When Jesus turns toward Jerusalem, he does so daring to defy the convention of his day. Moreover, he calls on those who would follow him to also dare to defy convention. But what does this mean?
Convention In Jesus’ Day
Human societies tend to structure themselves around power and privilege. Moreover, the affluence of those at the top depends on the exploitation, subjugation, and oppression of the many. This is just as true in Jesus’ day as it is in ours. In Jesus’ day, power centered around a blend of things including religious position, a family’s pedigree, landownership, job, gender, and ethnicity. Put together, it formed a social structure that looked something like this:
As you might assume, the higher you find yourself on the image, the easier life is for you. Moreover, just like today, those at the top used their privilege and power to assure that the social structure that benefited them remained in place. They sold it to the masses as the way things are and the way they should be. Perhaps the only change we make today is the dangling carrot of “the American Dream” which invites people to believe that they too have an equal chance of overcoming the system and taking their place at the top of the power structure.
How Did Jesus Dare to Defy Convention?
But rather than offering the teasing possibility of social mobility, from the moment the angels announced Jesus’ birth to unclean shepherds, the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus focuses not on opportunity, but on a new system. Jesus’ society is one of liberation and freedom for the masses which, inherently, undermines the privilege and power of the few. This is the source of conflict we see throughout Luke, and it appears once again towards the end of Luke 12 when Jesus says, among other things, that he came to bring division.
But how should we understand this text, especially after we just explored how Jesus wanted to bring two brothers together? Is Jesus’ aim really division? Of course not, rather, the division is a consequence of the message Jesus brings.
A Message That Divides
When social structures work well for you, it is only natural that you would want to maintain them. When Jesus comes along and says that those same social structures are at odds with the Kingdom of God, some family members might hear Jesus and agree. We see this in someone like Mary craving equality. It could also come in the form of an elder son so moved by the Spirit that he is willing to abandon his privilege for the Kingdom. But when other members of the family, those content with the status quo see this, conflict is sure to arise.
There is also bound to be all kinds of confusion as social structures are often so ubiquitous we cannot imagine life being any different. So it is not unusual for people, like the crowds that followed Jesus, to try and interpret the Kingdom within the existing framework. It is not that they are opposed to changes that benefit the majority, but they lack the imagination necessary to see those changes become reality.
This means followers of Jesus experience division between both those who are opposed to the way of Jesus and those who cannot envision the way of Jesus. It was true for Jesus and his first followers, just as it is true today.
Convention in Modern America
What if we relabeled the image above for modern America?
At the top, we would find our plutocrats. Plutocracy is a system of governance where a wealthy few govern. While our national narrative suggests this is the work of elected officials, in reality, our representatives depend on campaign contributions and other perks delivered by the plutocrats. As a result, those wealthy few at the top are the true constituents of our politicians, and the policy they desire is the policy delivered.
Moving down the image we can fill in other forms of privilege and power. Many white families, be it through generations of landownership or taking advantage of programs like the GI Bill (which were largely denied to Black veterans) have housing equity that serves as a form of power and creates a wide array of economic and social opportunities that do not exist for many people with Black and Brown skin.
Something similar happens when what is normative for society is based on the experience of straight, white, able-bodied, and often Christian men. Those who diverge from that set of characteristics in one or multiple ways find themselves needing to adapt to a world not optimized for them.
There are even elements of power and privilege granted based on, among other things, youth, fitness level, and perceived beauty.
So how does Jesus dare us to defy convention today?