by Pastor Doug Kings
My father was not a deep reader but one author he introduced me to was Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957). She is most well known as the author of a series of murder mysteries which take place in England between the world wars and feature the amateur sleuth Lord Peter Whimsey. She is often included with a group of English scholars and writers who wrote on moral topics, often through fiction and reflecting a Christian perspective. Others included G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien. (Sayers was also founder and an early president of the writers’ Detection Club. She was succeeded as president by Agatha Christie.)
Last week one of the online devotionals I receive included a portion of an essay by Sayers on Jesus’ “disruptiveness.” It was especially appropriate because she begins with his assault on the money changers in the temple, the gospel for this past Sunday.
He assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the Temple; he drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; he cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property; he showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, he displayed a paradoxical humor that affronted serious-minded people, and he retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb. He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But he had “a daily beauty in his life that made us ugly,” and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness.
The disruptive Jesus often doesn’t get much attention. Think of how much more prominent images like Prince of Peace or Good Shepherd are, or even Jesus’ docile acceptance of the events of the Passion (“like a lamb led forth uncomplaining”). Yet this brief portrayal by Dorothy Sayers is fully in keeping with another side of Jesus’ story that the gospels tell.
One of the reasons the image of the gentle Jesus is so popular is because it better fits with the kind of savior we are often looking for. When dealing with the chaos and suffering so common in daily living, who doesn’t want a shepherd who will lead us into “green pastures” and beside “still waters”? It is no wonder that “peace” is a greeting and prayer in so many of the world’s languages.
And to so many of the people Jesus encounters in the gospels, that is exactly what he does bring. But not to all. Because Jesus also realized that there were many people with too much peace. Peace of a phony kind or peace stolen through abuse of the poor and weak. For them, Jesus has a different message: repent and change your ways.
Jesus also recognized that false peace was often rooted in the corruption and injustice of society. While individuals were ultimately responsible, their ability to prosper at the expense of others was often supported by unjust systems and institutions. The Sayers’ quote shows Jesus was just as willing to take them on as he was individual persons. And as she says in conclusion, it was taking on “the established order of things” that cost him his life.
In a remarkable passage in Luke, Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” And in Matthew’s version, Jesus is bringing not division but “a sword.” It seems then that Jesus knew full well what he was doing—and what the consequences would be.
It is always tempting, of course, to divide the world into good guys and bad guys, and be confident which side we are on. Yet throughout its story the Bible makes clear that such a division is more often within us than between us. In the Old Testament, God is harshest on his own people. And peace and tranquility alluded Jesus’ disciples both while they were with him and after.
An anonymous saying (I heard it first from Ann Landers) sums this up well. “The goal of religion is to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.” Jesus seemed to accept such a philosophy and to realize that any of us, at different times and under different circumstances, may be in need, for the sake of our souls, for either strategy.
Blessings in your life and ministry.