt my feelings.” But you know, then I would have to admit that my feelings were hurt. And revealing hurt feelings makes me feel weak and vulnerable. Besides, I realized how stupid this was going to look. And I hate to look stupid.
“Is something wrong?”
It’s tough to get something past Joy. She’s been up in my stuff for over three decades. If the highly verbal guy is slouching around like he’s taken a vow of silence and hasn’t made a play on words or tossed out a groan-worthy pun for half an hour, something’s eating him.
At this point, I had a clear choice. I could say, “No, I’m fine.” Joy wouldn’t buy it and would wait me out. But I could keep a miserable, phony peace for a while. Or, I could endure the pain of figuring out what got me here and find a way to make things right.
Ironically, making peace stirs up trouble. Conflict and division flare up in response to the work of reconciliation. That’s what Jesus was getting at when he said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49)
On the scale of human conflict, those tense moments with Joy rank pretty low. I just had to admit to feeling wounded and sort out what story I was telling myself that led to my unflattering sulk.
Here’s what I shared with Joy.
I’m the designated canine pill dispenser. Our lab-mix puppy Gracie has dry, itchy skin, so every morning I give her a supplement wrapped in peanut butter. It’s disgustingly cute, actually. It’s a thing we have together. I say, “Peanut butter!” She acts like Elvis walked in the room.
The day before, I had forgotten the pill. So, Joy was reminding me to do the Elvis act.
The story I told myself—without quite realizing it—was that Joy was assuming that I’m incompetent and unreliable. The only reason this could possibly wound me is that, somewhere deep down in my soul, I’m afraid that I’m incompetent and unreliable.
This was not an easy conversation for me or for Joy. But we weren’t getting back to our accustomed closeness without having it.
Jesus comes to bring peace and reconciliation to a world rent by cruel injustice, dehumanizing oppression, bestial violence, ingrained prejudices, and ancient hatreds. This is the way of a world divided into winners and losers, first and last. It’s what empires like Egypt and Babylon and Rome look like.
The Kingdom of God has neither winners nor losers. That’s what Jesus means when he says that the last will be first and the first will be last. Under God’s reign all are equally the children of God, worthy of respect and granted dignity by all.
That sounds great unless Jesus’ reconciliation project means that you will lose status and privilege so that others can escape fear and want. Strictly speaking, everyone has infinite joy and perfect peace to gain. But for some, the changes that God’s reign will bring sound a lot like they’ll be taking a loss.
If we take Jesus at his word—and I think that’s part of what it means to follow Jesus—then he means to bring an end to old ways of doing things that get in the way of God’s reconciling love. To make room for God’s true peace and justice, he will burn down old counterfeits of the same.
In the 17th Century the samurai and poet Mizuta Masahide watched fire consume his barn. He then wrote the following poem:
Barn’s burnt down
I can see the moon
If the way we educate children or compensate workers or prosecute criminals consistently grants privileges to a few and places others at a disadvantage, Jesus says that he will set them ablaze. He has a better world in mind.
The story we may tell ourselves when hearing this is that people who don’t deserve things will get them. Or maybe we won’t get what’s coming to us. Or maybe we’re just afraid to lose the world we’re used to and fond of.
Jesus wants us to see that we’re telling ourselves false stories. We worry that restoring dignity and security for those who have been left behind will involve deprivation for somebody else. That’s exactly the kind of counterfeit peace and justice that Jesus came to replace.
Jesus calls us to be his peacemakers, to endure the pain of figuring out what got us here and to find a way to make things right. For a season, the work of reconciliation will stir up trouble. But we really only have two choices. We can settle for a miserable, phony peace. Or, we can persevere toward the goal of the Kingdom of God.