Hamilton or Burr, Sir?

CULTURE | Caleb Mathis | 12 mins

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For followers of Jesus, the way we think about him—the things he did, the words he said, the actions he took—is astoundingly important. He is the pattern our lives are supposed to be based upon. Was Jesus an easy-going teacher? Was he a trailblazing revolutionary? Was it easy to follow him, or difficult?

In other words, was Jesus more a Hamilton or a Burr?

The first answer, of course, is neither. The Messiah is way beyond those two contrasting and semi-fictionalized stereotypes. But, also, he’s totally a Hamilton. Jesus was a man of action, who didn’t mind pissing people off (especially the religious types) and was hyper-focused on his mission. If my assessment is true, then I’m forced to confront a really uncomfortable question: If Jesus is a Hamilton, why have I been living life like a Burr?

In case you’ve been living under a rock, or lost WiFi for the past week, the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage production of the smash Broadway musical Hamilton (with the original cast) hit Disney+ over the July 4th weekend. God bless the mouse.

Hamilton absolutely is all it’s cracked up to be. But what I didn’t expect, as I watched the stage lights come up in the Rodgers Theater, was how God was going to use it to rattle my cage.

Hamilton tells the story of the most important founding father never to hold the office of President. Orphaned at a young age, Hamilton works hard to make himself indispensable to the burgeoning country of America, eventually becoming the right-hand-man to General George Washington. After independence, he wrote piles of essays to support the constitution, established the country’s financial system, and put the newly-birthed nation on a firm foundation.

Throughout the story, Hamilton rubs up against his frenemy, Aaron Burr. While both men come from similar circumstances and hold similar aspirations, they couldn’t be more different. Burr is careful, while Hamilton is trailblazing. Burr is politically astute, while Hamilton says whatever he thinks. Burr works hard not to ruffle any feathers, while Hamilton gathers enemies in bunches. And if you know your history, the two opposing forces of Hamilton and Burr mix to become one heck of a thunderstorm.

The music of Hamilton is unbelievable. The performances, top-notch. The staging and design are mesmerizing. But as the lights came up on the one-minute intermission between acts, I had only one thought: shit, I’m Burr.

I’ve spent most of my life convinced that a good follower of Jesus gets along with everyone, creates little waves, has no enemies, minds his p’s and q’s, and is content with where he is in life. Very like Burr, but very unlike Jesus.

The Jesus we read about in scripture wasn’t a pillow-soft, love-espousing hippie, tossing a frisbee with friends between parables. He didn’t pander to audiences or make it easy to follow him. He made choices that flew in the face of popular opinion and said really difficult things. In fact, he calls himself a stone that breaks whoever falls upon it and grinds to powder whoever it falls upon (Matthew 21:44). Ouch.

Later in the Bible, Paul, an early church leader, explains that it’s God’s plan for everyone who follows Jesus to become more and more conformed to his image. In no uncertain terms, we’re supposed to be living like him, which leads me back to my uncomfortable question. If I claim to follow Jesus, to be patterning my life after his, floating through my days ruffling as few feathers as possible and holding on to Mr-Nice-Guy isn’t the goal.

In the character of Hamilton, I saw, with fresh eyes, three fundamental truths about Jesus that will necessarily be part of my life if I’m actually living like him.

JESUS WAS FOCUSED

Jesus had a mission: to reconcile people back to God. His teachings were grounded in his mission. His miracles supported his mission. His path of suffering, death, and resurrection was all about achieving his mission. Literally, everything Jesus did was about this, from hanging out with fishermen, to engaging with despised people groups, to his teachings in the temple. Even his patterns of rest—getting away from the crowds and spending time alone with God—were about giving him energy and renewed focus for his mission.

In Hamilton, Burr is portrayed as never really choosing a side. He has a brilliant mind but never commits it to any one task. When offered the chance to support the fledgling independence movement, he finds it too dangerous. When offered the chance to help defend the new US constitution, he balks. He switches political parties to be able to win office in his home state. He plays both sides of the fence, adjusting his mission based upon the people he’s around and whatever path appears easiest to follow at the time.

Hamilton stands in sharp contrast. He works (and writes) like he’s running out of time to achieve his mission of establishing America and cementing his legacy. In one of the most memorable lines, Hamilton asks, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?”

Burr falls for the path of least resistance. And I’m appalled to find myself doing the same, mindlessly falling into the patterns of living that everyone else adopts from the culture at large: a bigger house, better car, growing 401K, kids in the right schools. But patterning my life after Jesus means focus that drives through walls. It means a mission that directs every single thing I do. It means my life will be more difficult than my neighbors—but also more meaningful.

If you follow Jesus, you have the same mission he did—reconciling people back to God. Honestly, how’s that going?

JESUS PISSED PEOPLE OFF

Hamilton is full of brilliant lines, but there’s one that’s been reverberating around my head for days. “I’d rather be divisive than indecisive,” Alexander raps, as he’s finding his footing in the independence movement leading up to the war.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve weighed decisions—from the significant all the way down to should-I-share-that-picture-of-our-beach-vacation-on-Instagram and walked away without doing anything. My fear of bothering someone, of sending an unintended message, of accidentally rubbing someone else’s nose in my good days, has stopped me dead in my tracks. And that’s to say nothing about the significant decisions, like taking that new job or deciding to have kids. I’ve always found making decisions incredibly difficult, and I think I’m starting to know why. In every decision I’ve made, I’ve been trying to manage everyone else’s reaction. That’s a weight that’s too big to bear and leaves you motionless.

Jesus, on the other hand, seemed to have no problem making decisions. He did so regularly and wasn’t afraid to do something that shocked those closest to him. How many times did he have to pull the disciples aside and explain why they were going to a new town, why he was teaching through stories, why they should fish on the other side of the boat?

Jesus’ focus on his mission was his filter for everything He did. That kind of discipline makes you divisive. It means saying no. It means priorities that are easily misunderstood. It means saying words that people don’t want to hear. And all that’s going to piss people off.

Here’s the deal, Jesus never went looking for a fight. He didn’t rub people the wrong way to prove his power, his prestige, or his superiority. He wasn’t mean-spirited, by no means. He just wasn’t shocked when people got frustrated with His focus. It didn’t derail Him. It didn’t cause Him to rethink his decisions or change them in order to please the people in his life.

Don’t believe Jesus was divisive? How about the time He visited his hometown, and a mob tried to push him off a cliff because of the things he taught? Or the time he healed a demon-possessed man, and the onlookers begged Him to get out of town? Or the time he told a crowd they’d have to “eat his flesh and drink his blood,” and droves of people abandoned him? Or the time he was betrayed by a close friend, arrested, and left with no one to depend on?

Jesus was extremely divisive. His focus on his mission divided people everywhere he went. In fact, it still has that same power today. He even said so himself.

“Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword… for whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.” -Matthew 10:34,38

Living like Jesus means living with confidence. That means making decisions, even if they’re divisive. Indecisiveness is for the birds—and the Burrs.

JESUS HAD ENEMIES

Mix unfaltering focus, and an unwillingness to people-please, into a glass, and you get a cocktail called “enemies.”

Wait, Jesus had enemies? Wasn’t he the love teacher? Didn’t he heal people? Didn’t he let the little children come and sit on his lap? Wasn’t he the friend to outcasts and sinners? Yes, all that is true. In fact, it was those very decisions that handed Jesus his enemies.

One of Jesus’ first public teachings went a little like this:

“You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Jesus teaching his followers to love their enemies necessitates that he (and his followers) actually had them. There were many people who stood opposed to him and his mission.

Jesus accumulated enemies because he taught a God of grace and not solely adherence to an ancient set of laws. Jesus accumulated enemies because he practiced freedom. He accumulated enemies because he associated with less-than-desirables. He accumulated enemies because He took his message of salvation to marginalized people groups. He accumulated enemies because he was friends with women, with tax collectors, with fishermen. Ultimately, He accumulated enemies because he claimed to be God’s son.

My Bible-ly friends are sure to quote a passage from Paul, which insists our “struggles are not with flesh and blood,” but with spiritual entities instead. Yes, I’ll be divisive enough to believe that Satan is real, and causes real havoc in our world. I do believe he is behind disunity and mistrust and everything bad. If life was a videogame, he’d be the final boss. And he wants nothing more than for the plans of God to be obstructed.

If I’m running into enemies, it’s a good sign I’m actually walking down the path of Jesus. If there are no obstructions in my way, that’s a good sign I’m not much of a threat to the powers of darkness.

A few months ago, I made a hard stand on an issue I believe in. It ruffled some feathers. And while the people-pleaser in me hated it in the moment, the more I look back on it, the more I’m sure it was the right move. It’s the alternating fire and blows that give steel its strength.

Like Hamilton says, “You don’t get a win unless you play in the game. Oh, you get love for it, you get hate for it, but you get nothing if you wait for it.”

It’s time to get in the game. Enemies will be part of the territory. That doesn’t mean you should try to make them (especially among fellow believers), but when it happens, it’s not a time to freak out or back down. The same guy who said, “Pray for your enemies,” also said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” What he didn’t say, though, was “blessed are the people who don’t follow their convictions because someone else has heartburn about it.” Capeesh? Capeesh.

I’m not sure if history has its eyes on me, but I’m sure that the Creator does. And more than anything else, I want a life that He finds pleasing. The surest way is to live one modeled after His son. Honestly, there’s no more adventurous and impactful way to live. I only get one shot. And I’m not gonna throw it away.

Bye-bye, Burr.


Written by

Caleb Mathis

Dad of three, husband of one, pastor at Crossroads, and at the moment would rather be reading Tolkien, watching British TV, or in a pub with a pint of Guinness.

Published on Jul 8, 2020
Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...
  1. What strikes you most about this article? Why?

  2. Who do you relate to more—Hamilton or Burr? What makes you operate that way, and how is it working out for you?

  3. What aspect of Jesus’ life described here surprises you most? Take a minute to ask God if there’s something He wants to say to you about your life displaying that characteristic more.

  4. Look at your calendar for the week—your job, your family, your friends, your faith. Identify at least one area you’ve been indecisive, passive, or fearful. Ask God to show you how to make a bold move that honors Him even at the risk of offending others.

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