I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! from now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’
He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
This is an uncomfortable text. With Jesus we like to think of words like compassion and love… gentleness… peace… reconciliation and mercy. Instead we hear him saying, "Did you think I came to bring peace? No I came to bring division.”
And we hear of the division of an unhappy family… mother against daughter, father against son. Would the Jesus we follow have come to cause that? It doesn’t fit with what we like to think of him. Why would Jesus choose to come and cause division amongst people who love each other?
If we insist that the New Testament is the verbatim words of Jesus, we have a problem. We will have to do some fancy footwork to explain what he meant. If we are realistic about the gospels, the problem is much less. We can feel the real force of his words.
Mostly the gospels are not the carefully words of Jesus: the gospels are what people remembered about him, rather than his exact words. And often the gospel words are something like the words a bereaved mother would use to her son in the absence of her husband. Quite truthfully, even though he never said the words, she might say to her son, “You know what Daddy would have said. He would have said, ‘Be brave and do the right thing, David.’”
Something like this is happening in Luke. There were Christians following Jesus, who was physically absent from them. They were finding huge discord in their families due to their discipleship. It worried them. Following Jesus as their Lord was making life worse, not better.
So Luke was asking, “What would Jesus would have said? He answers “Jesus would have said something like, ‘in one house there will be division, three against two, father against son.’” and puts those words into the mouth of Jesus, which was quite an acceptable practice at the time.
Luke was trying to help people make sense of the division they were meeting. They perhaps thought of Jesus and bringing peace, just as we do. Luke was trying show them that following Jesus would sometimes cause division.
In the previous verses, Jesus had been presented talking to the people about ultimate choices in life. He is shown saying, “Nothing is covered that will not be revealed.” (12:2)
What is life really about, you ask? “It does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (12:13)
And, are you afraid? “Don’t fear those who can kill the body, fear God who controls the whole of being.”(12:4)
“Be ready for what will come. (12:35)
All those things are about what is ultimately important in life. And when we make ultimate life choices, there sometimes will be fierce disagreement within a family.
“You are departing from the family tradition!”
“You’re letting the side down, boy!”
It is a simple fact that when some choose Life with a capital L, it will lead to hostility from others who want to be their own boss. This is because real, “capital L life,” involves some kind of discipleship of the Source of all Being, or as we say, God. Choosing discipleship over self will challenge those who want to make god of their self, and their own desires.
So we can see that although it sounds, on first reading, like Jesus is saying he chose to come to cause division and hatred, in fact, division and hatred are simply a consequence of people seeking to choose the right way in life.
The issue the gospel reading raises for me, is not how to avoid the division which is an inevitable part of human life together. If I may quote Rev Bill Loader, “‘Peace at all costs’ has no place here. That kind of harmony gilds oppression with respectability and rewards wrong.”
What is important is to make sure that the choices I make are “the right ones” so that at least the division is worth it, so to speak. Also, it seems Christian to me to seek to live in a way that minimizes division.
Life choices that seek to bring about justice for all people are important. “Let justice roll down like waters,” says the prophet. These are the life choices that lead to peace rather than warring between un-reconciled groups of people. How can there be peace where there is injustice and avoidable poverty?
The Isaiah reading for this week makes it clear what “God thinks” of injustice:
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
A compassionate life that seeks to understand others and where they are coming from, a life that seeks to live in community with others rather than exploit or ignore them… these choices are important. All these choices should be moving towards being ecologically sustainable.
If our choices do not have justice and compassion and ecological responsibility underpinning them, then in the end, they are choices for self at the expense of others. They are choices where some will be lords and others less… slaves to the greed and desires of the fortunate few.
The choices of justice and compassion reflect what we see in the story of Jesus, and can infer from the story of Jesus when we ask what Jesus would do if he were here now in our shoes.
They are choices which do not seek always to put me first. They choose not to demand that I be happy at the expense of others. They do not say “I must be happy, then we can see if there is some life left over for you.” They are choices that say people, all people, are what is important, not things and belongings.
It is inevitable that making these choices will bring us into conflict with some people. For these choices challenge the selfish desire to rule society and have things “just so,” their way, at the expense of others. They are, in the language of he church, choices for God over and against the attractive choices of idolatry. But as inevitable as conflict may be, there are still ways of making and being open about our choices that do not make matters worse than they need be.
If we relate to others with pride and condemnation- with a kind of superiority that says “we are right, you are wrong, we are superior, you are damned,” then we are the cause of much of the division which may occur. Respect, honesty, fairness, listening, agreeing where possible… these attitudes lessen division. They mean that where we are disagreeing we are at least disagreeing about what is important and is really at issue.
We should seek to work with and highlight our commonality, not our differences.
When all this has been said, and when we have sought to choose well and to build up community rather than divide, there may still be division. People may hate us because we choose what they can not choose. What then? Remember the words given to Jesus…. I did not come to bring peace… Remember that ultimately what matters is that we make the right choice, the choice for life for all people, the choice for the good. In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith…
In the language of the church, we say, “God does not desert those who have chosen to go the way of God.” In today’s language we could say it like this: If we choose the way of Life, then we will find Life, whatever pain and division it brings upon us. Amen
Bill Loader in more detail: ‘Peace at all costs’ has no place here. That kind of harmony gilds oppression with respectability and rewards wrong. Instead we face a full scale conflict, taken right into the heart of human formation: the family. The family is being dethroned from its absolute claims. It is not an invitation to the kind of fanaticism which dislocates sectarians from family and friends and all else for obsession with an unrelated cause. Rather this passion springs from the heart of the human condition. It is the passion for love, for change, for justice, for renewal. These are not the fanatical tenets of a cult, but the foundations of hope. So Jesus is confronting the gods of family and warning that this is very dangerous territory.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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